Oppression and prejudice toil in a cage of ignorance and cruelty. Before the U.S. Civil Rights movement altered the course of history, Jim Crow laws and terror imposed segregation and licensed discrimination, casting a pall of shame over America.
Today, the inhumane degradation and culturally sanctioned abuse of girls in many parts of the world is a shockingly similar shame. Denied the most basic universal human rights, girls have limited access to health care, nutrition, education and job skills training, as well as productive resources, such as water, land and credit.
The kidnapping of 300 Nigerian girls by the extremist group Boko Haram focused global attention, issuing a clarion call that girls’ education and health are civil rights worth fighting for, leading to benefits, not only for girls, but for entire communities and nations. In low income countries, mothers who have completed primary school are more likely to seek appropriate health care for their children. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5.
Segenet Wendawork was 5 years old when her mother died. After her father moved away, she bounced around, living with her grandmother for a while, then an aunt who kept her home from school to help with chores. Thanks to a USAID scholarship program, Segenet was able to return to school in Ethiopia and complete her education. “Before the scholarship, I was unable to dream about the future,” she said.
Sixty-two million girls are not in school, and are also unable to dream about their future. And millions more are fighting to stay in school. The U.S. Government invests $1 billion each year through USAID in low-income countries to ensure equitable treatment of boys and girls, to create safe school environments, and to engage communities in support for girls’ education.
According to the Working Group on Girls (WGG), a coalition of over 80 national and international non-governmental organizations, schoolgirls of all ages report sexual harassment and assault, ranging from gender discrimination to rape, exploitation and physical and psychological intimidation in school.
Last week, a new effort was launched by the U.S. Government, and led by USAID, to provide the public with meaningful ways to help all girls get a quality education. Let Girls Learn aims to elevate a conversation about the need to support all girls in their pursuit of a quality education. In support of the effort, USAID also announced over $230 million for new programs to support education around the world.
Thomas Staal, a senior leader with USAID, said education is essential to fight poverty and all its corollaries: hunger, disease, resource degradation, exploitation and despair. “Women are the caretakers and economic catalysts in our communities. No country can afford to ignore their potential.”
Since education level has the greatest effect on the age at which a woman has her first birth, and adolescent mothers are more likely to die in childbirth, education both empowers young people directly and affects family planning choices and labor force participation.
Conversely, a healthy start in life and good nutrition are essential for children to thrive, develop and spend more time in school. Last month, USAID launched a new global nutrition strategy aimed at reducing the number of chronically malnourished or stunted children by at least 2 million over the next five years. Every year, under-nutrition contributes to 3.1 million child deaths—45 percent of the worldwide total.
In the strategy, USAID is prioritizing the prevention of malnutrition given the irreversible consequences of chronic under-nutrition early in life. Under-nutrition inhibits the body’s immune system from fighting disease and impedes cognitive, social-emotional and motor development.
In addition to focusing on good nutrition in the first 1,000 days for mother and child, USAID is also saving newborns from severe infections, protecting young children from the risks of diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, and helping women space the births of their children to protect their health and that of their children.
This week, USAID, the governments of Ethiopia and India, in collaboration with UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others will hold a high level forum to take stock of recent efforts aimed at reducing child and maternal deaths and plot a new course that will ensure progress continues.
USAID will refocus the majority of our maternal and child health resources toward specific, life-saving tools in 24 countries where the need is greatest and empower our partner countries to lead with robust action plans and evidence-based report cards to save an unprecedented number of lives by 2020.
USAID Assistant Administrator Ariel Pablos-Mendez said by coupling family planning investments with policies supporting child survival, girls’ education and job creation – especially those targeting women – countries can be positioned to realize substantial economic growth that lifts everyone out of poverty.
Doing so will allow girls and boys to follow their wildest hopes and dreams and live productive lives.