U.S. Global Strategy To Empower Adolescent Girls
Every country and every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is. But just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right…There’s no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence. There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation. There’s no place in civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children. These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century. These are issues of right and wrong—in any culture. But they’re also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind in a global economy.
–President Barack Obama, Remarks at Safaricom Indoor Arena, Nairobi, Kenya, July 26, 2015
I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve reached gender parity in primary but not secondary education. Because when girls are young, they’re often seen simply as children. But when they hit adolescence and start to develop into women, and are suddenly subject to all of their societies’ biases around gender, that is precisely when they start to fall behind in their education… If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms, then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies—and this conversation needs to happen in every countryon this planet, including my own.
–First Lady Michelle Obama, Remarks at World Innovation Summit for Education, Doha, Qatar, November 4, 2015
The United States understands that when a girl is kept from achieving her potential it is a loss not only for that individual girl, but also for her family, community, and country. We know that empowering girls, keeping them free from violence, and providing them with an education is one of the best ways to ensure that societies thrive…By working together as a community of nations, we can build a world in which girls are not treated as property, chattel, or spoils of war, but rather as individuals with their own voice, talents, and freedom to realize their potential and contribute to our collective humanity.
–Secretary of State John Kerry, Statement, International Day of the Girl, October 11, 2014
United States Adolescent Girls Strategy
Use links below to navigate to the different sections of the Strategy
Adolescence is a critical period in a girl’s life, when significant physical, emotional, and social changes shape her future. In too many parts of the world, adolescence is the most precarious time for girls. A quarter of a billion girls live in poverty. One in three girls in the developing world is married by the time she is 18, and one in nine is married by the age of 15. Every year, millions of girls undergo female genital mutilation/cutting. Millions more live in conflict settings that increase the risk of gender-based violence. Many girls continue to be infected with HIV/AIDS, and too few girls have the education or skills they need to participate fully in the economies of their countries.
While adolescence is a time of great vulnerability for girls, it is also an ideal point to leverage development and diplomacy efforts. It is an opportunity to disrupt poverty from becoming a permanent condition that is passed from one generation to the next. A pivotal question for an adolescent girl is whether she stays in school. If she drops out prematurely, she faces an increased risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, HIV infection, and maternal morbidities. She is also likely to be unskilled, have less earning power, and be less able to participate meaningfully in society. However, if she remains in school, she is more likely to marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she will invest into her family and community. To break the cycle of poverty, our efforts must reach girls before they arrive at this intersection of adolescence and follow them until they complete their education. This investment is not just an investment in girls, but in their families and communities.
While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) improved outcomes for girls in primary education, they also highlighted the need for a targeted focus on adolescents and young adults, particularly regarding the transition to and completion of secondary school and the prevention of HIV/AIDS. A concerted effort to address the challenges faced by adolescent girls, to safeguard their rights, and to promote their participation in their societies and economies is critical to advancing U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and development priorities. The progress of this population will be an essential determinant of our success in achieving the goals set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Today’s epidemic of undereducated and impoverished girls is tomorrow’s crisis of instability and conflict, health, hunger, and avoidable child deaths.
The goal of U.S. government efforts under this strategy is to ensure adolescent girls are educated, healthy, economically and socially empowered, and free from violence and discrimination, thereby promoting global development, security, and prosperity. Our efforts aim to enhance their access to quality education; to reduce their risks of child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM); to reduce their vulnerability to gender-based violence, including harmful norms and practices such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); and to provide them with the tools necessary to fully participate in their societies, claim their rights, and make informed decisions about their lives.
This strategy sets forth the following objectives:
- Enhance girls’ access to quality education in safe environments
- Provide economic opportunities and incentives for girls and their families
- Empower girls with information, skills, services, and support
- Mobilize and educate communities to change harmful norms and practices
- Strengthen policy and legal frameworks and accountability
President Obama has stated that addressing the challenges faced by adolescent girls and supporting them to fully participate in their communities and economies are critical to U.S. foreign policy. The Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Peace Corps, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) are the primary implementers of United States government programs to empower adolescent girls globally. The United States has several programs currently underway aimed at empowering adolescent girls, including the Let Girls Learn initiative and the DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, Safe) initiative.
Pursuant to the objectives of this strategy, efforts will be coordinated across the U.S. government and integrated into agencies’ ongoing work. Agencies will implement the strategy through a range of approaches appropriate to their respective mandates and capacities, including diplomacy, programmatic interventions, public engagement and outreach, coordination with international and private sector partners, and evidence building and data collection. Each agency acknowledges the value and importance of empowering adolescent girls and, in keeping with its mission and authorities, intends to integrate advancing the rights and empowerment of adolescent girls into its operations, including in policy development, strategic and budget planning, staff training and capacity building, implementation of policies and programs, and monitoring and evaluation of results. Agency implementation plans outline the specific modalities that each agency will adopt to achieve the goals and objectives of the strategy.
The United States Congress has long emphasized the importance of focusing on issues affecting adolescent girls, particularly CEFM, and has played a critical role in strengthening U.S. efforts to address harmful norms and practices affecting women and girls. This strategy provides a framework to address CEFM and the factors contributing to the continuation of this practice, including the lower value put on girls’ education and the host of related challenges facing adolescent girls that hinder them from reaching their potential and participating fully in their societies. The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to implement this strategy to promote the rights and empowerment of girls and women globally.
Despite progress toward gender equality around the world, accelerated by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 and other international agreements, in far too many places girls and women lack access to health services, education, full legal and social rights, and economic assets. Women and girls face discrimination and violence throughout their lives, but the challenges are particularly acute for adolescent girls. Globally, 62 million girls are not in school, half of whom are adolescents, and 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty. These girls face diminished economic opportunities; high rates of illiteracy; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; CEFM; early and unintended pregnancies; trafficking; and other forms of discrimination, violence, and abuse. These disadvantages both perpetuate and ensure cycles of poverty, which multiply as generations of girls have families of their own.
In many countries, puberty triggers a marked divergence in the lives of boys and girls, usually resulting in greater opportunities for boys and greater limitations for girls. Adolescence marks a perilous transition in a girl’s educational trajectory, as it coincides with this shift from girlhood to adulthood. As a result, adolescent girls confront particularly daunting challenges in pursuing an education. Girls living in rural or remote communities may travel long distances to reach schools—especially secondary schools, which are more widely dispersed—and face a range of threats along the way, including abduction, physical and sexual violence, and harassment. In many cases adolescent girls are forced to leave school to attend to household responsibilities, or are put to work on the farm or at the market. When households lack access to water, girls disproportionately shoulder the burden of collecting it, which may require significant travel time or long waits at water sources, putting them at greater risk of absenteeism and assault. Due to a lack of appropriate infrastructure and sanitary facilities at schools and fear of stigmatization, adolescent girls may also stay home during menstruation, which can result in them missing several days of classes per month and falling behind.
Once girls arrive at school, they are too often subject to sexual harassment and violence from both teachers and fellow students, undermining their ability to learn and threatening their physical and psychological well-being. Many schools often have too few female teachers and instruction or curricula that discriminates against girls and perpetuates negative gender stereotypes. Poor quality of education is pervasive and can be a particular challenge for girls, in part because their families often already see little value in girls’ education. Where the costs of school fees, uniforms, or school supplies are prohibitive, families with limited resources may choose to educate their sons rather than their daughters, based on the perception that this investment offers a greater return for the family. Given the limited roles and economic opportunities available to women in many settings, parents sometimes decide that a few years of schooling are sufficient for a girl. In some contexts, discriminatory school policies preclude girls who are pregnant or married from attending school.
Primary education for girls is a relative bright spot. Through concerted efforts by the United States and the international community, girls in primary school have moved closer to parity in many countries. As girls reach puberty, disparities appear and widen with successive levels of education: in primary education, 66 percent of countries have achieved gender parity, compared to 50 percent in lower secondary, 29 percent in upper secondary, and only 4 percent in tertiary. In both developing and developed countries, fields of study tend to be segregated by sex, with more males choosing or being encouraged to pursue higher status and better-paid careers in science, technology, and engineering, while females predominate in the lower paying education, healthcare, and social service professions. With the gains made in improving girls’ attendance and performance at the primary level, there are also efforts to extend educational inclusion to all girls, including married girls, migrant and refugee youth, street children, rural youth, and young people with disabilities. Despite these efforts, too many girls remain out of school and do not complete primary school or continue on to secondary grades. The UN Secretary General’s report on the implementation of the MDGs notes that significant gaps still remain with respect to girls’ secondary education, which "has been shown to contribute more strongly than primary school attendance to the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights and several positive social and economic outcomes."
