National Press Club

UN Foundation leader promotes empowering adolescent girls to combat global poverty

March 21, 2013 | By Mary David | marymdavid@gmail.com

Kathy Calvin, president and chief executive of the United Nations Foundation, told a March 20 National Press Club luncheon that empowering adolescent girls is the key to alleviating global poverty.

Kathy Calvin, president and chief executive of the United Nations Foundation, told a March 20 National Press Club luncheon that empowering adolescent girls is the key to alleviating global poverty.

Photo/Image: Sam Hurd

Investing in adolescent girls is the key to alleviating global poverty, United Nations Foundation President and chief executive Kathy Calvin told a National Press Club luncheon on March 20.

She said that providing girls with access to education, family planning and technology improves economies as a whole.

"Change always starts with a girl," Calvin said. "We call this the 'girl effect.' It's not rhetoric; it's a fact."

Calvin, who was named one of Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Rocked the World, said “girl power” is among the “most potent weapons” available to raise living standards.

"These girls are change agents, wherever they are in the world," Calvin said.

Under Calvin's leadership, moving women and girls to the center of the global agenda has become a major focus of the foundation, which is the largest funder of UN programs and services.

The organization's "Girl Up" campaign connects female teens and pre-teens in the United States to girls in other countries. Using everything from social media and zumba classes to bake sales and birthday parties, American girls provide support for their global peers to stay in school and avoid child labor and violence.

The prevalence of child marriage and the devaluing women and girls impede women’s professional and economic success, hurting families and communities, according to Calvin.

More than 90 percent of first births for girls under the age of 18 happen after
they are married. As a result, these girls are less capable of pursuing educational opportunities and becoming financially independent. They are often not seen as adding to the productivity of their societies, further limiting their scope of opportunities, according to Calvin.

To address these challenges, Calvin stressed the need for access to family planning and reproductive rights for adolescent girls.

"This shouldn't be treated as a wedge issue," Calvin said. "It's a human rights issue."

She also promoted girls' use of cell phones and the Internet as a way for them to keep up with technological advances and take advantage of creative opportunities in financial markets.

Instituting quotas for women in government and professional positions and removing laws and policies that discriminate against them are also important, Calvin said.

She cited advances in empowering girls. They include the United Nations General Assembly declaration to end female genital mutilation and global reductions in child and maternal deaths.

When it comes to girls being victims of human trafficking, stopping the demand and dealing with the supply are critical to solving the problem, according to Calvin. More emphasis must be placed on discussing human trafficking as an economic problem to spur greater action against it.

Amplifying the voices of young girls is not only the key to addressing many of today’s social ills, Calvin said, but a vision that she has had in her heart for a long time.