Let's make sure girls count

Last month, I visited students in a computer class at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya. While the class only included a few girls, they made a lasting impression on me. They were eager to talk to me about their education, their challenges, and their lives. In short: They were eager to be heard.

As we celebrate the achievements of girls and women throughout March, let’s do more than look to the past; let’s act for their future.

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From Kakuma to Malaysia to Liberia to the United States, the girls I’ve met want to have a voice in their communities and countries. They are ready to participate and ready to lead.

Yet millions of girls around the world are not only overlooked in their communities, they are not even registered at birth. They are invisible.

For many girls, this is yet another barrier – on top of widespread challenges like child marriage, physical violence, human trafficking, and limited educational and economic opportunities – blocking them from realizing their full potential.

Lack of documentation prevents girls and women from officially participating in and benefiting from the formal economic, legal, and political sectors in their countries.

Without official identification it will be difficult for a girl to attend school or get a job. She probably won’t be able to own her own land, start her own business, or vote.  She will likely be cut off from health and social services, confined to the home or likely to be trafficked, and left unpaid.

Instead of ignoring girls, we need to count them.

The United Nations is doing important work on this issue, but we need more governments and organizations to step up and support them in this critical work.

Currently there is a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Girls Count Act of 2013 that addresses this issue head on.

This legislation, under the leadership of Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), encourages countries to enact laws that ensure girls and boys of all ages are full participants in society, including promoting birth certifications or some type of national identity card. It also urges the U.S. government to work with the UN and others in countries to create and enforce laws that specifically collect data on girls and protect the rights of girls.

Why should Americans care if girls beyond our borders are recognized?

First, because it’s the right thing to do. The idea that everyone should have the opportunity to work hard and get ahead is part of our DNA.

Second, progress for girls means progress for the world.

Girls are one of the most powerful catalysts for change on the planet. Research and data show that when girls are educated, safe, healthy, and empowered, they have healthier families, earn higher wages to invest in their children’s futures, and contribute to economic growth in their countries.

The United Nations estimates that improvements in girls’ education have averted the deaths of 2.1 million children under age 5. And a World Bank paper found that closing the gender gap so girls are as economically active as boys would increase India’s annual GDP growth rate by 4.4 percent and Nigeria’s by 3.5 percent.

Simply put: If we enable girls to lead, they can create a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous world – benefiting us all.

Calvin is the president and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation.