Remarks at Central or Sidelined? Examining How Girls Fared in the 2030 Agenda

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New York, NY
September 28, 2015

As prepared

Good morning. It’s wonderful to be with you today. Before I begin, I’d like to thank the United Nations Population Fund—especially Kate Gilmore—for your partnership and your work in this field. We’re proud to be long-standing supporters.

I’d also like to recognize Ashley for her leadership on these issues. Thank you for shining such a bright spotlight on the status of women and girls.

And finally I’d like to thank ICRW, Let Girls Lead, and Advocates for Youth. Not only have these groups organized a fantastic event today. But they have also worked tirelessly to advocate for girls throughout the negotiation process leading to the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals.

One of the best things about the new development agenda is that it reflects an argument we make every day that our efforts will be better, and our results will be stronger, if we include women and girls—not just some of them, but all of them.

This agenda reflects that argument in two key ways.

First, the goals were selected not by a few at the top, but by consensus. More governments, as well as civil society, had a seat at the table. That’s an incredible shift in process since the last time.

Second, this agenda isn’t simply built on a more inclusive process. It also envisions more inclusive development.

The original Millennium Development Goals were not focused on girls. It’s only been recently that—thanks in large part to many in this room today—girls’ experiences and voices are finally recognized and heard.

Our work is better, more informed, and truly more inspired, when we hear the stories of young women like Elizabeth, Preslava, and Jimena. Those girls were amazing, and I want to thank them for speaking today.

Hearing these young women reminds me of the many girls I meet from around the world. And one of the most courageous girls I’ve met is someone who is familiar to many of you: a young woman from Malawi named Memory Banda.

Memory was able to delay marriage and pursue her education as an adolescent girl. Today, she works to improve the lives of other girls. She gives 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 keep their daughters in school instead. And she’s part of a grassroots campaign to build networks for girls to end early and forced marriage.

But one of the most moving parts of Memory’s story is how she is inspired to do this work in part because of her own sister Mercy. Mercy was 11 years old when she got pregnant during a so-called “sexual initiation” ceremony, where girls are forced to have sex with an adult man to prepare for marriage.

Like many other girls who end up pregnant after the ceremony, Mercy had to drop out of school. And her life looks much different than her sister’s because of that. The contrast is stark. The consequences are profound.

The choice for us is clear, but for many girls like Memory and Mercy there is often little choice—there are limited opportunities, family expectations, and cultural practices that weigh them down, constrain their freedom, and in too many cases doom them to a bleak future.

So it’s vital for the international community to support not only girls, but girl advocates. Their experience is critical. And when they share their experiences, when they’re empowered to advocate in their communities and on the international stage, tremendous change can happen.

Fortunately, the Sustainable Development Goals reflect the experiences of girls around the world. The agenda that will shape the next 15 years has been in part shaped by girls themselves.

I’d like to share three key areas of the agenda that will be particularly powerful in driving forward our work to empower adolescent girls.

First, the agenda recognizes gender-based violence for what it is: a global pandemic. One in three women will experience gender-based violence during her lifetime. And the scale of that violence has huge implications for human dignity, health, safety, and the economy.

Girls are not immune to this problem, which is why it’s so important that this agenda explicitly recognizes gender-based violence committed against young and adolescent girls—from early and forced marriage to female genital mutilation and cutting.

The United States works to address these issues, because we know that our shared goals for the future will be out of reach as long as girls are treated as second-class citizens.

That’s why last week, the State Department convened an excellent panel of experts to focus on solutions to ending early and forced marriage. The participants shared best practices and solutions that we and others in the international community are employing in our effort to end early and forced marriage. ICRW’s own Suzanne Petroni spoke about their work on this issue in Asia.

But what’s interesting to me is that almost every speaker talked about the relationship between both early and forced marriage and FGM/C and control over girls’ sexuality. In other words, problems like FGM/C and early and forced marriage won’t end unless we look at the larger issues facing adolescent girls, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

That’s the second area that will be critical to our work for the next 15 years. It’s imperative that women and adolescent girls have control over the decisions about when they have children, how many children they have, and how far apart they have them. When this becomes the reality, girls’ access to education improves. They are better prepared to enter the workforce. And their children are healthier.

That’s why it was a priority for the United States to have language in the agenda that emphasized access to sexual and reproductive health services as part the health goal. That’s why we wanted to see universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the promotion and protection of reproductive rights as part of the gender equality goal.

We’re also investing in health efforts that focus on adolescent girls. Globally, 50 young women are newly infected with HIV/AIDs every hour. And year after year, HIV continues to hit adolescent girls harder than their male peers.

So United States is working to with countries and the private sector to tackle this problem through PEPFAR and the public-private partnership DREAMS. Through these initiatives, we’re working to ensure women and girls receive the HIV prevention, care, and treatment they need to reach their full potential.

The third and final area I’ve like to touch on is adolescent girls’ education. The world has seen that change is possible under the guidance of the Millennium Development Goals. Since they were adopted, we have nearly closed the gender gap in primary education. And now, we hope to do the same thing for secondary education.

I’m proud to say that the United States is pushing hard in this area. Through the Let Girls Learn initiative championed by the First Lady, we are tackling this issue from all sides. USAID has laid the groundwork through its work on girls’ education, and it will continue to address the many barriers that keep girls from getting a quality education. Peace Corps volunteers are fostering community-based solutions to empower adolescent girls in communities around the world.

And the State Department has developed the policy framework behind this initiative. We’re working with our embassies and missions around the world to ensure they have the tools they need to address this issue in the field.

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 through the Let Girls Learn initiative.

None of this is possible without your support. The leadership, expertise, and persistence of civil society are all critical—not just to the efforts of the United States, but to the world’s development goals for the next 15 years.

So today we need to take a moment to reflect on our success. Women and girls are integrated into this agenda. We have set the stage for the next 15 years to address gender equality.

But we can’t pause for too long. The 2030 agenda has 17 goals, which means priorities will compete for a limited pool of resources. It’s up to us to make sure that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls remain a top priority for the next fifteen years. An entire generation of girls is counting on us.

So today we celebrate. Tomorrow we get back to work, knowing that together we can make real the progress we’ve envisioned for adolescent girls.

Thank you.