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Originally published Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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World Economic Forum: Invest in girls to combat poverty

Nike's chief executive, the head of UNICEF and Melinda Gates agreed Saturday that there's a simpler way to help rejuvenate many of the world's...

The Associated Press

DAVOS, Switzerland — Nike's chief executive, the head of UNICEF and Melinda Gates agreed Saturday that there's a simpler way to help rejuvenate many of the world's economies: Invest in the education of girls and make sure they don't become victims of the global financial meltdown.

For the first time, the World Economic Forum devoted one of its marquee sessions to the impact of educating girls in developing countries, an event four years in the planning that ended up coinciding with the world's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Nike CEO Mark Parker called girls "the most neglected, at risk, unsupported part of the world's population."

By providing girls with education and economic-based opportunities, he said, there is "a very direct connection to shaping the post-crisis world in many ways" because they will then help transform their families, their villages and ultimately their countries.

"This isn't necessarily a question of adding more funds. It's a question of directing some of the funds that are already out there to a place that would give us higher return and give us higher impact," said Parker, whose company, the world's biggest maker of athletic equipment and apparel, is one of the major supporters of girls' education.

Gates, who co-chairs the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, agreed that nobody has been focusing on girls, so their needs have not been addressed by foundations and nongovernmental organizations. Now, she said, there needs to be "a mind shift" to track what is happening with their education and legal rights and ensure that their needs are addressed in all programs.

"When I think about girls," Gates said, "I think about how do we invest, taking the generation today ... and make sure that they invest, and that they have the money, to send their girls — and their boys — to school."

UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said keeping girls in school is "so critical."

She called for stepped-up efforts to address the issues that keep girls out of school — fetching water, working in fields, a lack of separate toilet facilities, and sexual exploitation.

"Girls are subject to sexual violence at a very early age in so many parts of the world with absolute impunity and this has to stop," Veneman said. "They are the ones getting HIV/AIDS at higher risk than even males today, and part of this has to do with the sexual violence of teenagers."

She said girls are also being sexually exploited and trafficked "for commercial gain," and sometimes they agree to this exploitation because they need cash, clothes or a grade in school.

Several members of the audience expressed concern that the financial crisis would increase trafficking and drive more adolescent women into prostitution because of the need for money.

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, said the bank is very concerned about the effects of the financial crisis on girls and women, and wants to ensure that measures are taken to assist them.

"We know that in many places women are the first to be thrown out of work or the first to be impacted," she said.

She urged support for a $20 million public-private partnership to educate and train girls in post-conflict countries such as Liberia and southern Sudan.

More than two decades of research has shown that investing in women is smart economics, Okonjo-Iweala said.

"If investing in women is smart economics, then investing in girls ... is even smarter economics," she said.

Okonjo-Iweala said 70 percent of the 130 million children out of school today are girls.

"If you invest in girls, if you educate girls, if you get girls into jobs, you solve many problems," she said, because educated girls have fewer children and they will be aware of measures to tackle climate change.

Indonesia's Trade Minister Mari Pangestu said the financial meltdown has already seen more women than men lose jobs in her country in the last few months.

In tackling the financial crisis, she said, stimulus packages should include measures to help jobless women and girls who will be pulled out of school by their families if they do not have money.

Pangestu said she and Indonesia's finance minister, also a woman, are looking at ways to ensure that girls remain in school. She cited a Mexican program that provides cash grants to mothers only if the mother sends both boys and girls to school.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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