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America Extends a Hand to Burma

Chris Milligan serves as mission director to USAID Burma Photo Credit: USAID

Yesterday, the streets of Rangoon were lined with huge crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers, holding signs welcoming President Obama as his motorcade sped to the last stop – Rangoon University – for a major speech.  The excitement, building here since the trip was announced, was now electric.

Even just a few months ago, this visit was likely unimaginable to the people of Burma.  In the President’s speech to a spellbound audience at the University’s historic Convocation Hall, he said, “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear:  We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist… so today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”

It was also unimaginable to me that I’d be standing by a U.S. President as he dedicated a USAID mission, a first time in the Agency’s history.  It’s been over 50 years since the inaugural U.S.-Burma Economic Cooperation Agreement was signed.  In the decades that followed, our two countries have shared a long and, at times, tumultuous history.  Yet, President Obama began a new chapter when he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma, highlighting the country’s historic shift to democracy and the partnership of the United States in this effort.

Burma is in the process of a remarkable transition, moving from military, authoritarian rule to parliamentary democracy; negotiating ceasefires after decades-long conflicts; and shifting to a market-oriented economy.  And, as President Obama said, this remarkable journey has only just begun.

Yet, what an incredible start.  As a Foreign Service Officer for 23 years, I can tell you that helping countries chart a more prosperous future is not always easy. We know there is hard work ahead, but yesterday we got a huge lift. That momentum will only strengthen the optimism and resilience of the Burmese people.  I’ve never been prouder than when the President said to those listening all across Burma, “America is with you every step of the way.”

From the Field: Gender Equity through Education in South Sudan

Regina Anek, a deputy director for gender at South Sudan’s Ministry of Education in Eastern Equatoria, just saved a 14-year old girl from an early, forced marriage. She says she was empowered to intervene as the result of her participation in a USAID-supported mentor-training program for teachers and education officials aimed at encouraging girls not just to enroll, but also to complete, secondary school.

Mentoring is just one of the ways USAID is addressing financial, social and institutional barriers to gender parity in education through the Gender Equity through Education (GEE) Program.

School completion rates for girls in South Sudan are extremely low. Survey data indicates that the rate of completing the eight-year primary cycle is currently 30 percent for boys, while the girls’ completion rate lags far behind at 17 percent. Secondary school completion rates are even worse.  This cannot only be attributed to the long conflict in this country, which prevented many girls from attending school, but also to other unique cultural and financial barriers.

One rampant cultural barrier is early marriage. Persistent poverty has been cited as a major reason for parents marrying off their daughters in exchange for money. Moreover, cultural norms in some places dictate marriage readiness for girls as young as 13. Communities often stigmatize older girls in schools, causing them to give up their education.

With USAID’s mentoring support and some tuition stipend, many girls now stay in school, and some who were married at an early age are now able to return and complete their secondary schooling.

These rural schoolchildren participate in the USAID-funded Southern Sudan Interactive Radio Instruction project, which uses radio to broadcast interactive student lessons. / Karl Grobl, Education Development Center Inc.

These rural schoolchildren participate in the USAID-funded Southern Sudan Interactive Radio Instruction project, which uses radio to broadcast interactive student lessons. / Karl Grobl, Education Development Center Inc.

The GEE program’s three components include:

  • a scholarship program;
  • an advocacy, community mobilization, and mentoring program;
  • and an institutional support program.

Regina Anek was trained as a mentor, enhancing her skills to intervene in communities where girls face social pressure to leave school to get married.

“I was informed that a student from one of the schools in my state was about to be married off, and I hurried to convene a meeting with the family and community. Meanwhile, I asked the parents to allow me [to] accommodate the girl at my house so that she could continue attending school as we resolved her marriage case,” Anek said.

After weeks of negotiating and educating the community leaders and the girl’s parents on the importance of an educated girl to the family and society, the girl was allowed to return home and continue with school.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Namadi is an Education Management Specialist at USAID