Remarks as Prepared
Thank you, Dean Starr, for your kind introduction. It is a great pleasure for me to be here at American University, an institution with a proud history of promoting gender equality and female empowerment through your student body, research facilities and teaching faculty.
We are also grateful for the loan of Caren Grown who—along with our dream team of Carla Koppell, Sarah Mendelson, Kay Freeman and their colleagues—is setting a gold standard for incorporating these gender considerations. Together, they are literally transforming how we do business, in ways I’ll discuss in just a moment. I’m looking forward to our panel discussion with Professors Skalli-Hanna and Haugen, as well as a very impressive AU freshman and blogger for Girl Up, Lucy Lohrmann.
Last December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to declare October 11 as the International Day of the Girl, to recognize the rights of girls, the unique challenges they face around the world, and our collective commitment to protect and empower them.
I must say that I’m not usually a fan of international days. Several years ago, the U.N. formally recognized March 20 as the International Day of Happiness. May 23 is World Turtle Day, followed shortly by Geek Pride Day on May 25. I like to think of Aug. 7 as my day—the International Day of the Hipster. Sept. 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. My favorite would have to be Dec. 13, which is International Day of the International Day.
But let me guarantee you that today is different because today we celebrate the role that 850 million girls globally are now playing and, more importantly, can and will play in making our world a safer, more prosperous and more equitable place.
At USAID, we have an expression: If you want to change the world, invest in a girl. If a girl stays in school, remains healthy, gains real skills, and is safe from sexual and other physical abuse, she will marry later, have fewer but healthier children, earn a higher income that she will invest back into her family, and she will break the cycle of poverty in her family and her community.
She’ll use her education to increase agricultural production, improve health conditions for her family, adapt better to natural disasters and droughts, and serve as a leader to resolve local and national and even international conflicts.
This isn’t theory: It is fact. Let me cite just one statistic: In Africa, most young girls are likely to become farmers—if we could guarantee that these girls and women had access to the same level of education, credit, entrepreneurship and other inputs that men have, it would increase agricultural production by 30 percent and feed 150 million people worldwide each year.
These issues have dominated my professional life. It started early. For my high school graduation, my mother and father gave me a lifetime membership in the National Organization for Women—which was great, except I really wanted a car.
Throughout my foreign service career—in the Central African Republic, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Angola and Haiti—the single strongest lesson I’ve learned is that the systematic exclusion of women and girls from economic, political and social life is the greatest barrier to advancement. And this is the lesson we’re incorporating into all our work at USAID. Each year, we are investing in programs and projects targeted at gender equality and female empowerment.
These programs include efforts to ensure that girls have quality educations and schools that are safe from sexual violence; that girls and women have access to the information and tools needed to plan their families; that national laws, justice systems and security forces protect and defend the rights of girls and women; that girls and women are empowered to play their full role in the political and economic lives of their countries; and that there are active and vibrant institutions of civil society for women and girls.
Equally important, we are mainstreaming and integrating these considerations into all our work. We now have a requirement that each of our projects include the equivalent of a gender impact statement. We are ensuring that programs in food security, global health, climate change, democracy and governance, economic growth, and humanitarian relief incorporate women and girls as planners, implementers and beneficiaries.
I wanted to use my remaining time to address two issues of particular concern to young girls: the issue of child marriage and counter-trafficking in persons. Millions of girls are married before they turn 18, many against their will and in violation of international laws and conventions on women's rights.
These young brides have limited education and economic opportunities, and they are vulnerable to health complications from giving birth before their bodies are fully developed. They often are socially isolated and powerless in the marital relationship.
Ending child marriage can help nations and communities meet goals related to girls’ empowerment, poverty, education, gender equality, maternal and child health, and HIV/AIDS. It is with great pride that I release this afternoon: Ending Child Marriage and Meeting the Needs of Married Youth: The USAID Vision for Action.
USAID is addressing this issue through key sectoral interventions, recognizing that holistic approaches that engage girls and boys, women and men, families and communities, religious and traditional leaders, and other key power brokers are most effective. In that vein, we are amplifying voices for change within societies—noting that ensuring the safety and well-being of girls is not a western concept being foisted on these societies, but a concept deeply embedded in all societies, religions and cultures.
We are supporting groups seeking to shift norms and laws that perpetuate child marriage, leveraging the knowledge and capacities of local organizations, host governments and communities who invest their time and resources in ending child marriage. And we are addressing the needs of married children, giving them a second chance for education, health and other needs.
In this effort, we are not starting from scratch. I am proud of our current programs—from Bangladesh to Congo; from Nepal to Ethiopia; from Yemen to Benin.
In Ethiopia, for example, our Healthy Unions Project is combatting harmful traditional practices, including bride abduction, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
In Nepal and Bangladesh, our Reproductive Health Project is ensuring that married teenagers know about family planning and maternal health and have access to quality services.
In Benin, we supported activists who changed family law, defending the rights of women and girls in such areas as early marriage, divorce, dowry and inheritance.
In rural Yemen, our Safe Age of Marriage Project used community mobilization to raise the age of marriage in several districts and change social norms.
One other connection that is important to make is between child marriage and human trafficking. Trafficking and forced marriage intersect when marriage is used in conjunction with force, fraud, coercion, or abuse of power and as a means to subject wives to conditions of slavery, often in the form of domestic or sexual servitude.
Children are trafficked for the purpose of forced marriage as the demand for child brides interacts with poverty, traditions of child marriage, and other circumstances to fuel a lucrative trade in girls in some regions. Early marriage increases the vulnerability of children to being trafficked or re-trafficked. In some cases, girls and boys in child marriages are forced into prostitution or exploitative labor situations by their spouse or spouse’s family, while other children are easy prey for traffickers when they flee their marital home as a result of abuse.
Human traffickers earn an estimated $32 billion annually in profits, just under the amount earned through arms and narcotics trafficking. People are enslaved in circumstances of sex and/or labor exploitation in most countries around the world, including the United States—with estimates of over 20 million.
Today, we are announcing the Counter Trafficking in Persons or CTIP Campus Challenge. This is open to all campuses, including to the AU community. This challenge seeks creative ideas and solutions from students to prevent human trafficking and provide assistance to victims and survivors, and directly responds to the president’s call to recommit and employ new and innovative ways to end trafficking in persons, which disproportionately affects the girl child.
It will include a Tech Contest for students that seek to increase global awareness about human trafficking and inspire activism among students and scholars at colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad.
It will maximize effort by collaborating with groups like Not for Sale, Slavery Footprint, Free the Slaves, and MTV Exit, and inspire the millions of people already working in this space and invite new activists to the cause, ultimately strengthening the movement to return freedom to the millions of people, including the millions of girls, robbed of their dignity.
In conclusion, I often hear in the corridors of power that these concerns—child marriage, human trafficking and gender equality—are “soft issues.” Let me assure you that there’s nothing “soft” about going after traffickers who turn young girls into commodities. There’s nothing soft about preventing armed thugs from abusing girls in refugee camps, or holding warlords accountable for actions against girls, or insisting that women have a seat at the table for peace negotiations and a prominence in post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation.
These are among the hardest responsibilities on our foreign policy agenda, and I’m pleased to reaffirm this afternoon the commitment of USAID and the entire U.S. Government to achieve them.
- Keynote Address by U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian at the Regional Conference on Information Communication Technology to Combat Human Trafficking
- Remarks by Eric G. Postel, USAID Assistant to the Administrator for Africa at Congressmember Karen Bass April 2015 Africa Policy Breakfast
- Remarks by Thomas Kress, Program Office Director
Last updated: June 24, 2015