Keeping our Promises to Adolescent Girls Worldwide: What the Next Administration Needs to Do

“By age 10, a girl should know her rights….by the time the girl is 14, it’s too late.”

Dr. Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi, spoke passionately about the risks and challenges girls face. Banda was a guest speaker at Girl Summit DC, which focused on recent advances in the field and what the next US administration needs to do to build on progress. Hosted by the International Women’s Health Coalition and the Center for Global Development—in partnership with Girls Not Brides USA, Population Council, CARE, and International Center for Research on Women—the engaging half-day event was held on October 20 and drew more than 150 advocates, program experts, and government officials. Other featured speakers included Mary Beth Goodman, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Development, Democracy, and Humanitarian Assistance for the National Security Council at the White House.

Banda highlighted harmful traditions that affect girls from a very young age and made a passionate plea to the audience, “The girls in Africa can’t wait.” Perhaps her most moving statement was about her own success: “I am a living example of what can happen if you invest in women.”

Françoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition, set the stage by talking about the groundbreaking US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. Released by the Obama Administration in March, the strategy is the first to look at girls’ lives holistically, addressing their health, education, safety, legal protection, sanitation needs, and more. “Many of us in the advocacy community working with girls at the ground level have known for a long time that we need to address the full range of girls’ needs and adopt comprehensive approaches,” she said. “But it’s really something for a government like the US to recognize this and take this up as their challenge, and hopefully influence other governments to do the same.”

In a panel on research, speakers discussed how important it is to put girls at the center of programs designed to empower them. Several speakers mentioned the need for more rigorous research into what is and isn’t working for girls, especially in light of damaging social structures and norms. Doris Bartel, Director for Gender & Empowerment at CARE, spoke about gender discrimination and power imbalances, “Social norms are like gravity or magnetism; you can’t always see them, but you can feel their impact.”

Sarah Craven, Director of the United Nations Population Fund’s Washington, DC office, presented the new State of World Population report, which centers on girls at the crucial age of 10. Echoing Banda’s remarks, Craven noted that when girls are on the cusp of adolescence, “They can soar or go down a precipitous cliff.” It’s important to reach girls before puberty hits, when they “may cease being seen as girls but as commodities that can be bought and traded.”

Looking at what progress the United States has made, panelists spoke about DREAMS, a $385 million partnership to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries, launched in 2014, and the Obamas’ Let Girls Learn initiative, launched last year. Helena Minchew, Program Officer of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said, “The Obama Administration has probably done more for girls than any administration we’ve seen before.” But she pointed out that President Obama has not issued an executive order to give the US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls the full force of the law (as he had done with the US Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally). She called for him to do this during his last few months in office.

Goodman spoke about the Administration’s commitment to women and girls, “Gender equality—which as you know is one of our Sustainable Development Goals—is not only a matter of fundamental rights, it is a matter fundamental to economic growth and stability.” She mentioned that that the US agencies involved with Let Girls Learn have been successful because they have come together and leveraged each other’s expertise. Looking ahead, she talked about Michelle Obama’s determination to keep the work going and noted, “We in the US government have plans to continue as well.”

In talking about transition from this administration to the next, Andrea Bertone, Director of Gender at FHI360, said, “We have to make sure we don’t get sucked into a leadership vacuum.” She called on the US government to make sure their transition plans are in place and to make these plans transparent. She also reminded everyone, “It’s not just the executive branch, we need to engage with Congress to move the agenda along.”

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