Remarks at Women and Foreign Policy: Early and Forced Marriage

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
September 24, 2015

As prepared

Good morning. I’m so glad to welcome you all to the State Department. I can’t say we’ve ever hosted an event that had to compete with the Pope. Thank you for braving Metro and the road closures to be here for this event. Two quick notes: we are livestreaming today’s event. And if you are posting about it on social media, we hope you will use #thinkgender.

Around the development and foreign policy community, and certainly here at the State Department, there’s recognition that gender equality is critically important. We understand that when women do better, and when girls do better, countries do better. And we understand why gender equality is important both as a testament to our country’s values and to our national security.

The challenge we face now is, how do we take this understanding and turn it into concrete action that improves the lives of women and girls? That’s in part why we’ve launched this convening series on women and foreign policy. We want to focus not only on the challenges but on the solutions and best practices that will help diplomats, policymakers, and development practitioners incorporate issues related to women and girls into their work.

It’s not by coincidence that our first convening of experts is focused on early and forced marriage. Today’s event kicks off two weeks of activities leading up to International Day of the Girl on October 11. Much of what we do between now and then will focus on how empowering adolescent girls can help advance our foreign policy goals. After all, if women are critical to economic opportunity and political stability, then adolescent girls are critical as well. They are the next generation. And they face far too many challenges that hold them back from reaching their full potential.

Addressing these challenges is not easy. Problems like early and forced marriage exist for a complex set of reasons. And they aren’t always the same set of reasons. They vary from family to family, from country to country, and from region to region.

When President Obama traveled to Ethiopia earlier this summer, he talked extensively about the issues that matter to women and girls, including early and forced marriage. He said, “When African girls are subjected to the mutilation of their bodies, or forced into marriage at the ages of 9 or 10 or 11 -- that sets us back. That's not a good tradition. It needs to end.”

I share that quote with you because it illustrates that the President’s views are clear and that he makes them known. And Secretary Kerry is clear about this as well. He’s instructed the State Department to use diplomatic, policy, and programmatic efforts to address gender-based violence, including early and forced marriage.

The United States works to address these issues because our shared goals for the future—peace, prosperity, and security—are out of reach so long as girls and women are second-class citizens. So long as early and forced marriage continues, girls will face steep challenges in their lives. Their safety will be at risk. Their health will be at risk. Their children’s futures will be at risk. And on a large scale, these outcomes will fuel poverty and constrain economic growth.

So ending early and forced marriage is crucial for girls and essential for countries too. Now the question is: what actions are we taking to end early and forced marriage? And perhaps more importantly, are those actions effective?

This morning we’re going to hear from several experts who work on this problem every day and can share their experiences and recommendations. But I’d like to share with you how the United States government approaches this issue, and what we’ve learned.

Early and forced marriage is one of many challenges facing adolescent girls around the world, and typically these challenges are inter-related. Economic pressure, conflict, sexual violence in communities or classrooms, HIV/AIDS, access to water and sanitation, poverty—the list goes on and on. So one-off programs can only be so successful. We’ve learned that our approach has to address both the branch and the root.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, Nujood Ali was married at age 9 to a man in his 30s in Yemen. Within a year, she managed to end her marriage, and she went on to tell her story in a book called I am Nujood: Age 10 and Divorced. But that wasn’t the end of her story. According to media reports, Nujood’s father was given the money from her book sales, with the expectation that he would send her to school. Only he didn’t spend the money on her education. Instead, he kept most of the money for himself.

Nujood’s story illustrates how our challenge isn’t simply to work to end early and forced marriage. It’s to tackle the much deeper social issues that come with it. Societies need to see the value in women and girls. They need laws that afford women their rights. They need education infrastructure that ensures a classroom isn’t a holding room for girls or boys, but a learning environment for students.

That’s why our approach to ending early and forced marriage is part of a broader effort to empower and educate adolescent girls. Through the Let Girls Learn initiative championed by the First Lady, we are working across government agencies to empower girls. Agencies have different roles to play, but the goal is the same: Help adolescent girls complete their education and graduate, ready to contribute to their communities and economies. As my colleague Susan Markham will explain later this morning, USAID is a vital part of that effort. The Peace Corps is also a critical component—their volunteers are fostering community-based solutions to empower adolescent girls. The State Department has worked to develop the policy framework of Let Girls Learn. And we’re supporting our diplomats who address this issue in the field. We’re working with our embassies and missions around the world to ensure they have the tools they need to get this issue on the agenda.

And, as President Obama announced this summer, we are piloting a new effort to address the challenges girls face in a holistic manner. Working with USAID, the State Department is partnering with Tanzania and Malawi to support adolescent girls through safety, health, and education. That means we’ll be working with each country to better ensure the safety of women and girls, as part of our global strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. It means that Malawi and Tanzania are DREAMS countries, so they’ll benefit from the $210 million partnership between PEPFAR, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Nike Foundation. And it means that both countries will be given priority for additional funding and attention through the Let Girls Learn initiative.

But none of this could happen without your support. The leadership, expertise, and persistence of civil society are all critical to U.S. efforts. Earlier this morning, Dr. Mehret Mandefro presented me with a petition with 135,000 signatures in support of our efforts to address early and forced marriage. Thanks to their support—and thanks to the work of many in this room—we plan to launch our adolescent girls strategy later this fall, and we look forward to working with you to carry it forward.

We are grateful to all of you here today for your interest and commitment to shaping a better future for adolescent girls everywhere. So thank you for all you’ve done to get us to this moment, and again for being here today.

Now I’d like to invite Dr. Mandefro to the stage to talk about the incredible film she’s produced and to share some powerful moments from the film.