Maria Eitel

Adolescent girls: The best investment you can make

There are more than 515 million adolescent girls living in the developing world today. These girls have the potential to accelerate growth and progress in every sector, to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and to advance whole economies. And yet girls are often overlooked. Adolescent girls are more likely to be pulled out of school, married off and infected with HIV. They also face the reality that a leading cause of death for a girl 15 to 19 years old is related to pregnancy and childbirth. Families who have nothing else may resort to treating their daughters as commodities, to be married off or sold. Despite such adversities, adolescent girls are the most powerful force for transformative change.

Yes, girls often face immense barriers, but they also hold unique promise. That is the other side of the story – the Girl Effect. This is the story of girls who are counted, invested in and included in society. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later. An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent. Studies in 2003 showed that when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 per cent of it into their families, as compared to the 30 to 40 per cent that men and boys contribute. Research has also shown that higher levels of schooling among mothers correlate with better infant and child health. Yes, this is the Girl Effect, and we have only begun to see its myriad effects.

It is truly remarkable how investing in one girl can generate ripples of change that benefit her family, her village and her country. Girls all over the world are putting the Girl Effect into motion every day despite the countless obstacles in their lives. Sanchita, a 17-year-old from Bangladesh, is one of these girls. Born into poverty, Sanchita had no money for school, clothes or food. Thanks to BRAC, she received a small loan to buy a cow. She sold the cow’s milk and used the money to pay for her own schooling and that of her brother. BRAC also helped her learn skills that have enabled her to grow her own vegetables and continue to earn an income for her family and herself. Stories like Sanchita’s serve as beacons of hope – and as tangible proof that investments in girls can result in significant economic and social change. The Girl Effect is real, and its impact is both extensive and profound.

I have seen this change take hold in Bangladesh, Brazil, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and countless other countries. Girls around the world are putting the Girl Effect into motion when they are given the tools to do so. At this very moment, girl entrepreneurs in India are drafting their business plans, girls in Bangladesh are studying to be nurses so they can meet the health needs of those who have been largely ignored, and girls in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania are receiving life-skills training and gaining access to microfinance, benefiting from safe spaces where they are allowed to dream big and to translate these dreams into reality.

But there is still much work to be done. In order to know what is happening to girls, and to track their progress or lack thereof, we urgently need data disaggregated by sex and age. We need to show the value in girls and convince governments, villages, corporations and families that investing in adolescent girls is a smart endeavour. We must bring girls into the center of our discussions, acknowledge them as a unique population and address their particular needs.

Unleashing the potential of adolescent girls begins with our doing the following:

  1. Stop using girls as the infrastructure of poverty.
  2. Don’t assume you have girls covered in your programmes. Specifically address them.
  3. Count girls – look for them in your numbers.
  4. You don’t need to change your strategy, just include girls in what you already do.
  5. Enforce policies that are already in place.
  6. Men and boys can be champions for girls.
  7. Don’t treat girls as the issue of the day.

This approach will yield numerous benefits for decades to come. If we wholeheartedly invest in girls, we will see stronger communities and families, sustainable economies, lower rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, lower rates of HIV and AIDS, less poverty, more innovation, reduced rates of joblessness and more equitable prosperity. The Girl Effect is real, and it is powerful – but we won’t fully realize its ripple effect until we start taking it seriously and expanding its scope.

Maria Eitel is the founding President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, where she works to promote the Girl Effect – the powerful social and economic change that ensues when girls have opportunities. Prior to her work with the Foundation, Ms. Eitel served as the first Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at NIKE, Inc. Before that, she served at the White House, the Microsoft Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and MCI Communications Corporation


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.