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Fifty Million Twelve-Year-Old Solutions

Naniette Coleman's picture

“We have a situation on our hands and the clock is ticking. We have fifty million twelve-year-old girls in poverty,” the opening video proclaimed. The solution is simple and profound, the Girl Effect, “an effect that starts with a 12-year-old girl and impacts the world.” Despite the catchy rhyme, I was skeptical. Can you blame me? It seems that we women have been getting the shaft since that damn snake in Eden. 

The list of superwomen who addressed the over capacity crowd at the “Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI): An Alliance for Economic Empowerment” event on October 6th read like the World Bank, White House, Hollywood, Philanthropy, Business and the Catwalk list of Who’s Who. The crowd craned their necks from the hallway to catch a glimpse of World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and World Bank Director of Gender and Development Mayra Buvinic; White House Senior Advisor, Valerie Jarrett; Actor, Anne Hathaway; President of the Nike Foundation, Maria Eitel, and Supermodel Christy Turlington

The numbers that supported their case are on point. The following is drawn from “New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls” A Girls Count report on Adolescent girls:

  • Over the past 15 years, girl’s education in the developing world has been a story of progress
  • Financial backing from the development community has grown steadily in response to accumulating evidence documenting the many benefits of girl’s schooling
  • Female education is now a major part of global development commitments, including the Millennium Development Goals
  • Schools enrollments have climbed
  • The large majority of girls now attend primary schools and most girls attend school into early adolescence
  • The gender gap (Author NB: in education) is closing, and higher enrollments are boosting economic returns
  • Author addition: Gender is also one of the IDA 16 special themes


“Gender Equality is Smart Economics,” we say. Our girls are “Ready for Work” we add. With the proper policy changes, things will get better. The World Bank Gender unit offered a list of policy changes in their "Ready for Work" hand out:

  • Ensure that young women start the school-to-work transition from an equitable position; trends toward gender equality in secondary school attendance and graduation must be reinforced and accelerated
  • Expand the focus of conditional and unconditional cash transfer programs to target and empower adolescent girls and address issues such as school-to-work transitions, early marriage and exposure to HIV/AIDS
  • Use training programs to facilitate the entry of young women into nontraditional and more highly paid occupations in high demand; outplacement and support services for training graduates are particularly important for young women with no previous labor market experience, as are childcare arrangements to facilitate both participation in training and entry into paid work.
  • Promote autonomous saving by adolescent girls and young women; these savings can provide a valuable source of start-up or working capital for their business
  • Modify inheritance laws that discriminate against girls and women and limit their access to productive assets


As excited as I was at the close of the event, as connected as I was to my inner 12-year-old girl, I was left wondering what we are, specifically, doing to train these young women, these 12-year-old dynamos to be better advocates for these policies that serve their interests and that of their communities. What are we doing to make them better leaders and better participants in the decision-making in their lives and in their communities? I wondered what we are doing to prepare the next President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the next President-elect Dilma Rousseff. What are we doing for the fifty million girls out there besides giving them the same education that has left their male counterparts impoverished and disenfranchised? What are we doing to help them learn to lead? Yes, they are the object of these policies but what about guiding them to be conduits to the alleviation of their “situation.” 

For me, the answer came in the form of a responsible citizenship program on Long Island called the Youth Adult Participation Project (YAPP). I joined when I was 12. YAPP is “an experiential learning program where Youth provide the ideas and staff members provide training and support. The result a combination of leadership training and community service experiences that teach teens skills that both employers and colleges are looking for; but most importantly, youth experience the success of being able to make a difference in their lives and in their communities. Youth are trained to FACILITATE, PLAN TRAININGS, to serve as LEADERS and ROLE MODELS, as well as MEDIATORS… in addition to planning and facilitating trainings and community service learning activity committees.” For my younger sisters in the developing world perhaps something akin to the Youth for Good Governance program or a global derivation of YAPP. Perhaps opportunities whereby we introduce them to the feel of the reigns since they already intimately know the weight.  

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Photo courtesty of Flickr user Paul-W


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