Investing in girls’ education is a critical component of U.S. government efforts to reduce poverty and empower women economically, including by increasing women’s labor force participation. Women’s economic empowerment fuels economic growth, provides women with income to invest in their family’s health and education, increases household food stability and resilience, and strengthens women’s decision-making power in their homes, communities, and societies. Adolescent girls who lack an education are less able to participate meaningfully in stable economic ventures or hold well-paying jobs. The social and gender norms that limit adolescent girls continue into adulthood: women hold fewer assets than men, earn less income, and own a fraction of the world’s enterprises, even when they have the same or higher level of education as compared to their male peers. Laws and policies often limit women’s political participation, restrict their access to land and other assets, and present barriers to women’s entrepreneurship—including by limiting their access to financial services, markets, and skills training—all of which translate to greater rates of poverty. These factors push adolescent girls and young women into the informal economy, which presents greater instability than the formal economic sector and offers no health or retirement benefits, leaving women more vulnerable to economic shocks and resulting in intergenerational poverty.
Gender-based violence (GBV)
Girls’ transition into puberty and adolescence increases their vulnerability to GBV—including physical, emotional, and psychological violence, rape, and other forms of sexual abuse—with grave and enduring impacts on their health and well-being. More than 1 in 10 girls worldwide has experienced some form of forced sexual activity, and many girls’ first experience of sexual intercourse is unwanted or coerced. Worldwide, an estimated 150 million girls and 73 million boys have experienced sexual violence; nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16 years of age. GBV disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable members of society. Girls in conflict or emergency settings; in minority or indigenous communities; with disabilities; and lesbian, bisexual, and trans-identified girls are at increased risk of GBV. Married girls may also be at a higher risk of marital rape and domestic violence, either from their husbands or their husbands’ families. Harmful practices such as CEFM and FGM/C are widespread.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)
FGM/C, which refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, is typically carried out on young girls between infancy and adolescence, and occasionally on adult women. According to UNICEF, at least 200 million girls around the world in 30 countries have undergone FGM/C. Current progress in eliminating this practice is insufficient to keep up with increasing population growth. If trends continue, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM/C will rise significantly over the next 15 years. FGM/C is a human rights abuse that has no health benefits and is not rooted in any religious or theological tradition. It is typically practiced as an initiation rite that reflects locally held beliefs around the need to control women’s sexuality and preserve and prove their virginity for marriage. Depending on the degree of the cutting, the practice can lead to intense life-long pain and a range of physical and mental health problems, including psychological trauma, chronic infection, infertility, fistula, hemorrhaging, and life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM)
CEFM is defined as a formal marriage or informal union where one or both parties is under the age of 18. As of 2010, there were legal prohibitions against this practice in 158 countries, and 146 granted exemptions in the case of parental consent. In many countries, existing laws are weakly enforced, especially when they conflict with local customs. There are currently nearly 700 million women alive today who were married as children, and 15 million more are married each year. CEFM often occurs in contexts of poverty, displacement, or societal pressures, and prevalence rates are highest in the most impoverished and most rural regions of the world. Of the 25 countries with the lowest gross domestic product, 12 have rates of child marriage above 40 percent. Within these regions, CEFM is concentrated within the poorest households: girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to be married before the age of 18 as compared to girls in higher income households, as are rural girls compared with girls from urban areas.
Families marry girls before the age of 18 for a number of reasons, including social beliefs about the appropriate age of marriage for girls; fears that older girls will not find spouses; poor quality of schooling; concerns about the risks of sexual violence girls face in school and on their way to school; the socioeconomic needs of a girl’s household; and concerns about premarital sexual behavior that could result in pregnancy outside of marriage, HIV/AIDS, and perceived dishonor to the family. This practice is often rooted in patriarchal beliefs that value girls less and confine them to traditional roles of motherhood and domestic labor.
Ultimately CEFM arises from, and often perpetuates, gender inequality. It is a human rights abuse that contributes to economic hardship and leads to under-investment in girls’ educational and health care needs. CEFM undermines economic productivity, threatens sustainable growth and development, and fosters conditions that enable or exacerbate violence and insecurity, including domestic violence. It produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood. Early marriage forces a girl into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature and before she completes her education, limiting her future options, depriving her of the chance to reach her full potential, and preventing her from contributing fully to her family and community.
