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by: COURTESY OF THE UNITED NATIONS - Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, who survived an attack by Taliban soldiers, is one of the young women highlighted by the U.N.s International Day of the Girl program.Friday, Oct. 11, is International Day of the Girl — a day to examine and celebrate how girls can change the world.

As a high school girl living in the most developed country on Earth, I may feel optimistic about that statement for myself, my classmates and the millions of girls in America. But what about the millions of girls in other parts of the world who must struggle every day for their basic human rights and their opportunity to change the world?

Created in 2011 by the U.N. General Assembly, International Day of the Girl recognizes the discrimination and violence that girls face every day, and focuses on the need to address these challenges. The struggles of women and girls throughout the world have gained a lot of attention during the past year, exemplified by the horrific shooting of Pakistani school girl Malala Yousafzai a year ago this month. Malala’s whole life has been a struggle to obtain the education and quality of life that she, and all girls around the world, deserves.

When the Taliban took notice of her activism in her community and shot her, many believed that the oppressive patriarchal reign had claimed another victim. But against the odds, Malala recovered to tell the world that the basic human right to education and a happy, healthy life cannot be denied to half the population.

Malala’s story is the tip of the iceberg. Sixty-six million girls around the world are not able to attend primary or secondary schools as a result of cultural restrictions, child marriage, too heavy a burden at home, or the lack of understanding of what an education really means. Without an education, these girls become invisible. They cannot contribute to society, aren’t aware of their basic rights, and are unable to contribute to the financial support of their families. A combination of these factors leads to a greater prevalence of gender-based violence, anonymity and lack of access to important social services and health care.

With growing attention to this issue, research has been finding that while impairments inflicted on the population of women and girls are often crippling, if you can break the cycle today for one girl, you break the cycle for men, women and children all around that girl and into the future. Research shows that when you give a woman in the developing world a dollar, 90 cents of that dollar will go back to her family and community in some form. (By contrast, when you give a man a dollar, only 40 cents does the same.)

Through their roles, women have unlimited influence over young girls and boys of the new generation. If you send one girl to school, she will go on not only to earn more money for her family and create a new image of a woman in her community, but she will have values that will be passed on to her children — values like the importance of school and women’s empowerment, that will continue in a ripple effect throughout her community.

There are many more statistics supporting these findings, but I think you get the point. Girls are the world’s largest untapped resource. It is entirely possible that the future of the world is in the hands of a girl just like me in Liberia, Cambodia or Peru. Only through providing a girl with an opportunity to realize her potential can this “girl effect” take place.

I became a convert to the girl effect about a year ago. When I learned about the millions of girls like me who are unable to get an education because of where they were born, it made me realize that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy my own educational experience without helping others to have their opportunity. During the past year, I’ve lobbied congressmen from 10 states. I’ve motivated my own community to raise enough money to educate three girls in Cambodia through high school. And I’ve joined the U.N. Foundation “Girl Up” campaign as a Teen Adviser to represent the face of teenage girls in America who will advocate to change the world, one girl at a time.

On this International Day of the Girl, I want you to know that girls matter, no matter what country they live in. Not only do they hold the potential to eradicate poverty and create a safer world for us all, but American girls have the ability to take part in that movement. We matter, and what we choose to value and spend our time on matters. So why wait to join us in changing the world? The world is waiting for you.

Sarah Gordon, 16, of Northeast Portland, is a student at Riverdale High School.

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