Remarks at the 3rd Annual Girl Up Leadership Summit

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

Good afternoon! Thank you so much – to the United Nations Foundation and the Girl Up campaign, for inviting me here – and to Gloria for that spirited introduction. It’s such a pleasure to be here with all of you and to be a part of this movement toward a more equal world.

My name is Cathy Russell, and I serve as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. In this role, my top responsibility is to ensure that women’s issues are fully addressed in United States foreign policy.

My job is to ask – and then push people to answer – What about the women and girls? How does your work affect them? How are they being included? These are the questions I ask when I travel to Afghanistan, India, Jordan, and other countries around the world.

And these are the questions I ask when I walk down the halls of the State Department as my colleagues design new policies or programs to implement abroad. These are questions I’m sure you ask in your own classrooms, on your sports teams, and in meetings with other youth advocates – and questions that you are likely to ask on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

I know these are questions my own daughter asks, and I’m proud to be in a room full of driven and inspiring young girls who are working tirelessly to get the answers we want on behalf of all girls around the world. It is so important to raise our voices in support of women and girls because so many challenges remain unfinished.

More than 65 million girls worldwide are out-of-school, and most of them are adolescents – just like you. And a roughly equal number are married before their eighteenth birthday, primarily in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, too often in situations of violence and abuse.

Each year an estimated 3 million girls experience genital mutilation/cutting. And sadly, medical complications from pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls worldwide. Despite these significant challenges – and despite recent headlines regarding the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram – there is growing momentum and enthusiasm to help build a better, more promising, future for girls around the world.

There’s no better evidence of that enthusiasm than your presence here today and the work you will undertake tomorrow. Girls around the world often have the same goals as girls living in the United States – but have a much harder time achieving them.

We all know that one of the most effective ways to help girls achieve their goals is by ensuring that they have a safe and high-quality education. In the developing world, an extra year of secondary education boosts a girl’s eventual wages by 15 to 25 percent and reduces the mortality rate of her future children by 9 percent. When a girl attends seven or more years of school, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. What’s more, she is empowered to advocate not only for herself, but for the women and girls in her community, in her country, across her continent, and around the world.

Let me share a few stories of some of the young women I have been privileged to meet:

In Afghanistan, I met a group of teenage girls at a high school in Kabul, and they were so impressive. They reminded me of my own daughter – and when I asked what they hoped to be when they finished school, they answered, “lawyer,” “journalist,” and even, “president of Afghanistan.” Their answers were no different from the answers my own daughter and her friends might give. But I was reminded of the significant threats these girls face when I learned that just before coming to school, one of the girls had nearly been sold by her father. When I think of these girls, I think about their tremendous promise, but also the daunting challenges they face every day.

But I am so glad that we are starting to see some success. Just over a decade ago, attending school was simply not an option for a women or girl living in Afghanistan. Now, over 3 million girls are attending school in that country. Many are even graduating with professional degrees and taking on important roles in Afghan society.

This is the impact of investing in girls.

In Nepal, a group of 7 young women of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds came together with an idea to climb the 7 highest peaks in the world. So far they have climbed 4. These young women want to overcome the odds they face. Most of them were not valued at home or in their communities simply because they were girls. One ran away from home at 14 to escape a forced marriage. Another confessed that the only reason she was educated was because her parents thought she was not pretty enough to find a husband.

Today, these young women are breaking stereotypes, raising awareness about the importance of educating girls, and highlighting critical environmental issues. This is the impact of investing in girls.

In March, the State Department celebrated International Women’s Day by hosting the International Women of Courage awards, where we recognized ten extraordinary women making a difference in their communities, often at great personal risk.

I was especially honored to meet Laxmi from India, who was only 16 when a would-be suitor threw acid on her face while she was waiting at a New Delhi bus stop.

What makes Laxmi so remarkable is that despite the injury and the pain she suffers to this day, she took swift and decisive action, refusing to become a victim. Laxmi became the face of the “Stop Acid Attacks” campaign, made repeated appearances on national television, and gathered 27,000 signatures for a petition to curb acid sales.

She even took her case to the Indian Supreme Court, which ordered the Indian central and state governments to regulate the sale of acid and for the Parliament to make prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue. This is the impact of investing in girls.

I’ve given you just a few examples of how girls are making a difference around the world. And as you all know, most girls are working tirelessly every day, without praise or recognition, and often in the face of hostility to change. These girls want what you all have – freedom to pursue their own dreams.

I’m so proud that you are ready to work for opportunities for girls at home and abroad.

I hope that today’s workshops and speeches have helped provide you with the skills and inspiration that you need to make a difference in your own community and beyond.

Together, we can build a better future, one girl at a time. And now, I believe we have time for two or three questions.