17/07/2014 12:50 BST | Updated 16/09/2014 06:59 BST

The Road to Economic Recovery: Why Girls Should Be in the Driver's Seat

The financial crisis in 2008 humbled many of us, as we watched banks collapse, stock markets plummet, and regulation fail. We lamented the loss of jobs, homes, and savings, yet we neglected to realise that a segment of our population was being disproportionately distressed - adolescent girls.

The financial crisis didn't only punish rogue traders, bottom lines, and central banks; it threatened - and continues to threaten - the lives and livelihood of girls and young women. Adolescent girls fell victim to the financial crisis despite having no role in causing it. Ironically, they are the segment who can best deliver global economic recovery and growth.

The economic cost to countries who fail to invest in their girls is staggering: a recent study showed low and middle income countries are losing approximately USD92 billion a year from failing to educate girls to the same standard as boys. If girls leave primary education early, it costs India and Nigeria USD1.3 and USD34.2 billion respectively.

The solution to the issue is simple in theory, but it will take a global effort from both governments and the private sector to make the difference we all want to see. Economies that get it right can minimise monetary losses by ensuring equal and full education for girls.

Mitigating losses isn't where it ends though. Economies can also realise enormous gains: the World Bank estimates that increasing the secondary education of girls by 1% results in an annual income increase of 3% per capita, and closing the unemployment gap between girls and boys yields a GDP increase of 1.2% in a single year. In Nigeria, if young women had the same employment rate as young men, the country could add USD13.9 billion to its GDP annually.

Countries have a definite stake in ensuring girls have equal access to education and employment but so do companies. Adolescence is a critical period for women. Often, it is too late to reach women in their 20s, because they will already have missed out on schooling or planning and saving for future endeavours, such as starting a business of taking a degree. If companies miss the window of opportunity, it means there are fewer women in the talent pipeline and fewer female customers.

Consider that the purchasing power of women in the US ranges from USD5-USD15 trillion annually and that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the US in the next decade. Companies face a massive opportunity cost if women in developing economies cannot realise their potential as consumers.

So what does this all mean? If adolescent girls are critical for higher rates of economic growth, policy makers and corporate leaders must empower them. At a minimum, government officials must facilitate enabling environments so girls can access full and complete schooling. The recent events in Nigeria demonstrate that we are still far from achieving safe learning environments for adolescent girls. This must be a first step.

The private sector has a key role to play as well: from using philanthropic dollars on education programmes for girls, to prioritising girls and young women as key segments for recruitment and investing in girl-centred social entreprises. Already, we are seeing positive developments in this area.

Intel, through their 'She Will Connect' initiative, is expanding digital literacy skills to five million young women in developing countries, so they are not only better equipped for employment, but also have the skills to create innovative digital enterprises. Nike is spending significant resource to put girls on the international policy agenda through its 'Girl Effect' campaign.

And we at Standard Chartered are trying to play our part, by expanding our Goal programme, our initiative to empower adolescent girls through sport, financial education and life skills training. We aim to reach 600,000 adolescent girls from low-income urban areas in our markets of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East by the end of 2018.

But we are not stopping at the training. Working with our clients and suppliers, we are trying to secure work experience and paid entry level opportunities for our Goal participants. In India, we led by example and hired seven Goal champions as interns into the Bank, while securing paid jobs for Goal champions in hospitality, sales, digital education, and sports coaching. Moreover, we are setting girls up with financial education and savings accounts, so they can benefit from financial inclusion.

These are all small steps toward empowering girls but, in aggregate, privately funded initiatives like these will have profound impact on families, companies, communities, societies, and economies.

We urge more companies doing business in developing countries to join the global fight to empower girls. Investing in girls is not only a social imperative, but an economic one. If the global economy is looking for a fast road to recovery and growth, all it needs to do is let girls drive.