Women and girls are an extremely powerful force for development. A woman’s economic wellbeing is fundamental to her family, her community, her children, and her children’s children. Women are vital to economic growth, income generation, and security and stability. More than 70 percent of the farmers in Africa are women, often toiling on small plots to grow fruits, vegetables and grains for their families.

They are central to the household economy — they not only grow most of the food, they prepare it and serve it, and keep the house clean and take care of the children. Young girls are responsible for much of the labor families need to survive: tending livestock, carrying water, harvesting crops, watching younger children, and doing chores.

Increasing family incomes, fighting poverty, improving nutrition, and building the skill base needed to sustain development – teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers – all depend on investing in and providing opportunities for women and girls. When women do earn income, they are more likely than men to spend it on food, education, and health care for their families. They are a huge and growing part of the population in many developing countries: in Nigeria, girls and young woman under 30 years of age account for 35% of the population; in the United States they account for just 20%. And gender equality matters for development: evidence shows that the incidence of poverty tends to be lower and the rate of economic growth higher in countries with greater gender equality.

A woman voting in the 2005  Liberian elections. Photo Credit:©2010 Benjamin Spatz

And yet women and girls face huge systematic disadvantages and hurdles that undermine their own progress, and the progress of their families, communities, and countries. According to the path-breaking report Girls Count, girls and women are less educated, less healthy, and less free than their male counterparts. Many are forced to marry at a young age and are extraordinarily vulnerable to HIV, sexual violence, and physical exploitation. They typically cannot own land, get credit, or even apply for many jobs. Between one-quarter and one-half of girls become mothers before age 18, and 70% of the people in the world living in poverty are women and girls.

I’ve seen first-hand the power of creating opportunities for girls and women. As a Peace Corps teacher in an all-girls school in the tiny village of Leulumoega in Samoa, I saw how girls with a basic high school education could get good jobs, help provide for their families, and become leaders in their communities.

I’ve met young women working in garment factories in Indonesia and data-entry centers in Ghana that speak about the empowerment that comes from earning their own incomes, and how they are able to wait longer to be married, have fewer children, and take better care of their families. And I’ve seen close up how, when given the opportunity, a woman president – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia – can lead her country from the brink of ruin at the end of a terrible civil war and regain peace, stability, credibility, and the beginnings of economic growth and vibrant democracy.

We can and must do better to support women and girls. That’s why through President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative we are focusing on investments that provide new opportunities for women farmers and help improve nutrition for their families. That’s why our microfinance and SME programs emphasize creating new opportunities for women to earn incomes to support their families. That’s why the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and USAID Forward puts a huge emphasis on investing in women and girls, and incorporates gender equality into our core aid effectiveness principles. We know that to accelerate development and build strong, stable and well-governed societies, we must unleash the power of girls and women.