“The Girl Revolution: Why it Matters to Us All” Kathy Calvin, United Nations Foundation President & CEO

Fact Sheets Multimedia News Press Releases Publications & Speeches

Helping the United Nations Make a Difference


“The Girl Revolution: Why it Matters to Us All” Kathy Calvin, United Nations Foundation President & CEO

“The Girl Revolution: Why it Matters to Us All”
Kathy Calvin, United Nations Foundation President & CEO

Thank you, Angela, for the introduction.  And thank you to the National Press Club for hosting this important discussion as part of your recognition of Women’s History Month.  As a longtime member of the National Press Foundation Board, it is good to be back.

And thanks to all of you who came today to engage on this topic!

Throughout March, we celebrate the contributions of women to society, but often overlooked in this discussion – and in the broader global agenda – are the incredible contributions of adolescent girls.  So today, I would like to focus on the lives of adolescent girls, the global revolution to empower them, and why it’s so important for each of us to join that revolution.

This topic is near and dear to the UN Foundation.  It’s in our DNA, and it’s part of everything we do – from our work on clean cookstoves to using mobile phones for health to our programs specifically dedicated to girls.

Ted Turner, the Foundation’s founder and chairman, is a longtime champion for the rights and well-being of girls and women.  He and our board have made these issues a cornerstone of our work since day one.  They are also issues of top importance to the United Nations and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and we enjoy a highly productive relationship with the UN on our shared goal of elevating the status of girls and women worldwide.

And throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on issues that matter to women and girls.  This focus hasn’t always been part of my title, but it’s always been part of my work and a personal passion.  As I’ve delved into this topic over the years, the lesson I’ve come away with is clear: Change starts with a girl.   

Girl power is one of global development’s most potent weapons against poverty.  A healthy, educated, empowered adolescent girl has the unique potential to break the cycle of poverty for herself, her family, and her country.  We call this the “girl effect” – and it’s not rhetoric, it’s fact.

A growing body of data and studies have shown that supporting girls and women – promoting their education, their health and safety, their right to plan their families, and more – correlates with healthier families, higher family incomes, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For example, studies have found that:

  • An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by an estimated 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school boosts them by 15 to 25 percent.

  • Meeting the unmet need of the 222 million women and adolescent girls who want, but don’t have access to, modern contraception would prevent 79,000 maternal deaths and 1.1 million infant deaths.

  • And a World Bank paper found that closing the gender gap so girls are as economically active as boys would increase India’s annual GDP growth rate by 4.4 percent and Nigeria’s by 3.5 percent.

All of this promotes more productive and stable countries – enhancing global prosperity and security and benefiting us all.

But here’s the challenge before us: While girls have the potential to change the world, they often don’t have the chance.  The problem is that in many parts of the world, we’re not only ignoring this potential, we’re actively burying it under bricks of discrimination, exclusion, and injustice.

Right now, millions of adolescent girls endure quiet crises that rarely make the news or see the inside of a courtroom.  Girls between 10 and 14 are particularly vulnerable.

They’ve often been forced to marry young, drop out of school, and carry the burden of household chores…deprived of the education, skills, and opportunities they need to earn a living.  They are often physically and sexually abused, and denied the right and tools to plan their families.

An adolescent girl doesn’t always get to decide if and when she becomes pregnant – but a girl under 15 is five times more likely to die from the complications than a woman in her 20s.  And complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 in many developing countries.

These girls aren’t valued on a local level as equal members of their families or communities.  And for a long time, they’ve been overlooked by many on the global level as well.

Ten years ago when I joined the UN Foundation, girls weren’t even on the international agenda in any meaningful way.  One report looked at development assistance from 2005 to 2006 and found that less than two cents of every development dollar was targeted toward gender equality for girls.  This meant that girls were missing out on opportunities to get ahead, and the global community was missing out on a key tool to fight poverty.

Once condemned to the shadows, these injustices are starting to get the attention they deserve.  A growing movement – including the UN Foundation, the Nike Foundation, UN agencies, and others – has brought the girl effect into the public eye and demanded a place for girls on the global agenda.  Girls themselves have started demanding a seat at the table too.

The result: the start of a global revolution to recognize the rights of girls and to realize their promise.

This revolution is evident every time a girl like Malala, the Pakistani teenage education activist who was shot by the Taliban, goes to school despite threats of violence and intimidation.

It’s evident every time a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, takes to the streets to protest violence against girls and women, as we witnessed after the brutal gang rapes in India and South Africa.

It’s evident every time someone plays a Facebook game or watches a documentary about girls’ education.

And it’s evident every time a girl starts a business, joins a community club, or challenges a law or tradition that says she and her sisters don’t have equal rights or equal opportunities.

Two years ago, I had the chance to experience the girl revolution in a profound and personal way.  During a trip to Liberia with the inspiring leader of UN Women for International Women’s Day, I made a special delivery to girls in the village of Careysburg: letters of encouragement written by girls in the United States as part of the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign.

As I was sitting in a small classroom on a hot Liberian afternoon, reading a letter from a girl in Cincinnati to a girl in Careysburg, it was clear that there were differences among them.  The realities of their lives, their homes, their schools were in stark contrast in many ways.  

