On 18 May, US Senator Shaheen (D-NH) introduced foreign policy legislation to restore federal funds to keep girls in school.
The Trump Administration’s reported move to dismantle key international programs to help adolescent girls is beyond disheartening, and also economically foolish. In its recent report, “Realization of the Equal Enjoyment of the Right to Education by Every Girl, the UN Human Rights Council underscored the importance of education for girls and estimated that 15 million girls – mainly those living in poverty – will never set foot in a classroom.
Education has a direct connection to prosperity and educating girls has long been the centerpiece of US foreign policy and international commitments -- because it works. Only last year the US signed on to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 4 calling for inclusive, quality education and Goal 5 calling for gender equality. Helping move towards these goals was the Obama Administration’s Let Girls Learn Initiative, launched in March 2015 to “address the range of challenges preventing adolescent girls from attaining a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential.” Despite reports that Let Girls Learn will remain, in reality, the promising program is under attack because of proposed budget cuts and the narrowing of its focus.
Let Girls Learn brought together key actors like the Peace Corps, USAID and the diplomatic corps in select countries to advance girls’ education. This is the type of holistic approach envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals and supported by the Human Rights Council to ensure girls attend school and complete their education. Thankfully, Senator Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire) has introduced vital legislation - The Keeping Girls in School Around the World Act - which will ensure that the US government’s foreign assistance addresses the barriers girls face by restoring needed funds and directing coordination with relevant US Government agencies.
At Equality Now we have seen first-hand that through education, we can reduce young girls’ vulnerability and move them towards lives free of violence and discrimination. For many adolescent girls their critical adolescent years are shaped by harmful experiences-- such as sexual violence, “child marriage”, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sex trafficking-- that often have lifelong physical and psychological consequences. Education is often the one critical support system that enables girls to become economically empowered, speak out against abuses and to seek help. Programs like Let Girls Learn are the “comprehensive strategies [that will] eliminate negative attitudes, practices and stereotypes” as promoted by the Human Rights Council (Equality Now was referenced on this subject in their report pg. 3, point 12). The Council recognizes that educational programming focused on practical rights, abuse prevention, financial literacy, and career planning can pay long-term dividends.
At its core, the Let Girls Learn initiative supported girls with a safe space to build social networks and explore the issues they face as well as share their aspirations for the future. It has also been the conduit to highlight barriers to education, such as threats of gender based violence that girls face in their homes, schools and the communities. We know through our work that access to education is often denied because of sexual violence and exploitation. Whether directly by teachers that use their power to extort sexual favors from students or the social stigma – and sometimes expulsion from school – that results from sexual assault and forced pregnancy. Through our Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund, we have come across exactly these types of situations -- girls who are being re-victimized and denied their right to an education.
Girls like Samantha in Sierra Leone:
Samantha” was impregnated by her teacher when she was only 16. He would often ask her to carry water to his house in exchange for basic school supplies and good grades. Ultimately, the teacher molested and raped Samantha, who kept quiet because she was afraid of what he would do to her in retaliation. Despite her family’s interventions, the teacher was allowed to continue working in the classroom—a classroom that Samantha was expelled from because of her pregnancy.
And Mainumby in Paraguay:
“Mainumby,” a Paraguayan girl who became pregnant at the age of ten as a result of repeated sexual abuse. While Mainumby survived the pregnancy, motherhood has now been forced upon her, which has had a harsh impact on her life – she struggles to physically and financially care for herself and her daughter and she is fighting to make up lost time in school where she is stigmatized, by teachers and schoolmates, for being a young mother.
The Let Girls Learn initiative put the US at the forefront of the movement to support girls’ education and empowerment. It was a true commitment - making the equality envisioned by the SDGs a reality. It is disappointing that the Administration does not agree and as a result millions of girls are at risk. Equality Now believes that Senator Shaheen’s legislation will correct this course and enable millions of girls to reach their full potential.