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Girls Are on the Davos Agenda... Before It's Even Started

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I promised to blog about the girl effect from Davos, but I have to admit I didn't expect the buzz to surface before the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting had even started.

Yesterday I had coffee with Geeta Rao Gupta, President of the International Center for Research on Women. We met early on - before the traffic had picked up and well before the main program had begun (it launches today). I was surprised when she told me people were talking about the girl effect session - which doesn't even happen until Saturday - on the shuttle bus into Davos.

When I asked her why, she said, "Every other session is about the economy and the financial situation and here we are with a topic that supposedly has nothing to do with it." But Geeta and I both know well that it has everything to do with it.

Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE, knows it too. One thing she said struck me in particular: "By targeting girls, you're really focused on the solution at the root cause that will have implications on problems more broadly."

She went on to point out that all of the research shows investing in girls provides the best overall outcome - both for girls as well as the economies of communities and of nations. A girl who has an opportunity to participate will be better educated and have better economic prospects. She'll be healthier, marry later and her future children will be healthier. This is important for a girl and her family, but it also addresses issues like slowing population growth, which has a broad impact on everything from health to climate change to economic viability.

I thought I'd ask Lee Howell, the Annual Meeting Director, for a bit of insight given that this year's meeting is unprecedented for two reasons. First, we're addressing these issues during the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Second, girls are on the Forum's agenda for the first time in the Meeting's 39-year history. Here's what he had to say:

"The reason we'd focus on the girl effect is in fact that we want to demonstrate that the global agenda needs to be looked at in its totality. If you start to look at these issues zero sum - and only look at the economic situation at the expense of development or other challenges - that's really the short-sightedness that got us to the crisis we're in today.

"When times are tough and resources are scarce, you have to think about what will give you the bang for the buck. The field work, economic analysis and experience all point to the powerful effect you'll have if you invest in girls. People have to do more with less. If that's the context we're operating in, then the girl effect is an answer for a lot of people."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

A key theme in my conversations was optimism about the new Obama Administration. Geeta and Helene both referenced Secretary Clinton's confirmation hearings and her recognition of the importance of women and girls. One of the key issues that came up was a call for the United States to ratify CEDAW (the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), which was adopted by the UN in 1979. The United States is the only developed nation that has not yet done so.

Geeta and I talked about a conversation she had on the plane with the head of the Rural Development Institute about inheritance rights for girls. It's not too big a stretch to recognize that girls should be legally able to inherit property. It provides collateral, status and clout within the community. It's an asset that can help weather hardship and is a right that should be extended to all. But the other thing Geeta mentioned was legal literacy - enabling girls to know what the law allows them. She talked about RDI's model to train paralegal workers to educate girls about what their rights actually are and what they can do to make sure those rights are upheld.

It's a powerful approach and it isn't even that costly.

We've seen it in our work with BRAC in Bangladesh. In some regions, almost 90% of girls are married before 18 and every year more than 1 million girls between 10 and 18 give birth - effectively wiping out any future potential to join the workforce. The result is $1,233 in foregone income every year for every one of these girls.

BRAC is demonstrating the value of an adolescent girl as an economic actor instead of as a child-bride. They've pioneered a microfinance program in which 40,000 adolescent girls have gained the confidence, skills and capital to run their own businesses and manage their own resources. These entrepreneurs pay their own school fees and often pay their siblings' tuition. They also delay marriage - both because parents begin to recognize it's not the best option and because girls themselves are empowered to decline an illegal marriage (which is any marriage before 18).

All in all, it was a busy and invigorating day. From my conversations, it seems like more and more people are beginning to understand that Geeta is right: the girl effect does indeed have everything to do with it.