10/17/2012 04:27 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Empowering Girls, Enriching Developing Nations


Of all the reasons why the United Nations' highly touted, successfully implemented International Day of the Girl last week was important -- insomuch as it put the topic of gender equality front and center on the international stage -- was perhaps the most crucial discussion that this conference can jumpstart: an honest assessment of where the developing world will economically stand in the future with and without empowering girls.

A study released by The World Bank last year delivered a stark look at the dwindling opportunities many girls from the developing world face while going through adolescence, but -- on the flip-side -- offered hope to countries that have, for generations, consistently suffered through the most dire of economic hardships.

The answer to both problems is relatively simple: Allow and encourage girls to be educated and then reap the economic benefits that come from that education. But while the answer is easy, achieving that answer is far more challenging.

Consider: Approximately one-quarter of girls (roughly 100 million of them) in developing countries are not in school. That represents more than 70 percent of the total children out of school in developing countries.

The reasons that girls are out of schools are myriad:
  • Many developing countries discourage girls from going to school while governments of others (Afghanistan comes to mind) until recently disallowed girls from going to school entirely.
  • One-quarter to one-half of girls in developing counties become mothers before age 18 (United Nations Population Fund 2005).
  • In some countries, schooling is not free and is therefore financially out of reach for families.
  • The bottom line is that, according to UNESCO, two out of three countries in the world face gender disparities in primary and secondary education, and as many as half will not achieve the goal of gender parity in education by 2015.

Is it morally reprehensible? Of course. Is this a human rights issue? Without a doubt. But what often goes overlooked is the financial opportunity that many countries sacrifice by not encouraging girls to receive an education and doing everything in their power to help girls go to school.

Take Ethiopia.

Widely seen as one of the poorest countries on the globe for decades, Ethiopia suffered through severe famine in the 1980s, and -- despite having more children going to school then most other African nations on a percentage basis and standing as the fastest-growing non-oil-dependent African economy in the years 2007 and 2008 -- Ethiopia still ranks as the fifteenth poorest country on the planet.

But it doesn't have to be that way; educating girls would help rev up Ethiopia's economy in a way that perhaps no other investment could.

To wit, Ethiopia's GDP, per capita currently sits near the lowest in the world. But the World Bank found that if Ethiopian girls all finished secondary school they would add $6.8 billion to Ethiopian GDP over their lifetime.

You do the math.

And Ethiopia is far from the only country that has an economy that would greatly benefit from investing in the educating girls.

The World Bank found:

  1. If all the girls in Kenya completed secondary school, they would add 27 billion to Kenyan GDP over the lifetime.
  2. In Bangladesh, if all the girls finished secondary school they would add 22 billion to Bangladeshi GDP over their lifetimes.
  3. The four million adolescent mothers in India cost the Indian economy 383 billion, over their lifetime.
  4. If young Nigerian women had the same employment rates as young Nigerian men, they would add 13.9 billion in annual GDP.
  5. Over the entire 14-country group studied by the World Bank's researchers, adding one level to the average girls' education would raise the group GDP by 1.5 percent per year (in addition to the aforementioned countries, the World Bank looked at China, Burundi, Uganda, Brazil, Malawi, Paraguay, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania).

So what Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn called "the paramount moral challenge" of gender equality would also help revitalize the financial infrastructures of some of the poorest countries in the world.

What are we waiting for?