THE BLOG
12/02/2009 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

India Economic Summit Champions Investing in Girls

I sit on the flight from Delhi to London unable to sleep from all the excitement of the past few days, really the whole year. I am returning from the World Economic Forum's Summit in India and once again, as at previous economic summits, the importance of girls in the growth and development of the world economy took center stage.

The year began with a spotlight focused on the girl effect at WEF Davos, then again at the regional WEF gathering in South Africa. As the year progressed, at other gatherings, such as the Global Business Coalition's Annual meeting and the Clinton Global Initiative, girls' issues have begun to get the space and attention they deserve and the world needs.

The WEF India Economic Summit was the third girl effect on development plenary of the World Economic Forum.

The room was packed. The audience was brimming with great questions and curiosity, so much so that far more people than we were able to recognize raised their hands eager to get their questions in. The entire room--not just the panelists--was clearly inspired and engaged in what we all seemed to agree on: adolescent girls are India's greatest untapped resource for future prosperity and growth.

This was not to be a conversation solely among women. When the two male panelists were late to the Green Room, my fellow female panelists--Vinita Bali (MD & CEO, Brittania Industries), Rajshree Pathy (Chairman & MD, Rajshree Sugars & Chemicals) and Chanda Kochhar (MD & CEO, ICICI)--joked that they wouldn't go on without men standing up for girls!

As it turns out, both of the male panelists, Darryl Green (President, Asia Pacific, Manpower Inc.) and Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick (Global Head of Citizenship and Diversity, KPMG International), are terrific champions for girls. During the session, Darryl spoke of the need to highlight examples of success and identify economic incentives. He noted that there has to be a two-pronged approach--educational and economic--to help rural families see their daughters as important and worth an investment. For example, rural families may respond to an economic incentive of being paid a certain amount of money each month their daughter had a 95 percent attendance rate at school, which hits the educational target. Lord Hastings called for a stronger commitment from the media to raise awareness and contribute to systemic change to create progress for girls. "Media should stop considering girl issues as a 'soft' issue," he said.

Pepsi Co.'s Chairman & CEO Indra Nooyi sat front and center in the audience at the plenary and jumped into the discussion at one point to highlight the importance of involving men in making the case for girls. "If men can be made to feel responsible for girls' advancement,'' she said, "the catalyst for change will be far greater." I couldn't agree more.

I emphasized throughout the plenary session that India has a huge opportunity for girls to transform its economy, if they are able to participate. I was struck that India isn't on the path to catch up to other superpowers, it can leapfrog if it unleashes the potential of its 100 million adolescent girls as they become women. As girls reach their full potential they will raise the standard of living in transforming the Indian economy.

The numbers clearly tell the story: adolescent pregnancy, high secondary school drop-out rates and joblessness among girls costs India $56 billion a year in lost earnings. Extra time in school allows girls to earn more over their lifetime. An additional year in primary school boosts girls' eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.

India's next generation depends on our making smart investments today. Consider these challenges:

•In India, where national prevalence of child marriage is 50%, five states have a much higher prevalence of child marriage: in Madhya Pradesh, 73% of young women are married by age 18.

•A 2004 survey by ICRW on the wellbeing of adolescents in the Bihar and Jharkhand states found that girls who were married before age 18 were twice as likely as girls married later to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands. These girls also had far less say in important decisions than did those who married later.

•More than 3.3 million girls give birth in India every year. India is one of six countries in the world where more than half of adolescent births occur.

Our job is to collectively figure out how to shift reality so that those statistics move in the right direction.

The panel didn't shy away from analyzing thorny problems: How do we unleash the power of the girl effect in the face of centuries old social mores? Chanda Kocchar, of ICICI Bank, pointed out that things are changing, however slowly. "We need to stop looking at girls as a liability and consider them as assets," she said. She hit the nail on the head. Chanda went on to explain the importance of the three E's - education, employment opportunities, and empowerment.

We not only have to keep girls at the forefront of our discussion. We have to act.

Vinita Bali of Brittania Industries urged us on: "It is time to look at what concrete, specific actions individuals, corporate, governments and ministries need to take." She noted that girls' rights are built into India's constitution but not enforced, and she challenged the audience and government with an exhortation: "It's time to take accountability and enforce those laws."

Moving ahead, we have an opportunity to make things happen. I look back on 2009 with great excitement, and a great sense of urgency. We are coming together to build a strong foundation and platform for girls. Girls are beginning to find a place on the landscape of global debate and discussion. We need to convert this attention and awareness into action that moves the needle.

I'm looking forward to the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos in January, and other opportunities for girls' voices to be heard this coming year. This is the time to convert the attention and awareness of girls in 2009 into action in 2010.

Here's the call to action I spoke to:
1.Commit to acting on the data that applies to you. Whether you are a CEO, government official, or an NGO, understand the positive impact of investing in girls and, just as importantly, what NOT investing in girls will cost you.

2.Stop using girls as infrastructure. When we create proper infrastructures - build roads, install electricity and clean water - girls won't need to be used as infrastructure any longer. Today they function as the electric grid as they carry firewood, plumbing system as they carry water, childcare system, etc.

3.Don't assume you have girls covered in your programs, unless you specifically address them. The assumption girls are included is usually inaccurate. Understand how girls are impacted by what you do.

4.You don't need to change your strategy, just include girls in everything you already do. You can include girls in what you are already doing across different sectors (agriculture, environment, health, transportation, etc.) and your impact will increase exponentially. If HIV/AIDS infection rate reduction is your goal, investing in girls as a preventive strategy will increase the impact of your strategy as girls are at the center of the epidemic: in 2001 62% of new HIV infections amongst sub-Saharan African youth aged 15-24 were girls. By 2007, that number had risen to 76%.

5.Enforce policies that are already in place. Policies on child marriage, legal rights, and trafficking exist in most countries. Governments should ensure real enforcement and businesses should hold themselves accountable and champion enforcement.

6.Men and boys can be champions for girls. Men and boys are critical to a girl's success. For starters, you can show the girl effect video at meetings, take the test on girl effect.org and give speeches with your daughters/sisters in local communities. Male employers can require employees to have their girls in school. Fathers can ensure their daughters are not named as child brides.

7.Don't treat girls as the issue of the day. Making a difference and truly raising the importance of girls in the developing world (and the global society) requires a long-term commitment.

The ultimate takeaway is this: Invest in girls today and eliminate a major structural impediment to prosperity for the next generation.