DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Good evening, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this important annual discussion.
I want to start by thanking the Ford Foundation, Girls not Brides, Girls First Fund, and VOW for Girls for continuing to bring urgently needed attention to the complex issues and outright injustices that prevent women and girls from reaching their full potential.
Through discussions like the one we’ll have this evening; through the partnerships you invest in; with all of the guidance and leadership and support you provide for individuals and communities seeking to end the scourge of child marriage, we have some real progress to celebrate.
Thanks to this community, over the last 10 years, the proportion of girls married as children has dropped 15 percent. That translates into 25 million fewer child marriages in the past decade.
We’ve been able to make meaningful strides on this challenge, in part, because of a clear and undeniable truth: Investing in girls, in their health, their education, and in their freedom to chart their own futures, drives change across every other development pillar, from poverty reduction and economic growth to infant mortality reduction and mitigating the effects of climate change.
But our message bears repeating today as the COVID-19 pandemic, rising conflict, food insecurity, and climate change have exacerbated the prevalence of child, early, and forced marriages and unions.
Last year, UNICEF estimated an additional 10 million girls will be married before the age of 18 due to the impacts of the pandemic alone over the next decade, in addition to the 12 million child marriages that occur annually.
What we’ve seen from this community of leaders and activists, however, is a resolute commitment to supporting girls; to ensuring that the communities most in need have access to critical resources to respond amid compounding crises; and to investing in the solutions that give girls and their communities the necessary tools for challenging harmful gender and social norms.
There is a perverse contradiction at the heart of the challenge of ending child marriage. We know that too often, it is poverty and desperation that fuel a family’s decision to marry off a young daughter.
At this very moment, across the Horn of Africa, families are facing desperate choices to survive as the region experiences the most severe drought in forty years.
Children, and girls in particular, are at greater risk of dropping out of school due to the impact of the crisis, and growing numbers of parents see a dowry, or one less mouth to feed, as a lifeline.
But child marriage is not simply an outcome of poverty and instability, it is also a driver of it. Child marriage is a major barrier to the very participation we are striving to boost, women’s participation in economies and societies.
The destabilizing effects ripple through communities and countries when girls’ opportunities are limited, which is precisely why the countries with the highest rates of child marriage experience the highest rates of poverty and infant mortality.
Take, for example, the Dominican Republic’s 2021 ban on child marriage, which experts predict could decrease poverty rates in the country by 10 percent. On a global scale, trillions of dollars could be added to the global economy if girls had the opportunity to stay in school instead of being subjected to harmful traditions and practices that strip them of their agency.
Of course, child marriage is so much more than an economic issue. Preventing young women from making decisions about their own relationships and lives is a shameful and grievous abuse of human rights.
No tradition or norm can stand in the way of girls’ fundamental rights and dignity, and frankly, we cannot afford to leave their potential untapped, effectively denying the world of future women leaders, business owners, doctors, educators, diplomats, and heads of state.
Despite significant barriers, including troubling drivers of child marriage on the rise, there is room for hope, as this community continues to grow more nimble in its approach with a greater focus on locally-led interventions, deeper investment in youth as key stakeholders and advocates, and more expansive attention to research and data collection on child, early, and forced marriages and unions.
Still, we’re left with the question of how to end this harmful practice once and for all. And while no panacea exists, moments such as this – when the world’s attention is galvanized on the biggest global challenges – give us an opportunity to strengthen our case and make clear that if girls and women can enjoy equal status with boys and men, there is no limit to what we can achieve.
At USAID, we recognize that engaging communities and families in efforts to create locally-led initiatives to address child marriage is critical to delivering lasting results.
“Koota Injena” translates to “come let us talk” in Kenya’s tribal Borana language. It is also the name of an innovative approach USAID has developed in partnership with several pastoralist tribes in Kenya, where USAID partners promote the use of community dialogues to end child, early and forced marriages and the associated practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Purity Lesuuda, a student at Wamba Girls School in northeastern Kenya, was 13 years old when she first listened to a community leader explain why female genital mutilation, and early and forced child marriage are harmful to a girls’ health and wellbeing.
