I admit it: I am addicted to the British drama Downton Abbey. My hero, my Grandma, was born in that era!

Like most of America, I tuned in to watch the Season 2 premiere in January, right before I left for Davos.  This year, however, I watched the series with a new perspective – as a new mother of a baby girl called Lilly. Throughout the premiere, I continuously thought of my daughter, imagining if she had been born at the turn of the century, into a world in which women and girls (both rich and poor) could not speak for themselves, protect their health, and pursue their dreams. I then thought of the millions of girls and women around the world who today – 100 years later –  continue to face that life, a life without opportunity.  For them, the confines of our fictional TV “period drama” are their everyday realities.

On International Women’s Day, it’s time to finally make the past exactly that – the past.  All of us – every colleague, every company, every government – must turn our attention and our energy to investing in girls, giving every “Lilly” the opportunity to grow into the woman and leader she deserves to become.

The 2012 Forum exemplified the growing role of women as the “movers and shakers” of the 21st century.   More than 41% of the 2012 class of Young Global Leaders are women. I had the pleasure of speaking with many of them to learn about their life stories and what helped turn them into the business, science, and technology leaders they are today.  The common thread was the same:  opportunity, good health, and education.

In 2012, approximately 150 million girls across the developing world are not in school (that’s more than the populations of the UK and France combined).   Many are held home by life-threatening health concerns like HIV and unintended pregnancy.  Every year, more than 14 million girls between 15 and 19 years of age give birth to a child, and in Africa alone, 75 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds livings with HIV are girls.  These statistics are inexcusable – and they are entirely preventable.

Fortunately, private companies, governments, NGO, civil society organizations, and YGLs are now working together to do something about it.  One example is the 12+ program in Rwanda, supported by the Nike Foundation, Girl Hub Rwanda, L’Association des Guides du Rwanda, Population Services International PSI, and the Rwanda Ministry of Health.  Every week, approximately 600 10-12 year old girls from four districts meet in youth centers and schools to discuss and learn about important topics such as puberty, HIV, delaying sexual debut, contraception and financial literacy.  It’s a simple, life-saving, and life affirming program that is giving young girls in Rwanda the chance to be healthy, to be independent, and to dream.
It’s the same wish I have for my sweet daughter Lilly.

I encourage everyone, male or female, to ask yourself what you or your company can do to empower young girls. Think of your daughters. The clock is ticking.

Author: Kate Roberts is the founder of YouthAIDS and Five & Alive. She was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2007.

Pictured: Libyan school children take their final examinations at al Djil Attahadi primary school in Tripoli May 29, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi