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Davos 2010: Girls' Session is Filled With Energy, Ideas and Action for Change

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What a day. I think days at Davos are like dog years, or at least like two weeks of "normal" life. I'm stealing away from the "Women Leaders" dinner to quickly get this blog out.

I...we...all had high expectations for "Setting the Stage for the Girl Effect" workshop and, as usual, expectations were exceeded. As with last year's plenary, there was a ruckus at the entrance just as the session was beginning because of the many anxious attendees, who were eager to get in and couldn't initially because of oversubscription. Folks were almost turned away, but the WEF pulled in extra chairs so everyone could get in.

The room was jam-packed with a great mix of folks. Charlie Denson, President, Nike Brand, Don Blair, Nike Inc.'s VP and CFO, and Eric Sprunk, VP Product for Nike were all there. So, too were Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Kate Roberts, VP of PSI, Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology from UC-Berkeley and Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development and other. The group was a diverse mix that led to a highly interactive and provocative conversation.

Nick Kristof, of the The New York Times, moderated the session. As always, he was in fine form and his amazing energy equally energized the room. I was amazed, considering he'd just arrived the day before from Haiti and then the Congo.

That energy was critical in setting the tone for the afternoon's conversation right from the start. "If you want to get the biggest return on investment in development, invest in girls, invest in the girl effect," he said. "And just so we're clear, this discussion is about girls, not women, girls."

It was a small point, but a crucial one. Girls have continued to get lost in other important discussions about women and girls. I don't think anyone in the room was confused after that.

Before turning over the room to the discussion leaders, Nick created a framework for the discussion that helped us all understand the stakes we were dealing with and the urgency of our focus and our thinking. As he says so well, the exclusion, violence and marginalization of girls and their potential--and the pervasiveness of human trafficking and sex slavery--is the equivalent to the outrage of slavery in the 21st Century. He emphasized that there is powerful momentum around girls now and that the "Girl Effect" workshop was all about converting that into action.

The groups were led by an esteemed assembly of discussion leaders, including Sir Fazle Abed of BRAC, Nigel Chapman of Plan International, and Rick Goings of Tupperware. Each group jumped into choosing the three biggest barriers to progress and the three best solutions. The people at each of the tables got so enthusiastic that Nick, who is certainly the farthest thing from soft spoken, had trouble quieting the room so that each group could share their solutions with everyone in the room!

Let Girls Be Girls
• Changing the economic equation from girls being a burden and something to be used to girls being a powerful force for change
• Calling out the highly influential and often damaging role that culture and religion play, and
• Other barriers, including the absence of role models, early marriage, social protection, and safety.

Discussion Leader Tumi Makgabo, of South Africa, made a poignant note about the very simple notion that "girls are not allowed to simply be girls." Sometimes we forget what's most obvious.

As I noted in my last post, we were lucky to have in the room Tshepiso Gower, a 19-year-old from Botswana who is member of the British Council's Global Changemakers. Tshepiso articulated the unique economic forces and pressures that girls face. She talked about something I hadn't thought much about--what she called "materialism" and "girl-to-girl peer pressure." Tshepiso told the story of how girls are conscious of the different levels of wealth and poverty and that small differences, such as having transportation to school vs. walking, make girls susceptible to agreeing to sugar daddies for rides, for instance. Girls need to support other girls to make good decisions, Tshepiso said. And communities need to support girls so that girls aren't forced to make those bad decisions.

Finding Solutions for Girls
Once each of the groups had shared its thoughts on barriers, we turned to the best part of the conversation--identifying solutions for girls. Each table was asked to think about solutions within the context of three sectors: government, the private sector, and civil society. I'll post the complete action agenda as soon as it is transcribed by the WEF, but here are a few highlights:

Government: Discussion leader, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, said governments need to enforce key laws that are on the books. As a first step, let's get countries to pass SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association), something the US has yet to do. Dina Powell of Goldman Sachs suggested that countries do something she recalled from her days in the US State Department. We need to judge countries on how they invest in their girls," Dina said. "If we begin to tie aid to how well a country invests in girls, then I think we'll start to see real action."

Civil Society: Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, suggested taking a new look at how this sector is organized; civil society is too big for simple solution. If we could divide civil society into local, national, and international levels, then we can identify roles and core competencies in each area. The basic message--from NGOs to the religious community to the PTA--is that each group needs to have a specific strategy for girls.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh had one of the most passionate call outs of the session. Julia was selected to attend Davos to advocate for her cause against female genital mutilation by winning the Davos/YouTube contest. Julia founded "End FGM Now" and she made a clear call to the group: We need to "Be it. Do it. Find it." She challenged each person in the room to question what they are doing to enforce the change we need to see for girls.

Private Sector: Bruce McNamer of Technoserve charged businesses to step up and create real economic opportunities for girls. We know it's critical that girls have assets other than their bodies when they reach adolescence, so I was glad to hear Bruce make this point.

The best thing was that the group quickly called out the need for all three sectors to collaborate. It's clear that no one sector can do it alone. Strong collaborations on the big issues--implementing existing laws such as property rights and child marriage--are critical.

Girls Need Resources or Access to Them
No one wanted the session to end, but our attention was captured again by a special guest. Melinda Gates was actually attending another session, but she made a specific effort to come to the workshop to give the closing remarks. She arrived at Davos straight from spending time with girls in Mali. She spoke about her personal experience in Mali where she asked the girls she met at what age they had had their first child. "She's a teenager, still" was Melinda's message.

She made very clear that we have to get family planning resources to girls when they are teenagers. She was surprised how much the girls knew about family planning, birth control and birth spacing, but they don't have the resources for it or access to family planning. This was clearly a key action item to come out of the meeting. Melinda also spoke to the need to find the research on what girls need and then to use it. She specifically referenced "Start With a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health," as research she strongly endorses and she urged others in the room, particularly those in health, to pay attention too.

A Future with Promise
The two-hour session flew by and there was so much energy yet to be tapped and great ideas needing to be captured that Nick announced that he would pull together a meeting with anyone in the room who wanted to take the discussion further to plan how to keep this alive and deliver solutions over the coming year to the WEF. How thrilling!! We are all meeting today at 11 a.m. in a nearby hotel.

I have to say, it felt like girl effect was truly owned by everyone in the room, and that everyone in the workshop was unleashing it.

So, I may have lived two weeks in Davos time just today, but it was exciting and thrilling. The energy emanating from the workshop session was, and still is, so very palpable. As one of the many impassioned women leaders here, we collectively realize that something is on the horizon. I have that feeling from the workshop.

I'm so looking forward to the year ahead, and the opportunities that lie in the future. Onward!