05/01/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Girls Are the Key to Solving Poverty

We cannot leave girls out of the equation -- not even in a simple title or a motivating campaign like Raise For Women. Why? Because adolescent girls are uniquely disadvantaged, yet they have the most potential to make the greatest change. I don't say this casually. It comes from a vast collection of insights. For nine years the Nike Foundation, NoVo Foundation, UN Foundation and other girl champions have worked tirelessly to bring girl's issues to the forefront of the agenda and then drive massive resources to them. We do this because we recognize the potential an adolescent girl has to stop poverty before it starts.

Let's talk facts.

The cost of exclusion is high:
• Malawi loses 27 percent in annual GDP because girls become mothers before age 15. That is 10 percentage points larger than the country's total combined GDP output for industry.

The benefits of inclusion are far more rewarding:
• If Ethiopian girls completed secondary school, it would add half a billion to the national income every year. That's roughly the 2010 revenue from mobile advertising in the U.S. ($550 - $650 million).

As impressive as those numbers are, this data is still not enough. We are still trying to convince the right people -- the people with power and vision -- to invest in girls.

The Millennium Development goals agreed by all UN member states in 2000 have saved millions of lives, but a huge opportunity was missed by not listening to or taking into account the potential of the girl. By driving the right resources to the 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty today, we can amplify the impact of all investments to end poverty and accelerate development. If girls transition through adolescence with access to proper reproductive health and nutrition, they will have babies when they are ready, space them so all remain healthy, and educate and provide for their children because they are capable and resourceful as women -- not girls. If nothing changes there will be 142 million child marriages in developing countries between now and 2020. That's 142 million girls who are more likely to drop out of school, who will not fully realize the early years of investment in their education, and who will start having children while they're still children themselves -- perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of poverty for a whole new generation.

Adolescent girls are still at the heart of new infections of HIV/AIDS -- girls and young women between the ages of 15-24 are twice as likely to become infected than boys of the same age. Girls are the farmers of the future. Today women make up more than 40 percent of the labor force in agriculture. Giving women the same access as men to non-land resources like fertilizers and seeds could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million.

Right now we have an opportunity to embed the transformational role of the girl in the next set of global development goals.

I am headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the 2013 Women Deliver Conference, May 28th - 30th, to speak and to serve as an ambassador for adolescent girls. I will spend my time meeting with government leaders, policymakers, healthcare professionals, NGO representatives, corporate leaders, and our partners to make the case for girls. We are asking that they be listened to, asking that their needs be addressed specifically for them to ensure they are front and center in the next development goals.

There are programs designed for adolescent girls, but rarely do they address the ones who are most at risk, and they often are not applicable from one environment or case use to the next. However, we can fix this problem by listening. We listen to the girl and then design the program with the girl. Their insights will help create useful solutions that amplify their potential.

Sometimes the solution really is simple. Sometimes it transpires subtly, such as in a shift in perspective -- yours, mine, leaders of the world, policymakers -- or in the eyes of a girl. So let's change the way we think. Let's change the way we make policies. Let's change the laws. Let's invest in girls. And by doing so, we can solve the most persistent development problem facing the world today. Let's make a girl's success the world's success. It will be the best investment we ever make.

Learn more about the power of girls in the fight against poverty at