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What Sasha and Malia Obama Will Mean for the World's Girls

Even if they are a world away and their lives are different, African and Latin girls will see a part of themselves in the Obama daughters.
 
 
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As our nation prepares for the momentous inauguration of our first African American president, the rest of the world is watching with much anticipation as well.

There is little precedent for the enormous interest this U.S. election generated overseas, and the celebrations from Kenya to India to Senegal when Barack Obama was elected were truly amazing.

Clearly, not all of them were celebrating based on the significance of the event to just African Americans.

While the election may have confirmed the best impressions that people worldwide have about meritocracy and democracy in our country, it still does not explain all the jubilation.

Instead, I believe much of the world is simply elated that America will soon have a president who looks something like them; that it's possible for someone who looks like them to occupy the most powerful political position in the world.

Amid all that, I've been thinking about little girls in the developing world. What might it mean for them to see Sasha and Malia growing up in the White House?

I have a deeply personal reason for having this focus on the next first family.

Princess Aura Restricted

As a cocoa-complexioned girl who grew up in ethnically diverse southern Arizona, I never imagined anyone who looked like me would have sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. It was never said out loud, but always understood, that perhaps someday a woman would be in the White House, but not a president (with a family) of color. The princess-like aura of presidents' daughters was then also limited by race. No longer.

We won't see the Obama daughters in the media spotlight, nor should we, but we'll all know they're settling in, thriving and playing with their new hypo-allergenic puppy. The hope their father symbolizes for what is possible to so many people worldwide just might ripple from these two girls to children, especially girls, around the world.

In my travels from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to Zimbabwe, I find that four words too often sum up the existence of female children: "I'm just a girl."

And yet, girls everywhere are our best hope for a prosperous, safe and stable world. When their lives improve, the entire community benefits.

For many, being a girl means they must work in the fields while their brothers attend school. But a single extra year of primary school increases a girl's eventual wages by more than 10 percent, and a year of secondary school increases it by up to 25 percent. When those wages stay in her hands as a mother, her children are healthier and better educated. A study in Brazil found that a child's chance of surviving increases by 20 percent when his or her mother has her own income.

Producing Food, Eating Less

Being a girl in many countries means that she must eat last and least after the men have finished their meal. This is despite the fact that girls and women produce most of the food in the household: Rural women alone produce half of the world's food, and up to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.

Violence, particularly from family members, continues to be the No. 1 threat to girls' mental and physical health. Worldwide, 1 in 3 girls and women will be the victim of abuse -- physical, sexual or psychological -- because of their gender, at some point in their lifetimes, and not just at home but also at school or work.

Despite the odds stacked against girls, investments in them and all that they are capable of are producing a sea change in societies worldwide. This is especially seen in education, which is one of the best and most basic investments to make in girls.

 
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