In many contexts, young brides face great pressure to bear children as quickly as possible to prove their fertility. Approximately 16 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 years old give birth each year, comprising about 11 percent of all births globally. Early pregnancy and childbirth have severe consequences for adolescent girls as compared to young women, including an increased risk of miscarriage and complications at birth, obstetric fistula, and death. Despite progress in overall rates around the world, maternal mortality remains a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19. In general, the vast majority of maternal deaths are preventable when women have access to quality antenatal and postnatal care and safe delivery attended by skilled personnel, backed by emergency obstetric care. However, adolescent girls do not always have access to these forms of care or information about the importance of these services, especially when they are married at an early age and have become socially isolated within their husbands’ households. In addition to the harm placed on adolescent mothers, their children also face numerous hardships. The children of young mothers have higher rates of infant mortality and malnutrition and are less likely to be educated than children born to mothers older than 18. Lack of access to contraception is a challenge to approximately 225 million women worldwide, who would like to avoid pregnancy but are not using a modern method of contraception. This is a particular challenge for girls who would like to stay in school.
HIV disproportionately affects adolescent girls and young women beginning in adolescence and continuing into early adulthood. Despite significant progress in the global HIV response over the past twenty years, there are approximately 380,000 new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women (10–24) globally every year, and girls and young women account for 71 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV-positive pregnant women are at increased risk of life-threatening infections such as sepsis and opportunistic infections, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis. For adolescents, these risks are exacerbated by early and repeated pregnancies. In cases in which HIV results in the death of the mother, the impact on her surviving children is devastating.
HIV prevalence among young people aged 15–19 in eastern and southern Africa
HIV prevalence among young people aged 15–19 in west and central Africa
Sao Tome and Principe
Source:UNAIDS 2014 GAP Report
Conflict, crises, and humanitarian emergencies
Threats to girls’ safety, health, and education are exacerbated by insecurity and heightened during armed conflict and natural disasters. In modern conflicts, where civilians suffer heavy consequences, women and children are typically the most vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and abuse due to their gender, age, and status in society. According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) schoolgirls routinely become victims of sexual violence in conflict settings, often from military officials and police. Conflict and humanitarian settings can increase the prevalence of CEFM due to economic insecurity, the breakdown of protective social safety networks and legal structures, reduced access to educational and economic opportunities, and restrictions on freedom of movement. In such contexts, families may perceive marriage as a means to increase a daughter’s safety, particularly from extremist groups and other combatants who often force girls into marriage; however, girls married under these circumstances are more vulnerable to violence from husbands and families and are unlikely to remain in school.
In some countries, violent extremist organizations like ISIL, Boko Haram, and the Taliban view educated girls as threats to their ideologies and seek to intimidate or harm girls who pursue an education. GCPEA reports that between 2009 and 2012, schools in 30 countries were used for military purposes in armed conflict or directly attacked, including specific attacks aimed at girls. Conflict also increases the incidence of disability, and women and girls with disabilities face particular risks, including social stigma and isolation, difficulty accessing humanitarian assistance, unmet healthcare needs, and higher rates of GBV and other forms of violence during and after conflict.
Investing in adolescent girls, particularly through education, benefits not only girls and their families, but entire communities and economies. Girls’ attendance in formal school during adolescence is correlated with later marriage, later childbearing, decreased fertility rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS and other reproductive morbidities, fewer hours of domestic work, and greater gender equality. Importantly, these benefits accrue to the next generation. Each extra year of girls’ education is correlated with a 5–10 percent reduction in infant mortality, and a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age five.
Addressing maternal mortality is one area where progress toward achieving the MDGs was slow. In 2014 the UN Secretary General stated that, “to truly triumph over maternal mortality, we must focus our initiatives on the adolescent girl. Adolescent girls need to be able to go to school and pursue education to the highest levels possible. When an adolescent girl is safe from harm and able to choose when to bear children, she can be saved from HIV infection, hemorrhage, obstetric complications such as obstructed labor and fistula, and death.” Recent evidence indicates that a one percent increase in the percentage of mothers receiving even one year of education reduces maternal mortality by 174 deaths per 100,000 births.
Empowered, educated, healthy, and safe adolescent girls possess a better complement of tools to make the transition into adulthood and engage productively in the economy as adults. Educated women are more likely to join the formal labor force, broadening a country’s tax base and increasing its productivity. In an analysis of 100 countries, the World Bank found that a one percent increase in the share of women completing secondary education boosts economic growth by 0.3 percent per capita, a significant amount. The study concludes that "societies that have a preference for not investing in girls pay a price for it in terms of slower growth and reduced income." Based on data from this study and UNESCO education statistics, Plan International has estimated that the economic cost to 65 low and middle income and transitional countries that failed to offer girls the same secondary school opportunities as boys reached a staggering US$92 billion each year. GBV, including CEFM, also takes a toll on societies in terms of lost economic opportunity, including financial costs, medical costs, lost education and earnings, lower growth potential, and continuing poverty.
