As the world comes together to mark the first-ever International Day of the Girl on October 11, we are filled with hope, but also a sense of urgency. Just this week, a masked Pakistani Taliban militant attempted to assassinate Malala Yousufzai — a 14 year-old Pakistani schoolgirl — on her school bus simply for going to school and speaking up for her right and the right of girls everywhere to get an education. This barbaric act reminds us all too painfully that in far too many places, some still don’t value girls and want to ignore their fundamental rights as human beings. What is so inspiring about Malala’s story is the outpouring of support she has received from every level of her government and ours, and from Pakistanis of all walks of life. So many people from around the world have stood up to say that she is like their own daughter.
That flood of support for Malala gives us great hope, but there is still so much work to do. While girls have made great progress in the last decade, research has shown that in many parts of the world, girls are still less likely than boys to be enrolled in school, especially secondary school. They have less access to medical care, are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, and are more prone to becoming victims of violence and discrimination. This is why we must redouble our efforts to ensure that governments, communities, and families work together to address deeply entrenched values that discriminate against women and girls, and improve the lives of girls worldwide so that all children can reach their God-given potential.
This week, the UN and NGO partners are using this first International Day of the Girl to galvanize commitments to end child marriage — a harmful traditional practice that robs young women of their childhood, traps them into poverty, and exposes them to health risks, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. On October 10, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of The Elders and one of the founders of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, Executive Director of UNFPA Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, many private sector and non-profit partners and I joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Department of State as she announced several new public and private commitments to end child marriage and promoting girls’ education.
Child marriage is a threat to the fundamental human rights of girls, and to the health of communities. Ten million girls every year become child brides. One in seven girls in the developing world marries before she turns 15. These young girls are forced into motherhood before their bodies are ready, and too many die giving birth as a result.
We know that education is one of the single best ways to shield girls from early marriage. Studies show that girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education. Adolescent girls who stay in school are more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, are less vulnerable to HIV/AIDs, and will enjoy a greater quality of life. They are more likely to earn better incomes, have fewer and healthier children, and participate in civic and political processes. Studies have found that child marriage often coexists with other poor reproductive health practices and abuses, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), cross-generational sex (spousal age gaps), gender-based violence, a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and obstetric fistula and uterine prolapse, both highly stigmatized conditions brought on as a result of prolonged labor. Keeping girls in school, especially enabling them to complete secondary school, is essential to global efforts to end child marriage.
The United States is proud to be working in partnership with governments, the private sector, and civil society. Through the new Empowering Adolescent Girls to Lead through Education initiative (EAGLE), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) are working together to ensure thousands of adolescent girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) make successful transitions to secondary school. A $15 million initiative, EAGLE will tackle many of the barriers that keep girls from continuing post-primary education, such as cost and school safety, and will emphasize leadership training for girls. Since well-trained teachers are essential to girls’ success in school, the Department of State will provide teachers who come to the United States for educational exchange programs courses to strengthen their ability to recognize and address the unique challenges girls are confronted with in the classroom. We will also invite educators from around the world to come to the United States to research and find ways to improve girls’ education in their home countries. And beginning this fall, every one of the thousands of Peace Corps volunteers sent to work in underprivileged schools around the world will have training in gender and education. Finally, USAID is working with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs in Bangladesh to test approaches based on health care, education, and legal research, and will enlist religious authorities, media, local governments and NGOs to promote community awareness and sensitization to the issue of child marriage.
The UN and private foundations are also stepping forward in meaningful and powerful ways — The UN Population Fund and the Ford, MasterCard, and MacArthur Foundations have pledged a total of $94 million to the cause of girls’ education and to addressing and preventing child marriage.
Investing in girls is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to can do. Progress for girls and women and progress for families, communities and nations go hand in hand.