As the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women wrapped
up last week, Kathy Calvin used her position as the President and CEO
of the UN Foundation to call attention to the issue of the rights of
women and girls in an address on Wednesday at the National Press Club
in Washington, DC. While highlighting the progress that has been made
through national and international policies such as the Millennium
Development Goals, she also reiterated the importance of continuing to
advance the “girl effect” – where a healthy, educated and empowered
girl has a real chance to break the cycle of poverty not just for
herself, but for those around her as well.

After giving an impressive list of statistics of how much the
protection of the rights of adolescent girls can improve key
development indicators such as wage parity and education, Calvin
walked the audience through a short history of international pressure
for girl rights and the progress made in just a few short years. Not
only has the issue made it to the international stage as seen through
the inclusion of gender equality in the MDGs, but countries are slowly
starting to recognize the importance of women and girls in the social
and economic fabric of developing nations. One clear sign of this that
Calvin pointed out is that attitudes towards maternal and child
mortality have shifted where their occurrence is far less acceptable
than seen with previous generations. The result of this culture shift
is more popular pressure to enact national policies and agendas that
limit the risk to mothers and children, leading to a substantial drop
around the world in the number of mothers killed in childbirth and
deaths of children under the age of five. As Calvin said, this
progress is not accidental but a direct byproduct of pressure and
policies.

However despite gains, much can be improved in this area. While
adolescent girls have the potential to be real change makers in their
societies, they are often not afforded the opportunities to realize
that potential. Calvin outlined key steps that could be taken to
support the potential of adolescent girls and improve the lives of
women around the world. For example, better data is needed to
understand the needs and desires of girls around the world while there
also needs to be a concerted effort to overturn national policies that
discriminate based on gender and enforce more positive policies.

In the meantime, national governments and the international community
should invest in programs that have already proven effective in
empowering girls and work to scale. Programs like these can easily
increase access to training and jobs which improve wage potential and
the ability of girls and women to provide for their themselves and
their families. Likewise, the fight against child marriage must
continue while access to family planning should be expanded,
especially for young married girls; on these two points Calvin
reiterated that while we often view these issues through a cultural
and religious lens, they are also public health issues that have can
have a devastating impact on young girls.

Questions from the audience focused on the differences between
developed countries such as the US and the developing world. But
Calvin pointed out that for all the differences we may notice, the
potential of girls and their hopes for their lives remain consistent
around the world. The recent debate in the US over women “having it
all” by balancing work and family are no different from the needs and
desires of a woman in the developing world who also faces tough
choices about how to care for her family as a mother while also
finding the means to provide for it. The similarities are the reason
why the UN Foundation founded programs like Girl Up to connect girls
around the world and help them reach their full potential. By focusing
on what everyone has to gain from including girls in the conversation
and providing them the opportunities to succeed, we can not only
improve their lives but improve our own as well.

Discussion

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