Remarks at the 2015 Open Square Summit

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Carnegie Library
Washington, DC
April 28, 2015

As prepared

Thank you so much for that very kind introduction, Sanan, and thank you to Esta and her team at Futures Without Violence, as well as the Open Square Foundation, for gathering us all here today. This is an impressive crowd of people committed to advancing women and girls, and I’m honored to be here.

One of the very best things about my job is that I get to meet some truly courageous, innovative, and extraordinary people.

One of those people is a young woman from Malawi named Memory Banda. I just saw Memory in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women in March. And I’m always excited to hear the latest about how she’s working to empower girls—both in her community in southern Malawi and her country as a whole.

Memory is a powerful example of how education can change lives. As an advocate for girls, she offers free writing lessons to adolescent moms in her neighborhood. She visits the families of girls who are in danger of being married, and she encourages them to change their minds. And she’s part of a grassroots campaign to build networks for girls and end child marriage once and for all.

But that’s not the whole story. Memory became an activist because, for her, gender-based violence is personal. Her younger sister Mercy was just 11 years old when she got pregnant during a so-called “sexual initiation” ceremony. During these ceremonies, girls are forced to have sex with an adult man to prepare for marriage. These ceremonies are horrific, and their consequences are lasting. Like many other girls, Memory’s sister ended up pregnant and had to drop out of school.

Memory and Mercy’s stories illustrate how education and gender-based violence can determine whether a girl becomes a powerful advocate or an adolescent mother.

That’s why as Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, one of my top priorities is gender-based violence—both how we can address it and, even better, how we can prevent it. Violence influences so much else in a woman’s life—her ability not only to survive but thrive. So this issue is directly linked to our other foreign policy priorities.

For example, the United States is focused on increasing women’s full participation across the board. From the corner store to the corner office, from the peace table to Parliament, women deserve the opportunity to fully participate in society.

And when they do, we all benefit. Our economies are better when women are in the work force. Our societies are stronger when women are in politics and on police forces. And our progress is greater when girls have the same opportunities as boys, whether that’s in school or at home.

So I’m glad this summit is focused on gender-based violence and also on education. It recognizes that women and girls have tremendous capacity to be powerful engines of economic growth and leaders for change.

Everywhere I go I meet girls with this capacity. Girls from Mexico City or Marrakech who, just like Memory Banda, deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential.

For these girls, adolescence is a critical moment. Their decisions—or their inability to make decisions for themselves—can determine the rest of their lives. And gender-based violence is one of the biggest factors at play. On any given day, there are many vulnerable moments for a girl.

It starts when she wakes up in the morning, and gets ready for school. If she lives in a developing country, she may not have a bathroom in her house. Whether she’s walking to a public toilet far from home, or making her way to school, she is at risk of harassment or sexual violence.

When she gets to school, she’s greeted by her teacher. Again this can be a moment of risk. Her teacher may try to force her into having sex with him in exchange for improved grades. He may even view sex with his students as compensation for his low salary.

But he’s not the only potential threat. She also has to be on guard against sexual violence from her fellow students. A recent study in Cameroon, for example, found that 30 percent of sexual violence experienced by girls in school was committed by a male peer.

If she lives in a country or area plagued by conflict, her journey home can also be fraught with the potential for violence. It can come from a soldier, an armed rebel, a gang member, or a sexual predator.

If she gets home safely, in many places she spends hours doing work around the house before she finishes her day.

But what if it’s a holiday and she doesn’t have school? If she lives in one of the 29 countries where we know female genital mutilation/cutting is prevalent, the time off from school may actually be when she undergoes FGM/C. Now she’s at risk for a lifetime of health consequences: hemorrhaging, recurrent infections, increased risk for HIV infection, complications in child birth, and even death.

And FGM/C might be the way her parents are preparing her for marriage. If she does get married as an adolescent girl, she’s at risk for increased violence—and her young marriage will likely put an end to her education.

The good news is that we’re not powerless to stop this. We can play important roles in addressing these problems. We can expand women’s economic opportunities—like the Akilah Institute for Women does in Rwanda and Burundi. We can build girls’ confidence and leadership, and transform gender norms—like the Inter-American Development Bank has done with a girl-centered sports program in Bolivia. We can teach men and boys to be champions for gender equality—like Plan International’s program for adolescent boys does in Brazil. And we can make sure we have a strong research foundation to help with decision making—like the Clinton and Gates Foundations’ No Ceilings report does for all of us here.

In the face of these tremendous challenges, everyone here is doing powerful work to promote education and end gender-based violence. I’d like to talk for a minute about the work of the United States in this effort.

Last month President Obama and the First Lady launched the Let Girls Learn initiative. This is a whole-of-government approach to reach girls around the world at this critical juncture in their lives and help them stay in school until they finish—ready to contribute to their economies. Over the coming months, we will provide every U.S. embassy with concrete tools they can use to advance girls’ education.

Now we know education is critical. But it’s most powerful when it’s part of a comprehensive approach. That’s why in addition to Let Girls Learn, we also have programs like the DREAMS partnership. Through DREAMS we’re working to reduce new HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women—with the ultimate goal of an AIDS-free generation.

And of course we’re always looking at local solutions to these problems. Last July, as Ebola spread across West Africa, my office launched our biggest grant ever to end FGM/C in Guinea. In Bolivia, we’re funding radio campaigns to end the silence around intimate partner violence. In Papua New Guinea we’re funding trainings that empower survivors of gender-based violence with business skills. And in Benin, we’re working to reduce early and forced marriages and expand services to survivors.

All of these efforts—not just those of the United States government, but the efforts that you represent—all of these are critical. And they take place at a critical time. In a few short months, the world’s governments will come to an agreement around a shared global vision, one that will shape our development investments for the next 15 years. Many of the world’s development challenges hinge on investing in—and including—girls and women. So it’s exciting that for the first time, the global community will likely recognize gender-based violence as an impediment to unlocking this potential and achieving the future we want.

But this will happen only if we raise our collective voices loudly enough. I know that’s exactly what you’re doing here today, and I wish you all the best.

So I’d like to end with a few words from Memory that I think are appropriate. “Let girls be valued… their issues be prioritized… their voices be heard. What we need is action.”

Thank you.