Onward and Upward - Girls' Issues Make an Impact at TEDIndia and in Ethiopia

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I recently returned from some wonderful, eye-opening, and unforgettable experiences in India and Ethiopia. In my previous blog I talked about the incredible energy at the WEF India Economic Summit. I was inspired by the passion and a number of girl champions that emerged from the plenary session--both on the panel and in the audience.

But the power and momentum of investing in adolescent girls in the developing world wasn't limited to the WEF Summit. I found that same energy and passion around the importance of girls at the TEDIndia conference I attended in Mysore, India. And I saw the promise of what investing in girls can mean for a community during a trip to Ethiopia.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--first TEDIndia.

Girls are Part of the Messages at TEDIndia
TEDIndia was further proof that girls are clearly getting on governments' and organizations' agendas. Almost everywhere we turned at the conference, there were people talking about why investing in girls is so critical to transforming poverty and speakers who were addressing other topics, but somehow girls rightly were integrated in their messages.

Take for example, Sunitha Krishnan from Prajwala India, an organization, based in Andhra Pradesh, India that works with trafficked girls. Sunitha brought the audience to tears detailing the exploitation of girls and the difficulty of bringing them back into society after they are saved from a brothel. She showed horrific pictures of girls beaten up and bruised and cut. At Sunitha's center, girls are learning skills and taking jobs. Most moving was her story that the girls are pooling their earnings to give to monsoon victims. The idea that these abused girls and with the fewest resources in the world, were giving what little they had to others blew peoples' minds. People were so inspired by Sunitha's story of girls that 100 people committed to support her organization and 10 people gave $10,000 on the spot!

Here are some other great moments from TED:

  • Banny Banerjee, director of the Stanford Design Program, ended his talk with a picture of a girl in Ethiopia carrying firewood and told the audience that if we are going to solve the huge problems we face as a global community we will have to keep that Ethiopian girl, and others like her, in mind.

  • Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women gave an amazing talk about her personal journey and evolving feminism, moving everyone with her honesty, insights and wisdom.
  • Chris Anderson, the curator and leader of TED, gave a shout out on the girl effect before Eve Ensler delivered an amazing talk on the Girl Cell, her new work on girls. Her new play, "I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World", premiered in Mumbai earlier this month. It will then tour throughout India. What an inspiration.
  • Check out the TED website to hear these moving talks.
  • Before heading to India for TED, and then the WEF meeting, I spent some time in Ethiopia. I arrived with an enormous amount of anticipation, starting my visit with two days in Addis Ababa at the High Level Meeting on Maternal Health - Millennium Development Goal #5 (MDG5) hosted by the Ethiopian government. The attendance was superb, with delegates from all over the globe gathered to discuss increasing commitments to improve maternal health.

    There was real passion in the group to develop specific recommendations to reach MDG5. This was formalized in the official Addis Call to Urgent Action for Maternal Health:

    • Prioritize family planning, one of the most cost-effective development investments.
    • Make adolescents a priority by investing in their health, education and livelihoods; and
    • Strengthen health systems with sexual and reproductive health as a priority.

    I know Jill Sheffield made sure that adolescence was one of the three major focal points - a strong and necessary step in the right direction. She's an amazing girl champion!

    Still, I wanted to get a sense of conditions on the ground, as well as in the high-level conference rooms.

    Men in Ethiopia are Becoming Girl Champions
    I then traveled from Addis Ababa to rural Ethiopia. I headed first to the remote Omo River tribe areas to visit the Surma people to see girls in indigenous communities. I arrived just in time to see the Donga, a traditional Ethiopian stick fight, in which men impress girls, to be chosen as husbands.

    I spent the morning with preteen girls. One of the girls, Tutu, is betrothed, but has yet to be married because her fiancé is still working to earn enough cattle. Neither Tutu, age 16, nor her cousin, age 18, were still in school. And neither saw school as a possibility because of marriage. They were among the many girls in their community who had dropped out of the village school.

    The numbers were shocking: At the secondary level, only 112 out of the 1,000 students are girls! That's only 11%.

    The principal told me he saw no hope of recruiting girls; his past efforts were unsuccessful. It was a sad yet powerful example of how early marriage creates an immediate end to the potential of education.

    But there were positive moments, and glimpses of what girls' lives truly can be.

    I saw some of these during my visit to the Early Marriage Project in the Amhara region. The project is part of Berhane Hewan (meaning "Light for Eve" in Amharic) and provides adolescent girls with safe spaces and the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to avoid early marriage. I visited during its first days, five years ago, and was so glad I could go back. After visiting with the girls, I went to the community dialogue, a critical component added to the program to ensure men and parents allow and support the girl to participate. As I entered, the men were arguing whether the fathers should be fined 50 or 100 Ethiopian birr for marrying off their daughters before age 18. (One Ethiopian birr = eight cents, U.S.) The argument was heated.

    "Put them in prison!" one man exclaimed passionately about the punishment a father should face.

    "But we have no prison," another responded. People chuckled. "Let's ostracize them for a month," a third shot back. They settled on one month of ostracism.

    It was mindboggling to see fathers who, just a year earlier, would have married their daughters off without a thought. Now, they were debating how to punish men who did just that. It is hopeful, especially in a society where shame can be the worse punishment meted out, where 50% of girls are married by age 15, a figure that rises to 80% by age 18.

    I asked the married girls who were gathered what they would have done if they knew ahead of time that they were to be married. (Most girls only find out the day of the marriage). Every one of the girls with whom I spoke said they would have run away - north, south, anywhere really. I posed the same question to the unmarried girls. These girls said they would tell their program mentors. As one girl told me, "I have a right to learn and not get married."

    I teared up, moved by the confidence of the unmarried girls and the sadness for the married girls.

    Clearly the message is getting across: Early marriage creates an immediate end to a girl's potential for education, for better employment, for better overall health, and a better life for herself and her family.

    Looking back at the whirlwind weeks spent in India and Ethiopia, I am struck by how much activity is taking place--whether it's happening in the halls of power, or in communities on the ground.

    I am back now - humbled by how far the work on the ground and dialogue have come, and how much more there is still to do.

    Girls have tremendous power to effect social and economic change on so many levels, and in so many countries. This is the time to act and to continue on our path to invest in girls.