People and prosperity

Banking on adolescent girls

Adolescent girls have massive economic and leadership potential, if we give them the chance

Often, when I hand someone my business card, I get a quizzical look. Nine times out of ten, I can anticipate the question they are about to ask: why does a financial institution have a ‘head of girls’?

In recent years, we’ve seen a massive increase of public and private spending on women. Most in the development community have adopted ex-World Bank President Bob Zoellick’s argument that ‘women are smart economics’. This has led to a plethora of programs focused on women’s entrepreneurship, education and economic empowerment.

If you are looking for high return on investment, you have to invest in girls

The uptake on adolescent girls, however, has been less impressive. Girls are still seen as victims or beneficiaries, not economic agents of change. Yet, as highlighted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the evidence points to a simple fact: if you are looking for high return on investment and maximised economic growth, you have to invest in girls.

Standard Chartered has a significant footprint in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Our success as a bank is directly correlated to the economic conditions of these countries: the more our markets grow, the greater our financial potential.

Adolescent girls have a massive economic potential

In 2006, we did the maths. How can we encourage economic growth by addressing development gaps? The answer: adolescent girls, a highly vulnerable group in our markets but one with massive economic and leadership potential.

As a result, we started Goal, our education programme to equip adolescent girls with the confidence, knowledge and skills they need to be integral economic leaders in their families, communities and societies. At the time and perhaps even today, Goal was unique – because we’re a bank, but perhaps even more so because of the method we chose: sports.

The connection between sports and adolescent girls may not be obvious, but I have seen it work and it’s powerful. Above all, sport is fun, and using sport in conjunction with educational modules keeps girls engaged. It also offers a safe place for girls, many of whom are at risk of physical and sexual abuse; you can’t learn if you are physically vulnerable.

Moreover, playing on teams gives girls a sense of community, along with a chance to practice the skills they have learned in the curriculum we teach them through Goal, such as leadership or communications. Finally, sports allow us to subtly but effectively challenge social-cultural norms and gender stereotypes.

Lack of capability is a barrier to financial inclusion

In some instances, a game of football, netball or volleyball is played before, during or after a Goal education session covering topics from leadership and confidence to financial education. As a bank, we recognise that lack of financial capability is a barrier to financial inclusion. Thus, helping girls to understand money management, budgeting, and financial services is crucial.

Alternatively, girls learn on the field through games. I was in India last month and saw a game focused on HIV prevention. A group of 10 girls formed a circle. Placed in the middle, one girl tried to avoid being hit by a football being thrown by the others. The ball represented the HIV virus. The girls left that game exhausted, but also with knowledge they need to make educated decisions about their sexual health.

Last autumn, at the Clinton Global Initiative, we pledged to reach an additional 500,000 girls by 2019

The data we have consistently demonstrate that sports and education is an effective combination, helping girls to grow in confidence. In 2013, on our Goal programme, we saw a 70 per cent increase in the number of girls who believed they should control the number of children they have, and a 24 per cent increase in the number of girls who aspired to work or start a business.

Yet, we know we still have a way to go. Our data also shows that a majority of girls still think that they must tolerate violence for the sake of the family. This is a huge issue and not one that can be ignored.

Equal opportunity for girls will have a world-changing impact

So our work continues, but the momentum is building. Last autumn, at the Clinton Global Initiative, we pledged to reach an additional 500,000 girls through Goal by 2019, and to add a focus on employability, workforce development, and entrepreneurship.

We are looking at additional ways we can use our networks – employees, clients, customers, suppliers – to provide Goal participants with economic opportunities. And we are asking our staff to get more involved in the programme.

We’re a long way from ensuring adolescent girls have equal opportunities globally, but if governments, businesses and communities work together, we can get there, and the impact will be nothing short of world-changing.

A version of this article was first published by Devex