Obama’s Trip to Africa Marks a Turning Point for Adolescent Girls

“Africa is the beautiful, talented daughters who are just as capable as Africa’s sons…Our girls have to be treated the same.” — President Obama in Ethiopia

“We can’t let old traditions stand in the way. The march of history shows that we have the capacity to broaden our moral imaginations. We come to see that some traditions are good for us, they keep us grounded, but that, in our modern world, other traditions set us back. When African girls are subjected to the mutilation of their bodies, or forced into marriage at the ages of 9 or 10 or 11 — that sets us back. That’s not a good tradition. It needs to end.” — President Obama in Ethiopia

“Treating women as second-class citizens is a bad tradition. It holds you back. There’s no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence. There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation. There’s no place in civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children. These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”President Obama in Kenya


This morning, I came across an article in Vox which argues that “hardly anyone noticed” how important President Obama’s speech in Kenya was to his Presidency. While I do not know how true that is for many Americans, it’s definitely not true for those closely following Obama’s work for women and girls. In fact that speech, and the rest of his trip, may be a turning point for how his Administration will work to improve the lives of adolescent girls.

In two important speeches, President Obama spent a great deal of time highlighting the need for gender equality in all countries and cultures. In Kenya, he called for an end to the “bad traditions,” such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, that are holding countries back. He echoed that plea in Ethiopia and talked about these and other harmful traditions while meeting with civil society organizations. The clarity with which the President made his calls for abandoning harmful traditions was powerful, particularly as he was speaking directly to the people of Kenya and then the whole of the African continent at the headquarters of the African Union. In these speeches, he tied the health, safety, education, and equality of women and girls to the health, safety, education, and prosperity of communities, nations, and continents, driving home that when women and girls thrive, the world thrives.

But even more important than the President’s statements was the fact sheet released by the White House in conjunction with his trip, because that fact sheet shows that the President is ready to actually do more for adolescent girls and not just talk about it. In it, he announced that Let Girls Learn, the President’s initiative to ensure girls start and continue their education, will be accompanied by a “Challenge Fund” and that the US Government will be creating new “multifaceted efforts” to empower adolescent girls in Tanzania and Malawi. Multifaceted programs, which address all aspects of a girl’s life, are exactly what IWHC is advocating for, along with the funding to implement them.

Now, these might seem like small announcements, and they raise questions as well as provide insight:  Why only two countries? How much money will the Challenge Fund provide? Yet, despite these and other lingering questions, we are confident that this is the beginning of a new and more active chapter for the Obama Administration when it comes to supporting adolescent girls around the world. Over the next several months, we’ll be pushing the Administration to follow through on its commitments, so that our confidence is well founded. Here’s how you can join us:

Tweet at President Obama to keep turning rhetoric into action that will last for generations to come:

[email protected] #Lead4Girls! Write & implement a whole-of-govt, whole-of-girl strategy 2 #endchildmarriage http://bit.ly/1MY4JsP #LetGirlsLearn

[email protected] Have you seen this petition to #EndChildMarriage? http://tinyurl.com/nmv43pl What will you do to #Lead4Girls? #WeThePeople

[email protected] Great Africa speeches! Let’s turn rhetoric 2 reality! Write whole-of-girl strategy that will #LetGirlsLearn http://bit.ly/1MY4JsP

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

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