PROFILE: MEMORY BANDA
As a young girl, Memory Banda watched as her young family members and friends got married at the age of 10 or 11 in her rural Malawian community. She decided she wanted to do everything she could to support these girls and others just like them, so she became a girl advocate. Today, as a Rise Up Girl Leader, she offers free writing lessons to adolescent moms in her neighborhood. She visits the families of girls who are in danger of being married, and she encourages them to change their minds. And she’s part of a grassroots campaign to build networks for girls and end CEFM once and for all.
Jimena was born to parents who were only teenagers. Today, as a 12-year-old girl living in Guatemala, she is an advocate for other girls and a Rise Up Girl Leader. For the past four years, she’s taught other girls about human rights, girls’ health, and education in Guatemala. Jimena is also an educator of adults. She is a reminder that girls aren’t just an investment we’re making in the future. They’re also important partners who can advocate and educate and empower in their own right. “Invest in us,” says Jimena. “We are not just the future but we are the present.”
PROFILE: SANGITA PAL
Sangita Pal grew up in Mumbai, where she shared a one-room home with six members of her family. All her life, her community encouraged her to stay home and marry early. Instead, with the guidance and coaching of a local NGO called Magic Bus, Sangita persuaded her parents to allow her to pursue her education. Today, she’s in the top five percent of her class at one of Mumbai’s best universities. She’s now also an advocate for Magic Bus, helping lead the next generation of girls in her community to a more empowered life.
Under the leadership of President Obama, the United States has put gender equality and the advancement of women and girls at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. This is embodied in the President’s National Security Strategy, the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, the U.S. Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and the Presidential Memorandum on the Coordination of Policies and Programs to Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls Globally. It is also demonstrated by the issuance of Executive Order 13595 and the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security to support women’s voices and perspectives in decision-making in countries threatened and affected by war, violence, and insecurity, as well as Executive Order 13623 directing departments and agencies to implement the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally.
These achievements have contributed to significant improvements for many women and girls globally, as outlined in the annual reports for these respective strategies and in the U.S. Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. However, the enormous potential of adolescent girls, as well as the distinct challenges they face, are too often subsumed under discussions around either children or women. Yet, evidence demonstrates that today’s epidemic of undereducated and impoverished girls is tomorrow’s crisis of instability and conflict, health, hunger, and avoidable child deaths. A concerted effort to address the challenges faced by adolescent girls, safeguard their rights, and encourage their participation is critical to achieving U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and development priorities. The welfare and active participation of this population will be an essential determinant of our success in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
To further advance its commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, the Obama Administration has developed the United States Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (“U.S. Adolescent Girls Strategy”) and agency-specific implementation plans to advance the human rights and welfare of adolescent girls worldwide. The purpose of this strategy is to establish a whole-of-government approach that identifies, coordinates, integrates, and leverages current efforts and resources. It outlines several guiding principles and a set of shared objectives that agencies will pursue according to their own priorities and mandates through concrete actions outlined in their respective implementation plans.
The goal of U.S. government efforts under this strategy is to ensure adolescent girls are educated, healthy, socially and economically empowered, and free from violence and discrimination, thereby promoting global development, security, and prosperity. In particular this work will aim to promote girls’ rights and address the harmful social norms that devalue them, discourage their education and economic participation, and perpetuate practices such as CEFM and FGM/C.
The United States’ approach to empowering adolescent girls will be guided by the following principles:
Focus on adolescent girls as direct beneficiaries and active participants
The success of our efforts will ultimately be determined by whether they generate positive changes in girls’ lives. Successful efforts to ensure adolescent girls are included as active participants in development, humanitarian, and diplomatic work require us to address the specific barriers and challenges that they face. Girls should be consulted about these challenges and problems and involved in the creation and evaluation of programs and policy. They must be able to safely and actively participate in interventions designed in their interest.
We must make a deliberate and intentional effort to reach those with the greatest unmet need, including girls who are part of impoverished, rural, or indigenous populations, as well as girls who are marginalized or isolated as a result of a mental or physical disability, early marriage, or early motherhood. We must ensure that our approaches are calibrated to be appropriate for the different ages of adolescence, in particular the youngest adolescents (10–14), whose needs are distinct from those of older adolescents and young women. Particular emphasis should be placed on reaching girls in this younger adolescent age range, because they are at a critical developmental tipping point. Wherever possible, our work will take account of whether our target population falls into the 10–14 or 15–19 age range—or both—and design and implement policies, programs, and associated monitoring and evaluation efforts accordingly, including through the collection, analysis, and reporting of sex- and age-disaggregated data.
