Innovations in Partnerships: Re-Imagining the Empowerment of Adolescent Girls in India

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

As prepared

Thank you, Frieda, for that kind introduction, and for shining such a bright spotlight on issues that matter to adolescent girls. And thank you to our co-hosts, Girl Rising, for making this issue real for millions of people across India and around the world. There’s no doubt that your work has started conversations in bustling Mumbai, in rural Rajasthan, and beyond.

It’s great to be here with you today. Last week our office hosted an event that had to compete with the Pope—that was a first for us. We still managed to have a great crowd come to our event, which focused on early and forced marriage and the programs that are working best to end the practice. And that’s an issue that is certainly relevant here today.

I want to share with you a point one of the panelists made that has stuck with me. She contrasted some of the laws on early and forced marriage in India with similar laws in the State of New Hampshire. She said that the law in New Hampshire allows boys to get married as young as 14 and girls to get married as young as 13. In India, on the other hand, the legal age of marriage has been 18 for girls since the year 1929. And yet the prevalence of early and forced marriage in India is obviously much higher than it is in New Hampshire.

I share this story not to say that laws don’t matter. It’s critically important that a country’s laws don’t discriminate against women or disempower girls, and that’s a lesson every country needs to learn. But the law is only the first step. Because the lives of adolescent girls won’t change if a law against early and forced marriage isn’t enforced. Their lives won’t change if they don’t have access to education, or if their teachers aren’t trained, or if it’s not safe for them to get to school. And their lives certainly won’t change if attitudes about the value of women and girls don’t change too.

That’s why groups like Girl Rising are so important. They show us the human face of these issues and compel us to act. They inspire us to think twice about cultural traditions and see them through a new lens. And they spark conversations between parents and children about what the future can hold. It’s also important that we hear from personally from young women and girls about their views. I’m looking forward to hearing Sangita speak later this morning.

When it comes to advancing gender equality, we all have a role to play—government, civil society, the private sector, and community leaders. The United States takes our role in this effort seriously. We believe that advancing gender equality and empowering women and girls are critical to our foreign policy—for two very important reasons.

First, advancing gender equality is a testament to our country’s values. When the United States works to empower women and girls, we show others that this is a part of who we are and what we care about.

Second, we know that when women and girls do better, their countries do better. So we say to countries—if you address issues that matter to women and girls and if you advance their full participation in society, your workforce will be stronger. Your GDP will go up. Your peace negotiations will be more successful. Your governing bodies will be more effective.

These are the arguments I make in every country I visit— and our diplomats on the ground do as well. But the challenge we face is not limited to persuading governments or companies that these issues are important. We also have to do the hard work of implementing the solutions that work.

And that’s where partnerships can be tremendously and in many cases uniquely powerful in achieving gender equality. For the United States, these partnerships are often with other countries. We have a slogan for the joint vision we share with India: “Chalein Saath Saath,” which means “Forward, together we go.” And the central focus of our diplomatic relations with India is partnership. It’s turning global challenges into opportunities for driving change, together.

Secretary Kerry often talks about how the United States and India are the world’s oldest and largest democracies. So when we partner, there’s tremendous potential for what we can do together.

This is especially true for gender equality. Women are already having a huge impact on the Indian economy. And when we look together at the challenges facing women and girls in India—whether it’s economic participation, access to quality education, or early and forced marriage—what we really see is opportunity.

That’s why we have a dialogue set up with India focused specifically on working together and sharing best practices on women’s empowerment. We’ll soon launch an action plan with them on several critical issues, including women’s economic empowerment, and girls’ access to education.

This is all part of our broader efforts to empower adolescent girls. Earlier this year, the President and the First Lady launched the Let Girls Learn initiative. Through several government agencies, we are working to help adolescent girls complete their education and graduate, ready to contribute to their communities and economies. The State Department has developed the policy framework for the initiative. And 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.

Part of what makes this initiative so exciting is that it approaches the issue from several angles. We’re looking not only at access to education, but also issues such as the quality of education, health and safety, and community engagement.

This initiative is smart, it’s innovative, and it has the commitment of the United States. But we know that we will not change this issue alone. In fact, no government can change this issue alone. And that’s where you all come in. Civil society, the diaspora, and the private sector have a tremendous ability to form partnerships, conduct research, start schools, fund scholarships—the list goes on.

And the need is clear. More than 25 million girls in India are married before they turn 18. That’s a fact that has huge implications for girls’ health, their safety, and their education. And this issue is not an easy fix, because so many other factors are at play. For example, early and forced marriage is connected to sexual harassment and sexual violence in the South Asia region. Parents may see early marriage as a preventative measure to protect their daughters.

But if all of us work together, we can tackle these issues more effectively. And we will see the incredible benefits that come from empowering adolescent girls, who are on the cusp of growing up and becoming the next generation of mothers, leaders, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and engineers.

I’d like to close by telling you about a young woman I met in India. The United States funded a program there that trained young women to be a part of the formal economy through community recycling. This young woman was a part of the training. We met at a site near a huge train station, with masses of people getting off the trains. We were surrounded by pile after pile of sorted garbage—plastic bottles, paper and cups.

She told me that the income she made, and the confidence and pride she found in her work, had changed her life. And she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her who to marry or when – she would make that decision herself, and in fact now that she could support herself, she didn’t really see any need to marry at all.

In the end, it is young women like this who inspire our work. With your partnership, we can empower adolescent girls in India, in Asia and around the world—so that they will see a better future—one where they are respected, valued, educated, and able to make decisions for themselves. We know that future is possible—our task is to make it a reality. Thank you.