The co-chairs of NoVo on how our society is relentlessly perpetuating inequality despite being surrounded by unprecedented knowledge, technology
In 2006, we were given a bold challenge: Peter’s father Warren Buffett pledged $1 billion to our family foundation. His only advice? Try to focus on something that could make a significant difference in the world. Expect to make some mistakes along the way; nothing important will be accomplished if we only make safe decisions.
It didn’t take us long to realize what we wanted to change. Worldwide we saw deeply ingrained systems of exploitation and domination. We’re surrounded by unprecedented technology and knowledge—yet our global society seems to be relentlessly perpetuating inequality. We are living out of balance.
So where and how to start? We were reminded of Warren’s investment philosophy: invest in assets that are undervalued in the marketplace but show huge potential. After many conversations and interactions with people in many countries around the world, we saw a pattern. It turns out that the asset wasn’t what but who: adolescent girls.
In 2012, 65 million girls worldwide were not in school. Fourteen million were likely to give birth—an event they were two-five times more likely to die from as women in their 20s. Half of the world’s sexual assault victims are girls under the age of 15. Twice-discriminated, by age and gender, girls worldwide are denied their basic human rights.
We knew we had to invest in girls first and foremost because girls, as part of the human family, deserve better. Girls also hold great potential for their communities, as leaders, artists, mothers, doctors, influencers and engaged members of society. Yet today’s girls are born into an unwelcoming world—and adolescence is often the moment when a girl’s potential is irrevocably lost or stolen. The world can no longer ignore our collective responsibility to acknowledge and support the power and contributions of girls. Their lives are too intimately linked to the next generation, who will either be born into lack and poverty, or into positive engagement and meaningful contribution.
To us, these are stories of individual tragedies—and collective disasters. India’s adolescent mothers will lose $400 billion as potential income over their lifetimes; this is eight times the combined profits that India’s top 100 companies generate (of over $50 billion) annually. When we see the power of girls go undervalued and overlooked, progress will always be stilted.
There’s one more thing about adolescent girls. It’s something that economists won’t count and researchers can’t measure, but it is palpable to anyone who has spent time with girls. There is an energy and life force in each and every girl: buzzing, hopeful, imaginative, will-full, brilliant, ready to change the world for themselves and all around them. If society can protect and channel that power, society can and will change—for the better.
The story of Anjali* can help describe what we mean. We met Anjali in Bihar, a vibrant 16-year-old girl in a community where poverty, caste and class discrimination leave girls with just one asset to be exploited: their bodies. Economic desperation drives families to sell their daughters, marry them off, or prostitute them. The average age into prostitution in India is 11—but fortunately Anjali does not represent that statistic.
Instead, when we met her, Anjali was completing the 9th class at a government-funded girls’ hostel. She is a karate expert. She confidently walks through her village. She explains to her neighbours why their daughters should be kept in school, and out of marriage and brothels. She is a fast talker and wants to be a lawyer. We could see why.
How did Anjali get this way?
She was safe. Her mother had been sold into prostitution at a young age, and had been forced to marry off Anjali’s sisters when they were under 10-years-old. She was determined that Anjali’s future would be different.
She was seen. A local organization that seeks to end the trafficking of girls and women knew she was at risk for exploitation and brought her to the hostel.
She was celebrated. The organization and hostel believed in her. She received an education. She has friends. She has the privilege to dream. A girl who stays in school longer, gives birth later, and has economic assets beyond her body is the girl who will realize her own potential, break cycles of poverty, and shift power imbalances that fuel exploitation.
How can all the world’s nearly 600 million adolescent girls be safe, seen and celebrated? It will take changing norms that sanction brutality against girls and women—a movement already underway in India and around the world. It means tracking girls’ health, education and economic realities so we truly understand the state of India’s 133 million future women. It means investing in girls; the $2.5 billion expected from the new companies law would be a good start. And it means listening to girls, learning from them and their vision for their present and future lives.
As for our work in philanthropy: we go back to the original meaning of the word—the love of humanity. Fundamentally, we believe our global humanity needs a new code to live by. Ensuring that girls such as Anjali are safe, seen and celebrated will show us the way. And then, as our friend Gloria Steinem says: We’ll see a world where we are all linked, not ranked.
Jennifer and Peter Buffett are co-chairs of the NoVo Foundation. In 2008, they received the Clinton Global Citizen Award and they were named in Barron’s list of top 25 most effective philanthropists in 2009 and 2010.
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