The Koota Injena champion told Purity and her classmates that these practices are forms of gender-based violence that not only limit their potential, but can also lead to profound psychological and physical effects.
When she turned 15, Purity’s parents broached the topic about cutting as a rite of passage. The same day, Purity recalled, a man arrived and said he would marry her.
When her family insisted, Purity ran away to be with her aunt, another Koota Injena champion, and together, they engaged Purity’s parents in a discussion about the risks of the practice.
The dialogue fostered through Koota Injena, and the alternative path of continuing her education convinced Purity’s family to abandon the practice. Now, Purity attends secondary school, is a Koota Injena champion herself, and steps closer to reaching her dream of becoming a doctor.
The initiative’s premise is rooted in the belief that if community members who are willing to stand up against such harmful practices are trained to help their peers, family, and friends re-envision how women and girls are treated, we can accelerate the abandonment of the deeply entrenched practices and redefine the value of the girl among the members of the 39 clans in Kenya’s Samburu and Marsabit Counties.
In three years, 456 elders committed to abandoning female genital mutilation, and nearly 700 more committed to ending child marriage practices in their communities.
One hundred and nineteen girls were protected from these practices. More than three thousand girls and boys in secondary school received reproductive health education and life skills training.
Nine out of ten Koota Injena participants reported significant knowledge improvements on the harmful impacts of these practices.
And ninety two percent of male youth who participated committed to safeguarding their communities from child, early and forced marriage.
Next week, I will be traveling to Niger, where another USAID initiative called GirlEngage is taking root. Through girl-led communication campaigns where girls drive the messaging and delivery of social behavior change content, GirlEngage provides space for adolescent girls to become change agents in their communities, establishing a foundation for long-term cultural shifts and the disintegration of harmful power structures.
The program addresses systemic barriers to education and aims to strengthen the application of laws that protect girls’ rights through the formation of child protection committees. And critically, GirlEngage gives families the opportunity to strengthen their own financial situations through the creation of village savings and loans associations.
These programs are just a few examples of USAID’s investment of over $15 million a year over the last few years, with the support of our Congress to tackle this issue.
Recognizing the detrimental effects of child marriage on broader development outcomes, we’re taking additional steps to enable our Missions around the world to address this issue from different sectors.
In India, we’re leveraging health investments to offer secure and safe employment opportunities to adolescent girls, thereby breaking a cycle of exploitation, abuse, and poverty.
In Yemen, we’re tackling this issue through an education lens, supporting remedial and non-formal education for vulnerable and conflict-affected children, re-enrolling girls in education programs who would be at risk of early marriage.
This year, USAID laid out a roadmap to end child marriage by 2030. We released a learning agenda, implementation plan, and custom indicators to guide effective, evidence-based programming by our USAID Missions and our partners.
We also produced first-of-their-kind interactive data maps on child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, which display the prevalence and, often, co-occurence of these practices across countries.
The maps feature country-wide data as well as “hot spots,” or areas of higher prevalence, at the subnational level. The maps also show how education, wealth, and other secondary indicators interact with the prevalence of both child marriage and FGM.
These data points provide critical insights to help USAID and our partners target interventions to prevent child marriage and provide survivor-centered responses where they are needed the most.
Our vision is of a world in which girls, boys, and children of diverse sexual orientation and gender identities are free from the risk of child marriage and are equitably valued and empowered, with safe and enabling environments that support them to realize their full potential.
To achieve that vision, the United States and USAID are leveraging our investments with governments, funders, and implementing partners across the globe to strategically support gender-transformative, context-specific, evidence-based programming and research.
There is a lot of tough work ahead, but even as we face setbacks that threaten decades of progress, we must stay focused on the positive trends and double down on the new dialogues, locally-led interventions, and holistic strategies that are opening up new avenues of opportunity for girls, their families, and their communities.
That’s how we will continue to make progress on this issue that holds girls, and entire societies back.
Thank you all again for your dedication to this work.
New York, New York September 19, 2022