But what struck me most were their shared hopes and dreams and the common connection between them.   These girls are change agents…filled with creativity and courage, passion and promise.  They dare to dream big.  They are hungry to make a difference.  And they care about what happens to each another.

The UN Foundation launched the Girl Up campaign to help girls in the U.S. help girls everywhere.  What we’ve witnessed has been amazing.  Girls across the country have mobilized in unprecedented ways – texting and Tweeting and even lobbying their members of Congress.

As you know, girls today are socially engaged, globally aware, and active in philanthropy.  These “philanthro-teens” as we call them often have access to funds – sometimes their own, sometimes their parents’ – but more importantly, they have voices that go farther and louder than ever before to support their sisters around the globe.  If you are the parent of one, you know today’s girls are a force to be reckoned with.

The good news is that as the revolution has grown, so have the results.  Adolescent girls and the international community have made important advances together.  The UN’s Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 provided a number of concrete goals to mobilize around, and we have made real progress in the last 15 years!

  • First, we now have virtual parity between boys and girls in primary education.

  • Second, maternal and child deaths are no longer commonplace or acceptable in many countries where new practices are being implemented.  From 1990 to 2011, the number of children who died before their 5th birthday dropped by 41 percent.  Maternal deaths dropped by 47 percent in about the same time period.

  • Third, polices are making a difference.  For example, in December, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution on ending female genital mutilation.  And last week, the Commission on the Status of Women wrapped up its annual session by adopting strongly agreed conclusions to prevent and end violence against girls and women.

    And fourth, U.S. leadership has been awesome.  Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes new provisions to make ending child marriage in developing countries an official foreign policy priority of the U.S. government.  The Obama Administration has made a strong and robust commitment to girls and women, and it is encouraging that Cathy Russell has been nominated to serve as the next Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, where she can build on this commitment.

The progress I’ve mentioned hasn’t happened by accident; it is evidence that the international community can achieve meaningful progress when we come together with purpose and determination.

So what still needs to be done?  What else should we do to continue the girl revolution?  How can we put girls at the top of the global agenda?

First, we need better data about girls and whether and how development programs reach them.  Girls count, so let’s make sure they’re counted.

Second, we need to take programs that work to scale and increase investments in girls.  This should be a no-brainer: the benefits to them and to us are unmistakable.

Third, we have to overturn laws and policies that discriminate against girls and pass ones that protect their rights.  And once good laws are in place, we have to make sure they are enforced.

Next, we need to expand education and economic opportunities for adolescent girls. While we’ve made progress in closing the gender gap in primary education, we have more work to do when it comes to secondary education.  At the same time, we also need to increase access to training, jobs, and financial assets.

An important part of opening up economic opportunities for girls is closing the technology gender gap.  We know the transformative power of technology and innovation.  Girls must not be denied the opportunity to tap into it.  It is the key to their building their own futures.

And most importantly, another step we must take is ending child marriage. This effort must be coupled with a strong push to expand access to voluntary family planning information and services for girls.

Ninety percent of first births for girls under 18 happen within marriage.  As Maria Eitel of the Nike Foundation said last year, “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.”  Young married girls shouldn’t be deprived of these essential services when they are most vulnerable.

The undeniable fact is: All adolescent girls have the right to quality reproductive health information and care.  This shouldn’t be treated as a controversial issue or a wedge issue; it should be treated as a human rights issue.

The world is at a crossroads and what we do, or fail to do, now has enormous consequences.  The international community can stick with the status quo, which deprives millions of girls their rights, and harms global health, economic growth, and the environment.  Or we can vastly ramp up our efforts to get adolescent girls the reproductive health services, education, and economic opportunities they need and have a right to.

Right now, discussions are underway about what comes after the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.  We must seize this opportunity to explicitly prioritize girls in the post-2015 framework.  And we should encourage all governments, including the United States, which have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to do so with haste.

What I’ve laid out here is quite a manifesto, or should I say…girlafesto?

But what it boils down to is simple: If we want to drive progress in the world, we need to put girls in the driver’s seat. We know how to make that happen; but we need the collective will to do.  That’s where you come in.

We need you to join the girl revolution…to raise your voices…to let leaders – and girls – know you care about their rights.  After years of doing this work, I’ve learned not to take for granted that everyone knows about the power of girls to be world-changing poverty eradicators.  This isn’t the case yet.  So I want all of you to join the cause and to recruit someone to our ranks.

Join Girl Up or another organization.  Learn more from Girl or the Coalition for Adolescent Girls and then use your social networks to raise awareness.  Support the UN, which has the global reach to deliver solutions to scale.  And help make girls a priority post-2015 by going to

Whether you’re a woman or a man, a development expert or a student, a CEO or a concerned citizen – or even a reporter – you can do something to make girls’ causes your causes.    And together with girls around the world, we can do something big.  

Nearly 50 years ago, Robert Kennedy spoke movingly about social change saying, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Adolescent girls around the world are standing up and sending out ripples of hope.  Stand with them, and together we can create a sea change for girls and for the world.  Thank you.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013
National Press Club
Washington, D.C.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery