Remarks at Brookings Institute Girls' Education Summit

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
June 17, 2014

Thank you so much, Rebecca, for having me here today. It is such a privilege to be among so many experts, and it’s very exciting to think about the wealth of information that will be shared and discussed today. I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to the Honorable Julia Gillard. Your leadership role in this critical space is incredibly important.

As Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, I have the privilege of working to ensure that women and girls are integrated into all aspects of U.S. foreign policy. So it gives me great pleasure to see colleagues here from so many different sectors.

The U.S. has prioritized gender equality as a core component of our foreign policy – first, because we believe it is the right thing to do. But we also strongly believe – and the data bears us out – that it is the strategic thing to do, especially when you look at economic, health, development and democratic outcomes. And nowhere is this more true than when we look at investments in girls’ education.

As a global community, we have focused a great deal of effort on primary education. Since 2000 and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, we have seen extraordinary progress on education, including on efforts to achieve gender parity in primary school education. From 1999 to 2011, the number of out-of-school girls at the primary school level dropped from 62 million to 31 million. Young women’s literacy levels are also improving: globally, there were 90 literate young women for every 100 young men in 1990. That number rose to 95 women for every 100 young men in 2010.

The United States is proud to have played a role in accelerating this progress. On average, USAID funds $1 billion worth of education programs across roughly 60 countries every year.

And on average, over 9 million girls enrolled in school are supported by USG programs each year.

And yet, as the headlines from Nigeria have reminded us all, despite this progress, very real challenges remain and these statistics do not tell the whole story. By adolescence, the education gap between boys and girls widens, particularly in sub-Saharan African and South Asia.

65 million girls globally are not in school, and approximately 17 million will never go to school. The majority of these girls live in conflict-affected countries, making the challenge of education even more difficult.

According to UNICEF’s State of the Child report, fewer than one in three girls in sub-Saharan Africa attends secondary school. And even fewer complete it: in the majority of sub-Saharan African countries, less than one in 10 girls graduates from high school. This statistic alone should spur us all to action.

Yet to date, development assistance has rarely focused on adolescent girls, and few programs have been designed with the unique learning and developmental needs of adolescent girls in mind.

And those who do manage to transition to secondary school face a host of challenges that the global community is only beginning to address. Enrolling girls in primary and even secondary school cannot be the end of our efforts.

The Coalition for Adolescent Girls estimates that less than two cents of every development dollar is spent on programs specifically for adolescent girls despite the fact that one person in 12 around the world is a girl or young woman between the ages of 10 and 24.

It is time for the international community to come together behind a comprehensive effort that addresses the full range of challenges that prevent girls from transitioning to, completing, and excelling in secondary school.

As we enter the final 500 days of the Millennium Development Goals, there is a growing sense of urgency to push other so-called “second generation” issues in formal education to the forefront of policy discussions. Let me highlight four of these.

First, we must ensure that enrollment translates into attendance. Girls may be enrolled in a program but may not actually attend school. The reasons that keep them at home range from being unable to afford the uniforms or textbooks their classes require – or the shoes or bikes they need to get to school. Or by hours of domestic duties around the house. We must find ways to dismantle these barriers to attendance.

Second, we must ensure that attendance translates into learning. In all too many countries, the quality of primary schools has decreased even as attendance has risen. In some regions, a majority of girls who graduate from fifth grade cannot read a simple sentence. In others, secondary school curricula held over from the colonial era do not offer relevant and interesting coursework. We must make sure teachers are present, trained, equipped with meaningful materials – and, where possible, we should ensure that teachers are female or in the company of other female staff.

Third, we must ensure that learning translates into labor force participation. Increasing women’s labor force participation is a subject for another day, but it is a top priority for the United States and other economies around the world. More girls and more families will see the value in secondary education if it translates into post-graduation employment. In other words, in societies where girls are often not valued, parents will have to see that investing in a daughter’s education is worth it to the family.

Programs should promote financial literacy, technological skills, and where possible, fluency with computers as well as other remunerative and marketable skills. Laws that erect barriers to women's full participation in the workforce should be revised.

Finally, and critically, we must ensure that schools are safe. As other segments of today’s program will specifically address, many girls experience gender-based violence either in or on their way to school. None of us wants girls subjected to abuse and we must acknowledge that this is an issue for parents as well.

It is important to recognize that addressing these issues will have positive effects that extend beyond just girls. We are focused on girls because they are often at a disadvantage compared to boys. But the benefits of addressing these second generation issues in girl’s education will accrue to boys as well.

While we are gathered here to talk primarily about education, those of us who work with and on behalf of adolescent girls know that the problem goes far beyond lack of education. Addressing and meeting the needs of adolescent girls worldwide will require a comprehensive approach – one recognizes that a girl’s education must go hand-in hand with addressing health needs, family circumstance, gender norms and other unique challenges that undercut and undermine girls’ aspirations.

One of the most troubling challenges is the continuing scourge of child marriage, which is strongly linked to lack of adolescent education. In some cases girls leave school to marry. In others, early marriage follows shortly after the time a girl drops out of school. We know that one in 3 girls is married by age 18; 1 in 9 by age 15, primarily in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, often to a much older man, and sometimes in situations of horrific violence and abuse.

Early and forced marriages have severe and long-term health consequences for adolescent girls. 15 to19 year olds are about 40 percent more likely to die due to medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth than young women aged 20-24.

Even when parents are committed to creating a better future for their daughters, they often find that opportunities for women are limited, and decide that marriage is their daughter’s best option for financial stability.

These missing, undervalued and underserved girls are a challenge – for each and every one of us. The good news is, while girls worldwide face many obstacles – we know that investing in them and empowering them is the answer.

We know that every year of schooling increases a girl’s individual earning power by 10 to 20 percent. The return on additional years of secondary education is even higher, with estimates from 15 to 25 percent.

And while an early marriage often means the end of education for many girls, effective education programs can convince girls – and their parents – to delay childbearing and marriage. Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to be married as children.

Girls’ attendance in formal school during adolescence is also correlated with later childbearing, lower rates of HIV and other negative health outcomes, fewer hours of domestic and labor market work, and greater gender equality.

This can be truly transformative, not only for the individual girl, but for her family and her entire community. The benefits I’ve just described accrue to the next generation, helping to break the cycle of poverty. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age five. A youth raised by a mother who’s been educated is more likely to remain healthy, safe and in school.

Now, the data on both immediate and long-term consequences are compelling – but many of us in the room today read and a lot of data. I want to just stop here briefly and explain why this matters, on a more personal level. This past fall, I traveled to Afghanistan, where I met with a group of young school girls. They confidently told me of their plans for their futures: to become a doctor, a journalist, even the president of Afghanistan.

I saw incredible determination and hope in a country where, a little over a decade ago, girls were not even allowed to attend school. However, I was jarred by reality when I was told that one of the girls’ fathers had recently tried to sell her. This is an all-too-common occurrence around the world.

So as we gather here today to review the evidence and make recommendations, let us look to what we can do as a global community. How can we make sure that that young Afghan girl – and the millions like her, all over the world, all desperate for an education – are given the opportunity to succeed?

Part of the answer lies in doubling down on our investment in girls’ education programming. For example, in my office, we recently submitted a call for proposals for programs to address peace, conflict and stability – and we recognized explicitly that girls’ education is a key tool in this regard. My colleagues from USAID are also supporting girls’ education in key ways – through the EAGLE program in the DRC, for example, as well as through programs in the South Sudan and elsewhere. We have seen promising research on the potential benefits of other programmatic interventions.

Part of the answer lies in our holistic multi-sector efforts – and by this I mean ensuring that all of the challenges that adolescent girls face are addressed – from gender-based violence to HIV and AIDS to and early and forced marriage.

Part of the answer lies in our multilateral efforts. As we look ahead to the Post-2015 Development Goals, the U.S. believes that girls’ education – including secondary education and beyond – will be key to breaking down ongoing development and democracy challenges.

Part of the answer lies in each of you – in your efforts to collect data, to raise awareness, and to work directly with girls all over the world.

And of course, the answer lies in the girls themselves – in their determination, in their grit, and in their dreams.

Investing in the future – by investing in the futures of girls – will help us achieve the future we all want.

Thank you so much for having me here today. I very much look forward to our continued discussion.