07/13/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Family Planning Unleashes the Girl Effect

At the groundbreaking London Summit on Family Planning this week, more than 150 leaders from the public and private sector joined forces to increase access to lifesaving contraceptives in the developing world. More than $2.6 billion was committed to get modern family planning to 120 million girls and women in the world's poorest countries by 2020.

Led by two of the world's most respected international development agencies -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) -- adolescent girls were prioritized and included for the first time in history.

Why does that matter so much? It matters because the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of girls ages 15 to 19 die every day from complications related to early pregnancy and childbirth. The commitments made this week will prevent unplanned pregnancies and will quite literally be the difference between life and death for millions of adolescent girls.

Melinda Gates and UK Prime Minister David Cameron should be congratulated for not only putting the global spotlight on family planning -- for far too long a neglected issue in development -- but also for between them committing over $1.2 billion through the Gates Foundation and DFID to get family planning to girls and women.

But, we're still only at the starting line when it comes to adolescent girls and family planning. Of the 120 million females with unmet family planning needs who were the focus of this week's impressive commitments, we know that at least 26 million are girls. That's one in five.

How do we make absolutely sure that adolescent girls benefit from this week's commitments? It isn't that complicated.

First, we need to explicitly include girls in our commitments to family planning. Program design, implementation plans, measurement, recruitment, advocacy, budget -- they all need to specifically target girls. Otherwise, girls will be left behind. And that's something we just can't afford to let happen. Fourteen million adolescent girls ages 15 to 19 in developing countries give birth every year -- as many girls as the entire population of Mumbai. As the future mother of every child born into poverty, girls have the highest return on investment and can actually accelerate change if we include them in family planning investments. If we don't, we are actively planning for poverty.

Second, girls count, so we need to count girls. We don't actually know how many girls get married and become sexually active before the age of 15. The world simply doesn't collect data for girls under 15. We need to collect and disaggregate data by sex and age so that we know what a girl's reality is. If we don't collect the data, we are actively choosing to leave girls invisible.

Third, family planning and preventing child marriage must go hand in hand. We know that 90 percent of first births that occur before age 18 happen within marriage. One in seven girls marry before turning 15 in developing countries, and there are more than 51 million married teen girls worldwide. This isn't an issue of promiscuity. We have allowed girls' access to family planning to be a political, religious and cultural issue. But the fact of the matter is: if she's married, she needs access to family planning. Not getting family planning to girls before puberty and marriage is actively choosing to leave them vulnerable.

Investing in family planning for adolescent girls is not only the right thing to do, it's smart economics. Preventing one adolescent pregnancy costs just $17 per year, but actually saves $235 in care costs per girl, per year.

But it's also not just about spending to save. Investing in girls is smart economics because of all that a girl can do if she is not married as a child and does not become a mother when she herself is still a girl.

When a girl marries later, stays in school and delays childbearing, she has fewer, healthier children and is economically empowered. India loses $383 billion in potential lifetime income due to adolescent pregnancy alone. You see, there's an economic and social dividend for the girl, her family, her community and the economy.

We call this the girl effect.

The girl effect is not about new aid programs. It's about maximizing the value for money and impact of existing aid commitments, by making sure that girls are taken into account.

Children shouldn't be having children. With the courageous leadership shown by Melinda Gates and the UK Government this week, we have a fantastic opportunity to give girls a choice to have children only when they're ready.

It's the best investment the world isn't making.