If a developing nation wants to make fast progress, it must educate its girls and give them more equality in jobs and economic opportunities.
Decades of international and domestic efforts to speed development in more than 100 poor countries shows that, as the title of a recent study puts it, "Girls Count."
More than just counting, helping girls get ahead and out of the limitations that so many cultures have placed on them for hundreds of years is vital to overcoming poverty and growing prosperity.
Even Wall Street, with its interest in international investment, sees this.
"Education, and particularly women's education, is critical" to economic growth, says Sandra Lawson, author of a 15-page paper given clients by the prominent New York investment banking firm, Goldman Sachs. She used for the title of the paper, a Chinese proverb, "Women Hold Up Half the Sky."
"Educating girls and women leads to higher wages," notes a summary of the paper. "A greater likelihood of working outside the home; lower fertility; reduced maternal and child mortality; and better health and education. The impact is felt not only in women's lifetimes, but also in the health, education, and productivity of future generations."
It is just plain "good economics" to promote the welfare of girls, says Malcolm Ehrenpreis, head of a special gender unit at the World Bank that strives to encourage attention to equality for women in the bank's development activities.
Recognition of the importance of women to development got a shove in 1995 at the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, attended, and subsequently increased, the efforts at that bank to enhance the welfare of women.
The current World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, announced in April six new World Bank Group "Commitments on Gender Equality."
Women have been making progress in the world's poor countries in schooling and in health, the bank report noted. It also stated that:
•In low-income countries, more than 37 million girls have been enrolled in primary school since 1995. That development improved girls' enrollment rate from 80 percent of boys' enrollment rate in 1995 to 88 percent in 2005.
•By 2004, two-thirds of 181 countries with primary schooling data achieved gender parity in enrollment. Girls' primary school completion gap with boys narrowed to 5 percent from 15 percent in 1991.
•Since 1970, average life expectancy for women has increased by 15 to 20 years in developing countries.
But, says Mr. Ehrenpreis, women are lagging in access to economic opportunity.
Countries with greater gender equality tend to have lower poverty rates, the bank notes. Indian states with higher female labor-force participation are precisely those with faster growth, and this growth lifts people out of poverty.
A few private foundations are prominent in promoting the well-being of girls and young women. The Nike Foundation, for example, has projects for empowering women in Liberia and Kenya. Its goal is to get girls on the international agenda and drive resources to them from rich countries. Investment in girls, the foundation holds, unleashes what it calls the "girl effect," that is, powerful social and economic change brought about when a girl participates in her society. It offers a compelling video making the case for investing in girls on the Web at girleffect.org
Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation has a program for "elevating adolescent girls on the global agenda."
Ruth Levine, an analyst with the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., and one of the authors of "Girls Count," sees increasingly "positive rhetoric" regarding the role of women in development. Jordan's Queen Rania gave the matter attention at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland earlier this year. Former President Bill Clinton is raising the issue at his Global Initiative.
But, Ms. Levine says, discrimination again women is "ingrained in society" in many countries. "There is just a lot of discrimination and cultural and economic obstacles" to the advancement of women. Those obstacles, she says, include early marriage and a macho attitude of many men. One girl in 7 in developing countries marries before age 15, and nearly half of all girls are expected to marry by age 20. This is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Her study points out that 1 person in 8 in the world is a girl or young woman age 10 to 24. The size of this group in developing nations will peak over the next 10 years. The study also lists many challenges for women.
"In many places girls and young women do not enjoy the basic rights of voting, cannot inherit land, are subject to female genital cutting, and do not have the right to stop unwanted sexual advances or gain justice," the study said. "Yet it is only through major and sustained improvements in the condition of girls that the world will reach its goals."
"Most important," it continues, "girls matter because they are human beings. Girls have equal rights to human dignity, self-determination, freedom from violence, good health, education, and participation in economic and political life."
And they are key to economic progress.