Reaching Millions of Girls in the Developing World

We’re honored to offer this guest post from Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation.  One of the Foundation’s latest undertakings involves work with girls in the developing world.  

Randy Paynter’s initial post compares do-good enterprises to climbing a mountain with a 200lb pack in a snowstorm.  This rings true when I think about the global challenges we face.  And, it’s literally true because the UN Foundation was part of the team that climbed an actual mountain.

But beyond all those affected by the issues that we try to tackle at the UN Foundation – disaster relief, climate change, improving the U.S.-UN relationship, and preventing needless death from preventable diseases – the adolescent girl in the developing world seems to have the most weight packed on her back.

There are more than 1.5 billion young people in the world today, the largest youth generation in history. Half of them are girls and young women, and approximately 600 million of those girls live in developing countries. 

Unfortunately most of those girls live in dire circumstances. They are less educated, less healthy, and less free than their male peers.  In many places, girls and young women do not enjoy the basic rights and protections of citizenship — including the right to own land, attend school, access healthcare services, stop unwanted sexual advances, and obtain justice for sexual assault and abuse.

We at the UN Foundation believe that the best way to help these girls is holistically, addressing all these issues at once. To carry the climbing metaphor further, to unpack one of these issues without addressing the others still leaves the weight unwieldy and unbalanced.

It may make sense to be holistic, but it’s not without challenges.   Our Nothing But Nets campaign has been a huge success based mainly on the power of its simple messaging.  For $10, you can purchase a insecticide-treated bed net that goes to a family in Africa and protects kids from malaria.  People get our direct ask and the immediate impact of a bed net.

There is no “bed net” equivalent for girls, but we do know projects and programs that work.  Take a project in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.  The child marriage rate is among the worst in the world (43 percent are marriage by their 15th birthday). And girls have no economic prospects; in fact 45 percent between the age of 15 and 19 are illiterate. 

The UN Foundation and the Nike Foundation provided seed funding  for a UN project to end child marriage in the Amhara region.  The project, called Berhane Hewan, convenes community discussions, and girls’ clubs where girls get access to education, health and HIV education, and are encouraged to delay marriage. Families who keep their daughters in school and in the program are rewarded with an economic incentive that will contribute to the long-term well-being of the family, such as a sheep. 

What works so well in this program is that several needs are met and the approach is participatory, including everyone in the community.  And, it’s successful.  Project participants are less likely to be married, more likely to stay in school, and more knowledgeable about sexual and reproductive health. More than 11,000 families have agreed to delay marriage and keep girls in school. 

The success of Berhane Hewan is achieved through a direct investment of just $23 per girl annually. But with 2 million girls in the Amhara region, an additional $4.5 to $5 million a year is needed to scale up the program to reach just 10 percent of girls in the region, enabling them to delay marriage, continue their education, protect their health, learn life skills, and ultimately, break the generational chain of poverty.

Of course, given that many of the 600 million girls who live in the developing world suffer similar problems, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The UN Foundation is committing to reaching out to those in need and has set up a fund to do so.

We will need help. If there’s anything that the UN Foundation is more committed to than a holistic approach to helping to girls in need, it’s the idea that partnerships — between NGOs, businesses, individuals, nations, and the United Nations — are essential to meeting global problems. The concept that each entity plays a unique and essential part in the process is embedded into our culture.

We’re committed to moving forward with this approach. Join us as we help adolescent girls shoulder their pack up the mountain.

About the Author:

Kathy Calvin is the CEO of the UN Foundation, a public charity that connects people, ideas, and resources to the UN to solve global problems.

US ARMY via Flickr/Creative Commons
Kathy Calvin, CEO, the UN Foundation


Beng Kiat Low
low beng kiat7 years ago


Elizabeth Vanderpool


DC Bass
DC Bass7 years ago

Teach the population, these girls included about Birth control.
The current combination of population and consumption is exceeding global ecosystems’ capacities to continue providing the services needed for human well being. Radical changes to population size and/or consumption levels are needed achieve sustainable scale.
Go to:

Ann E.
Ann E8 years ago

I think this is an important cause. Changing the preception of half the population has ahuge impact. Thank you UN Foundation

Dell Nidor
Dell Nidor8 years ago

Read this the other day, and just felt it was good to come back and re-read little chunks of info worth repeating to others. Very nicely done. Thank you

Adrian Henthorne
Adrian H8 years ago

I agree with Gillian

Gillian Miller
Gillian M8 years ago

These projects sound interesting but it is not clear what happens when the financial incentive time finishes. Are they married off anyway and how does the extra education help?

Mister H.
Mister H.8 years ago

When you highlight the actions of an "everyday" person taking large actions to such profound effect, doesn't it encourage all of us to go just two, three, maybe four extra steps to help the helpless? Good on you.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

Great idea. Let's hope it works.

Jennifer V.
Past Member 8 years ago

Thank you for highlighting the conditions these girls are living in.