In many parts of the world, girlhood is a blip, a brief period in one’s life that gives way quickly to more serious matters such as marriage and childbearing. Millions of girls undergo these rites of passage with silent assent. They have no control within their needy families, for whom betrothal means the acquisition of livestock, fabric, or money essential to their survival.
Some, like Anita Kumari of Bihar, India, speak out. They refuse to accept their fates. At 15, Anita enrolled in a training program to become a beekeeper, the only woman amid a group of men in their 40s. When her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her, she waged a hunger strike—and won. Today, Ms. Kumari is paying her way through college by operating her own beekeeping business.
With the help of Going to School, a New Delhi organization that seeks to deter dropouts, and its Be! an Entrepreneur program, Anita Kumari smashed every expectation foisted upon her.
Around the world, efforts like Going to School have benefited from the support of the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect program, which promotes education, health, and economic self-sufficiency for girls.
“Adolescent girls in poverty face dead ends and we gotta get to them before that happens, so that’s the inspiration for this work,” says Maria Eitel, president of the foundation, a grant-making arm of the athletic-wear company. Girl Effect began in 2008, when the Nike and NoVo foundations announced they would collaborate to help girls. NoVo is the foundation created by Peter Buffett, a son of the philanthropist Warren Buffett.
Ms. Eitel says Girl Effect was born out of her feeling that the foundation should tackle larger issues, and she settled on poverty. Through the advice of two board members—A. Michael Spence, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Jill Ker Conway, the former Smith College president—Ms. Eitel decided that girls would become a foundation priority.
The grant maker works with organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the United Nations Foundation to support programs that prevent child marriage, pregnancy, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and most important, put girls in charge of their own destinies. The foundation’s largest presence is in Ethiopia, where it supports Berhane Hewan, a project of the Population Council that has helped 11,000 girls avoid child marriage. It granted approximately $17-million to the program during its 2011 fiscal year.
One foundation grantee says that Nike has played a major role in putting girls at the forefront of international issues. Gannon Gillespie, director of external relations at Tostan, a Washington charity that holds educational workshops in human rights, health, and literacy in African communities, says that “the girls agenda is on the table in a way it didn’t used to be.”
And that is how Ms. Eitel hopes it remains. Girl Effect, she says, “brings to life this very simple but powerful idea [that] the least powerful person on the planet can transform it.”
Here, a group of girls from a small Bangladeshi village, who all run small businesses to help their families and keep themselves in school, stand proudly.