We Can’t Let Progress on Girls’ Health and Education Falter

Just one year ago, the US Government launched the US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, the first strategy of its kind. As of today, the United States is still the only country to launch a “whole-of-government” approach—across agencies and sectors—to improve the lives of girls worldwide. It is the first major attempt by the US Government to tackle the myriad challenges girls face by putting them at the center of development and diplomacy efforts. The Strategy was the culmination of years of work by civil society and those within the government, taking a comprehensive approach and showing that investments in gender equality can be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

IWHC played a significant role in informing the Strategy and has been working with the US Government on ways to implement it since that very first day, by pushing for support on Capitol Hill and mobilizing other civil society organizations. Over the last year, the US Government has been actively connecting different agencies with each other and with civil society, engaging them to think creatively and innovatively about programs for girls.

Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers, staff, and national counterparts have been trained to work with communities to advance girls’ rights. Toolkits for State Department staff have been created or updated to examine why and how people at different levels of the government can work with and for girls. Through the Let Girls Learn Challenge Fund, civil society and the US Government worked hard to co-create some of the first truly holistic programs for adolescent girls in the world. PEPFAR’s DREAMS program reached 1 million adolescent girls and young women in its first year alone by investing beyond the health sector, looking at other factors that make girls vulnerable to HIV, such as gender inequality, poverty, and sexual violence. All of this work, and more, has been in the service of one collective, coordinated goal—ensuring girls are healthy, educated, safe, and able to choose if, when, and whom they marry. This will enable girls and their families, communities, and countries to have healthier, safer, and more prosperous futures.

However, as the Trump Administration’s priorities become clearer, these better futures are starting to seem less and less likely. Trump’s suggested budget cuts to the State Department and USAID of 31 percent and proposed halving of the US contribution to the UN are particularly alarming. Funding cuts of this magnitude will be devastating to people around the world as they face poverty, insecurity, and natural and man-made disasters. For adolescent girls—who have just recently been prioritized in US foreign policy and international agreements like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—the drastic decline in resources will be especially disastrous. Just as US-funded programs for girls and gender equality are truly getting underway and before they can even start showing results, the rug will be pulled out from under them. Over the last few years, the US government has proven that it stands with girls around the world; pulling away from these commitments is a betrayal to them.

At Girl Summit DC in October 2016, I asked the audience to imagine a world in which the goals of the US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls were realized. In this world, the US Government stands with every girl, demanding that her human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled. Girls are given the tools to grow up healthy, safe, and empowered so that they can be leaders who change the world in turn. It is a powerful vision, and it’s not unachievable. It is possible if the Strategy is funded and the work already underway continues, with new investments and programs carried out in collaboration with other countries and with civil society. For this to happen, the Trump Administration must commit to making the investment and has to stop attacking and undermining development and multilateralism. The work the US Government has done for girls over the last year must be just the beginning.

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