THE BLOG
10/11/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2013

Half of Our Potential

I grew up in Iran as the son of a Naval officer. As a graduate of the United States Navy Academy and a career naval officer, I served as a SEAL in the Naval Special Warfare community where I was stationed and served around the world. More recently, I commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over six years following September 11, 2001. I have spent my life fighting for what I believe in.

What makes us a great country -- and a military superpower -- is the integration of women into the force. And it starts with education.

Not only does an education equip girls with knowledge, but it gives them a solid foundation from which to launch their lives. I remember clearly the day my daughter stood in our kitchen, opened up a small white envelope, and learned that she had won a scholarship. The fact that someone thought she was worthy of that money, wanted to invest in her mind and her growth, changed the way she saw herself -- it strengthened her sense of self-worth.

When a girl's community invests in her, she is more likely to use her education to bring her community along with her. It's a proven investment: educated women marry later, raise healthier and smaller families, and are two times more likely to send their children to school. A girl who stays in secondary school for just one additional year can earn up to 25 percent more income as an adult, giving her the power to lift her family, her community and her country.

While serving in Afghanistan, I had the privilege of helping communities open schools in provinces across the country. Our goal was to ensure that education for girls wasn't something that just happened in some provinces, but in fact across all of the districts in the country. The elders' decision to invest in their girls' education signaled to their communities that girls can be their future leaders. But I also witnessed women who were discarded into the Afghan prison system along with their children when they became too much of a burden on their families.

What a tremendous loss it is for this potential not to be realized everywhere throughout the world. Sixty-six million girls worldwide do not go to school. This global gender education gap is nothing short of an atrocity that warrants the same kind of rigorous, multifaceted and multilateral approach we apply to other international security issues like political instability, economic insecurity and terrorism.

Awareness is the first step. Today, on International Day of the Girl, the Nike Foundation is delivering a groundbreaking declaration to the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Created in partnership with 25 organizations and signed by leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen Rania of Jordan and Care CEO Helen Gayle, the declaration demands that girls' education be at the heart of the new millennium development goals. Room to Read, A New Day Cambodia, Camfed and many other organizations continue to work in some of the most challenging regions to promote and protect gender equity. Released earlier this year, Girl Rising spotlights the stories and strength of nine girls who are fighting for an education. The powerful film has evolved into a full-blown global campaign that galvanizes people to take action in support of girls' education.

At the helm of the girls' education fleet stands Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. After surviving Taliban gunfire, Malala delivered a fierce speech at the United Nations, where she called on the power of pencils in the battle for equal education. I can think of no one who better deserves the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize. As Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland told Malala last month, "Your courage is sending a strong message to women to stand up for their rights, which constitutes a precondition for peace."

But women need more than a strong message. We all do. What we need is to come together and rally around specific and measurable goals. We need to set realistic timelines. It is our collective responsibility to mobilize governments, religious figures, economic institutions, civil society organizations and leaders from all walks of life to fight for girls' education regardless of location, nationality, race, religion or any dividing factor. Then we must identify entities that don't support girls' education and apply diplomatic tools like economic and political pressure.

If we think it's acceptable to give only half our population opportunity, then we will reach only half of our potential. In this day and age, this shouldn't be a fight at all -- for anyone.

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