Making Good on the Girl Effect

In 1995, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton stood before the U.N. Women's Conference and declared, "Women's rights are human rights." It was a profoundly radical assertion. A little over 15 years later, it's accepted wisdom.

(And, not to be overlooked, that first lady in a cotton-candy-pink suit and a long blond flip is now the secretary of state who tells reporters to keep their questions to themselves when they ask her who her favorite designer is.)

We've seen an unprecedented growth in public awareness and acceptance of the notion that the most effective way to change the world is by investing in its most overlooked and oppressed people: girls and women. From the first TED conference devoted to women, (they have been around for 26 years) in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, to The New York Times Magazine's recent "Saving the World's Women" issue, to the Novo and Nike Foundation's wildly popular viral video, "The Girl Effect," and its follow up, "The Clock is Ticking" -- everyone who is anyone knows that girls and women are where it's at.

It's not just the ladies who are spreading the gospel of the girl. The year 2006 was something of a watershed, and men led it. First, unlikely activist and extreme sportsman Greg Mortenson published his best-selling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, which focused on the importance of education for Afghan children, girls especially. Then Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work investing microloans with Third World women, freeing them from the economic yokes that bind them to unaccountable and sometimes abusive men.

And then in 2009, feminists' bleeding heartthrob, Nicholas Kristoff, collaborated with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, on Half the Sky -- a broad, sometimes oversimplified survey of women's continued oppression and uplift through out the world. It felt like pigs truly flew when Oprah filled America's living rooms -- used to Dancing With the Stars-type fare -- with images of teenage Cambodian sex slaves courtesy of Kristoff and WuDunn. (The spoonful of sugar, lest anyone get too freaked out, was voice-overs from mega-celebrities like Angelina Jolie.)

And then, as if that weren't wild enough, corporate interests and behemoth transnational organizations jumped on the bandwagon. Goldman Sachs announced 10,000 Women, a five-year investment to provide 10,000 underserved women around the world with a business and management education. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent testified that he sees the future of the world resting in the hands of women, in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, where empowering girls and women has become a major through line. The World Economic Forum created the Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program and the United Nations created U.N. Women.

Suddenly, it's become de rigueur for PTA moms in middle America to unabashedly discuss female genital mutilation and fistula at the dinner table. Thanks to Eve Ensler and her powerhouse of an organization, V-Day, plenty of average Janes can give a spontaneous recitation on rape as a systematic weapon of war. Dads and brothers are getting in on the act -- demanding sexual-assault trainings at their fraternity houses and maternity and paternity leave at their workplaces. This is not your pink-ribbon, consumption-as-guilt-cure revolution. This is getting very, very real.

But, in the nearly 15 years since Clinton laid down the gauntlet and five years into her words becoming accepted wisdom, how much have we really achieved? How have we, feminists and activists, leveraged this "new normal" that not only do girls and women deserve our investment but global security depends on it? Are we growing complacent, fragmented, maybe even smug?

Now is not the time to gloat at our own foresight. Now is the time for even more radical action.

We must communicate, ward off redundancy, and make sure that we're working together to affect the most women's lives rather than competing for resources. Gatherings like the SPARK Summit on the sexualization of girls last October in New York City and the upcoming conference on women in spiritual and religious leadership in San Francisco in May are two of the efforts to create broad coalitions.

We must insist on absolute accountability. This means holding corporate leaders' feet to the fire. We will not be bought off with feel-good campaigns or measly percent-of-profit donations; we want to see actual resources being distributed to the women who need them most. Pink-washing exposés, like Think Before You Pink, are a good model for the continued scrutiny necessary to make sure that our heartstrings aren't being hoodwinked.

We must inspire a continued dialogue about the complexity of implementing this "big idea." Kristoff, so disturbed by the sex slave he reported on in Cambodia, bought two young women in the hopes of rescuing them. Upon his return, he realized that though one had gone on to a more independent, fulfilling life, the other had returned to the brothel. His naive, albeit well-intentioned, intervention is a lesson for us all. Confronting long-standing cultural bias -- entrenched by systemic sexism, racism, and classism -- is not going to be overturned with haphazard pity but with large-scale, strategic action.

We must globalize the local and localize the global. While sex slavery is certainly a critical issue in Cambodia, it's also a problem in Cleveland. Education can uplift the girls of Afghanistan, but it can also be a launching pad for girls in Louisiana. Our realities are intertwined and so must be our approach to social change. That means sharing funding and best practices among organizations operating millions of miles apart, and championing local leaders who can customize the intervention to best fit their own community's needs. Those of us prone to looking far afield for our causes need to ensure we are not neglecting the girls and women in our own cities who need our attention and resources. We must also trust that women from far away are experts on their own communities and empower them to create homegrown change rather than imposing our own models.

We must continue to push ourselves to be uncomfortable -- to give more than we think we can give and to push our friends to do the same. We must seek the brutal truths about our complicity in the oppression of girls and women around the world. The moment we decide that our hands are clean is the moment that we betray our own hard-earned wisdom about the messiness of modern life. None of us are innocent. All of us are responsible. This is both our burden and our collective power.

Making both girls' and women's disproportionate suffering and their vast potential an everyday topic of conversation was only half the battle. Now that we've established "the girl effect" as household wisdom, we have to stay vigilant as those ideas turn into actions. We've fought an ideological battle over the last decade and won. Let's dedicate this new one to making good on our glory.