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Summits Push Investment in Adolescent Girls to Achieve Gender Equality

June 29, 2016

By Elizabeth Romanoff Silva

On June 14, The White House hosted the first-ever United State of Women Summit in Washington to rally women’s rights and gender equality advocates and to highlight achievements, identify remaining challenges, and chart the course for addressing them. To a packed audience of more than 5,000 people, speakers including President Obama, Vice President Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and a host of other impressive leaders spanning the public and private sector, shared stories of transformative engagement that have altered U.S. policies and foreign aid toward empowering women and girls.

United States of Women

On June 14, The White House hosted the first-ever United State of Women Summit in Washington. Photo/UnitedStatesofWomen Facebook page

The energy in the room was palpable. A subsequent two-day side-event, the Gender 360 Summit, put the focus squarely on the future of this movement: efforts to engage adolescent girls and boys to achieve gender equality.

One of the most anticipated takeaways from the Gender360 Summit was Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell’s unveiling of the long-awaited U.S. Government Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. In her keynote she delivered some somber statistics: globally 62 million girls are not in school, half of whom are adolescents, and 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty. The goal of the new strategy is to break this pattern, by ensuring adolescent girls are educated, healthy, economically and socially empowered, and free from violence and discrimination. Such a comprehensive strategy, which fills a clear gap in responding to the needs of adolescent girls, is welcome news.

Adolescence, defined as between the ages of 10 and 19, is a pivotal stage in girls’ lives. In many parts of the world, adolescence is often a time when boys gain more power and freedom in the home and community, while for girls, it is when discriminatory gender norms become ascendant and girls’ rights are taken away. While the Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly defines girls and boys under the age of 18 as children, many cultures across the world consider a girl to be a woman when she begins menstruation. In many places it is all too common for girls to be taken out of school and forced to marry, often to men much older. When adolescent girls marry, they are at higher risk of violence and dangerous complications to pregnancy, and they are often excluded from making decisions that affect their lives. These norms act as barriers to girls achieving their fundamental rights, including access to education, protection, health, and freedom from violence.

According to a 2014 UNICEF study, the highest levels of violent death among adolescent girls worldwide are found in South Asia, where almost 30,000 girls died as a result of violence in 2012 – a death rate twice the global average. Nearly half of all child brides worldwide live in South Asia, while fewer than half of adolescent girls in South Asia are enrolled in secondary school. At 74 percent, Bangladesh has the second-highest rate in the world of child marriages by age 18 and the highest rate – nearly 40 percent – of girls married by age 15.

Research suggests the best ways to support girls during this transformational adolescence period is by ensuring their access to quality education in a safe environment. The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program has long supported girls’ education across Bangladesh through a network of 75 girls’ schools and colleges spanning the entire country, with a special focus on promoting girls’ and female teachers’ participation. For example, The Asia Foundation partnered with a renowned female madrassa in Sylhet to train a group of young female students to develop their English skills through a digital library and toolkit. We also partner with organizations to reach girls in the most marginalized communities and ensure that they gain access to information, such as the Subornogram Foundation and its boat schools.

It was inspiring to hear public servants such as USAID’s Susan Markham and Tina Tchen, assistant to the president, chief of staff to the First Lady, and executive director of the White House Council for Women & Girls, talk about gender equality issues that will make or break the opportunities for girls such as those young students in Bangladesh. But even more moving was listening to 18-year-old Nupur, a youth advocate with Plan International, who spoke on challenges and the societal pressures girls face, and whose traditional song in Bangla still echoes in my ears. “We need a world where all girls will be treated as human beings and not just as a girl. … With proper knowledge and skills, we can make a big difference in the world,” her voice rang out through the packed auditorium.

Following these summits, on June 21, The Asia Foundation held a public panel discussion on Evidence-based Approaches to Ending Violence against Women and Girls that highlighted recent research and programmatic findings in the areas of prevention and response to violence against women and girls in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Timor-Leste. Watch the full panel here.

Elizabeth Silva is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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