Improving the lives of girls and women: An opportunity to transform the future of humanity

Improving the lives of girls and women: An opportunity to transform the future of humanity
Students work on homework with the help of a solar lantern at Awbare Refugee Camp in Ethiopia in 2014. (Jiro Ose / United Nations Foundation)

Education, equality and an honest and responsive government – two years ago, a group of residents in Los Angeles told us these were some of their top priorities for a better world. Facilitated by the United Nations, similar conversations took place among governments, businesses, civil society groups and millions of individuals around the world.

The conversations led to a historic moment last year when 193 nations gathered at the U.N. and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious agenda to end poverty and promote peace. The global goals, which are to be achieved by 2030, represent a common to-do list for a better world and a promise that nobody is left behind.


The 17 connected goals seek to address the world's complex economic, social and environmental challenges – from jobs, education and climate change to poverty, gender equality and peace and justice.

It is a bold agenda that takes on complicated challenges. Though it will not be easy to achieve, it is possible. Experience shows that progress happens when the international community mobilizes around common, measurable and meaningful goals.


Indeed, the global goals for sustainable development follow the Millennium Development Goals, which are credited with concentrating resources, focusing policy attention and aligning new partners to address the root causes and consequences of global poverty. In recent decades, the world has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty by more than half, and the number of children dying before they reach the age of 5 has also declined by more than half.

But there's no point in stopping there. And there's no way to achieve the global goals if we leave half the population behind.

In places across the globe, girls and women are too often the poorest, the most underfed, the least educated, the most underpaid, the most violated and the most at health risk.

The global goals reflect the notion that girls and women are not only more vulnerable to all of the development issues we care about; they are also the key to overcoming them. Girls and women are at the heart of every goal because empowering girls and women is essential to poverty alleviation and sustainable development.


For example, research finds that an educated girl marries later and has fewer children. Her education helps to protect her from HIV. Her children are healthier and 50% more likely to live past the age of 5.

When girls can stay in school longer, it raises their eventual incomes by 10% to 25%. Child and maternal deaths drop when girls and women have access to modern contraceptives. And when girls and women have equal opportunities in the workplace, economies grow.

A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that if a woman's participation in the labor market was the same as a man's, it could add up to $28 trillion to annual global GDP by 2025. That's equivalent to the combined economies of the U.S. and China.

It's clear: Girls and women are a force for change in their families, communities and countries. A generation of healthy, educated, safe and empowered girls and women has the potential to transform the future of humanity.

So how do we ensure she can realize her potential and get the world we want?

First, the global goals offer a road map. They demand we remove the barriers that keep millions of girls from a full and beneficial education. They remind us we have a duty and the ability to end the largely preventable deaths of 300,000 girls and women who die each year from pregnancy and childbirth complications. They insist we stop making girls and women shoulder the burden of unpaid work and give them access to economic opportunities, modern energy services and quality healthcare. And they refuse to tolerate early and forced child marriage and female genital mutilation.

Second, because she counts, we have to count her. Unbiased data about the realities of the lives of girls and women – both in absolute terms and in comparison with boys and men – is extremely limited and absent, especially in the poorest countries. We lack the crucial data we need to understand the causes of maternal deaths, the prevalence of intimate partner violence, and the number of women working in the informal economy, among many other issues. We can't modify what we don't measure. Initiatives like Data2X are working with partners to close gender data gaps because achieving the Sustainable Development Goals depends on it.

Finally, we must embrace the opportunity. The global goals offer a once-in-a-generation moment to pursue our shared aspirations for peace and progress.


World leaders have made a promise. It is up to us all to fulfill it.

Translating the goals from words on a page to progress we can witness will require resources, political will and enduring engagement from the private sector and individuals. We will need new ideas, new partners and new ways of operating. And we will need to prioritize the rights and needs of girls and women.

Everyone has a role to play in this because we all have a stake in our shared future.

Kathy Calvin is president and chief executive of the United Nations Foundation.