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The State Department makes strides into Tanzania and Malawi


President Obama just announced a new effort to empower girls. Here’s what it means.

By Ambassador Cathy Russell on July 31, 2015

“You are not too young to change your nation.” So declared a sign at an all-girls school in Kenya, where I sat down with students last week to talk about their education.

One girl told me about her family’s history of educating children. Her grandmother paid for each son to go to university and gave money to her 21 nephews so they, too, could go to school. She gave no money for her daughters’ education and, as is too often the case, the girls dropped out of school

Another girl talked about how she’s changing the future of girls’ education. In her hometown, her pastor set aside a half hour for the girl to talk to the congregation about her education during a service. Because of her speech, more parishioners started sending their own daughters to school.

These stories illustrate the very different paths—past, present, and future—that adolescent girls can travel. The sign displayed at the school in Kenya stands as a promise, or perhaps even a warning: girls’ ability to reach their full potential will shape the future of their communities and their countries.

The numbers confirm this. Early and forced marriage increases early pregnancy, and young mothers’ children have higher rates of infant mortality and malnutrition than children born to mothers older than 18. Girls account for more than 80 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS. And more than 62 million girls around the world aren’t in school, which means they face diminished economic opportunities and increased risk of discrimination and violence.

Ultimately, these problems perpetuate cycles of despair, multiplying as generations of girls aren’t empowered to break through barriers of illiteracy, poverty, and violence.

A sign posted at the Alliance Girls' High School in Kenya. (State Department photo)
A sign posted at the Alliance Girls’ High School in Kenya. (State Department photo)

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. When societies invest in and empower girls and women, they transform the world, giving communities better health outcomes, stronger economic potential, and safer streets—a message President Obama shared to affirming applause on his recent trip to Kenya and Ethiopia.

“If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women,” he said. “And if you want to empower more women, America will be your partner. “

He went on to announce that the United States is doing just that with Tanzania and Malawi, two countries in Africa where USAID and the State Department will undertake a new multifaceted effort to empower adolescent girls.

Instead of investing in a one-off program to tackle a particular problem, the United States will work with these countries to support their girls through safety, health, and education.

Earlier this year, President and Mrs. Obama launched Let Girls Learn to address the range of challenges preventing adolescent girls from attending and completing school. Tanzania and Malawi will be given priority for additional funding via a new challenge fund created through the Let Girls Learn initiative. This fund will bring together other partners to work on solutions to ensure that girls are able to remain and succeed in school.

But it’s hard for girls to go to school if they aren’t safe and healthy. One in three women around the world will face violence in her lifetime, making gender-based violence a global pandemic that holds back every country, including the United States.

To change this reality, it is essential first to understand what gender-based violence looks like in each community and country. Do women and girls have access to education and economic opportunity? Is their right to live free from violence recognized in the civil and criminal systems, and do they have access to justice in those systems? Are specific forms of gender-based violence considered acceptable instead of criminal?

These are the questions the U.S. asks and answers while working with governments and other partners in Malawi and Tanzania to more fully empower girls and women.

Malawi and Tanzania are also DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe) countries, which means they are part of the $210 million partnership between the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Nike Foundation.

This partnership uses evidence to make sure its approach to eliminating HIV/AIDS considers things like poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, and access to education. It will be key to ensuring girls in Tanzania and Malawi are healthy and ready for school.

The initiative’s ability to work with these countries reflects the realities on the ground. The governments of Malawi and Tanzania understand the returns that come from investing in women and girls and want to support efforts to that end. And U.S. development staff and diplomats working in each country have laid the foundation for these projects with their own work to advance gender equality.

Hopefully Malawi and Tanzania are just the beginning. They will act as pilots for a bigger, broader effort to empower girls and women around the world.

Because we know these girls are not too young to change their nations.

Cathy Russell is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.