An expansion of the Let Girls Learn initiative, announced this week by President and Michelle Obama, will give girls the world over greater access to education while amplifying their voices, increasing their earning potential, safeguarding their health and empowering them to avoid child marriage.
The effort, announced on Tuesday from the East Room of the White House—just five days before Sunday’s International Women’s Day celebration—builds on the Let Girls Learn global communication campaign. That campaign has generated more than $230 million in new funding to support girls’ education since USAID launched the initiative last summer.
The Peace Corps is the latest group to partner with Let Girls Learn, which has enjoyed the backing of a host of organizations, ranging from the Brookings Institute and Girl Scouts of the USA to CARE and the UN Foundation/Girl Up. With more than 7,000 volunteers in 60 developing countries, the Peace Corps is uniquely positioned to help communities develop grassroots solutions to the educational hurdles facing girls, Michelle Obama told a room full of supporters, including Too Young to Wed’s founder, Stephanie Sinclair.
Some 62 million girls around the world are not in school, diminishing their economic opportunities and political voices and leaving them vulnerable to child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS and other health risks, she said. According to USAID, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday in the developing world. However, girls with a high school level education are up to six times less likely to marry as children compared to girls who have little or no education.
“And as I’ve traveled the world over the past six years, I’ve seen time and again how our young people—particularly our girls—are so often pushed to the very bottom of their societies. Everywhere I go, I meet these girls, and they are so fiercely intelligent, and hungry to make something of themselves. These girls are our change-makers—our future doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs. They’re our dreamers and our visionaries who could change the world as we know it,” the First Lady said during her Tuesday address. “These girls know they have the spark of something extraordinary inside of them, but too often, that spark is snuffed out by circumstances of their birth or the norms of their communities.”
In addition to helping communities develop their own strategies, the Peace Corps eventually will offer training in gender issues and girls’ education to all of its volunteers, even those focused on other issues like healthcare and agriculture. And the organization will connect volunteers with members of the public and private sector to fund small, locally initiated projects.
In the first year of the collaboration, the Peace Corps will focus its efforts on 11 countries: Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso—where one-third of girls are married as children—Cambodia, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda, where 20 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthdays.
While this week’s announcement focused on the newest piece of the Let Girls Learn effort, President Obama also pointed out that the U.S. government supports plenty of existing programs designed to empower girls. Among them:
- A multi-media campaign in Guinea aimed at protecting girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
- The Promoting Human Rights project in Bangladesh, which uses advocacy, role playing and games to address issues related to domestic violence, child marriage and sexual harassment. Community-based groups supported through the project are credited with stopping 382 child marriages in one year.
- A program in Ethiopia that provides school supplies for families that allow girls to get an education and even rewards those families with cattle if they keep their daughters unmarried. Girls between 10 and 14 who participated in the USAID project were 90 percent less likely to be married by the end of the two-year program, according to an early evaluation.
“We know that when girls are educated, they’re more likely to delay marriage. Their future children, as a consequence, are more likely to be healthy and better nourished. Their future wages increase, which, in turn, strengthens the security of their family. And national growth gets a boost, as well,” the president said Tuesday.
“From a political standpoint, and a security standpoint, places where women and girls are treated as full and equal citizens tend to be more stable, tend to be more democratic. So this is not just a humanitarian issue. This is an economic issue, and it is a security issue. And that’s why it has to be a foreign policy priority.”