Develop locally informed strategies adapted to unique contexts
Since girls’ inequality is rooted in culture-specific gender norms and poverty, it has a unique face in each context. Economic and social drivers vary among communities, regions, and countries, and thus no single approach can solve this problem. Changing the particular mix of attitudes, harmful practices, and beliefs that devalue adolescent girls and restrict their opportunities will require a range of locally developed strategies that are carefully adapted to the specific contexts. The U.S. government will continue to engage diplomatically and design programs and policies with an in-depth, data-driven understanding of the local contexts, including assessments of the primary challenges that girls are confronting, to maximize the effectiveness of its investments and avoid generating negative or unforeseen consequences. Program design will be based on evidence of best practices and will engage local men, women, boys, and girls to improve program results and encourage support from local communities. Partnerships with local communities that are informed by on-the-ground insights foster local accountability for sustainable programmatic success and accelerate changes in social behaviors that perpetuate harmful practices and beliefs.
Adopt a holistic, multi-sectoral, comprehensive approach
Given the close relationship between decisions about schooling, marriage, health care, including family planning, and household economics, the United States recognizes that policies and programs targeting adolescent girls must be comprehensive, combining interventions across a range of development sectors. This approach should include grassroots “bottom up” activities as well as coordinated national reforms. Through this strategy, the U.S. government aims to integrate a specific focus on adolescent girls throughout the ongoing work of agencies implementing activities to address global health, education, economic growth, democracy and governance, food security, climate change, natural disasters, and conflict and security. Efforts to prevent CEFM and protect and support married girls are critical in advancing U.S. goals and priorities across all of these sectors.
Rely on evidence-based interventions
Data and evidence of best practices will ensure that our interventions yield the greatest impact and achieve our policy goals. The U.S. government will support evidence-based programming and invest in monitoring and evaluation to learn from and continually improve our efforts. Through this strategy, we are committed to learning, sharing, and contributing to the body of evidence regarding what works to empower young women and adolescent girls.
This strategy sets forth the following objectives:
Over the last 30 years, the international community has increasingly recognized that girls’ education is one of the most powerful forces for international development, economic prosperity, security, and stability. The linchpin to any successful effort to support adolescent girls is increasing the number of girls who transition to secondary education, which can be transformative for adolescent girls and their communities. However, attendance at school is only the first step. Schools should be safe, secure, and have adequate sanitation facilities; instruction should be of high quality; and curricula should be inclusive, gender-sensitive, and relevant to girls’ lives. The United States will promote policies and programs that address the availability, quality, and relevance of education for adolescent girls. These efforts will include recruitment and training of female teachers; gender-sensitive teacher training; creation of non-formal or “second chance” schools and flexible learning options; mentoring and tutoring; health, nutrition, and comprehensive sexuality education; life skills education; and vocational training to ensure that young women gain the necessary skills to find employment.
Economic factors often prevent girls from attending and completing school and achieving their full potential. The cost of a secondary education is often three to five times higher than a primary education, and supporting a girl’s education beyond the primary level is often seen as a poor investment, particularly in societies where early marriage presents a more financially appealing alternative and is viewed as a means to protect young girls from gender-based violence. The United States will promote policies and programs that help families keep their daughters in school and delay marriage, including through measures such as scholarships, stipends, or conditional cash transfers directed at alleviating economic pressures within poorer households. The United States will also promote policies and programs that increase financial security by providing adolescent girls or other family members with financial knowledge, income generating opportunities, vocational training, access to capital or savings, including microfinance, and access to technology. Such measures can provide a positive alternative to school dropout or early marriage and offer relief to girls and families facing economic hardship. At the same time, these measures can help shift the perception of a daughter from a burden to an asset, increasing girls’ status within their households and giving them greater influence over their lives. Economic incentives are especially critical in regions affected by crisis or conflict and in regions where the prevalence of CEFM is high and/or the median age of marriage is low.
Economic empowerment programs or interventions specifically targeting adolescent girls can increase their financial literacy, help them build assets and access safe and legal employment and sustainable livelihoods, and increase their overall confidence and well-being. For married girls in particular such interventions can provide a means for them to increase their financial security and mitigate the negative consequences of early marriage. Economic empowerment strategies that target adolescent girls should be age-appropriate and data driven; for example, entrepreneurship, capacity-building, and employment programs should be grounded in real market needs and opportunities.
Girls benefit from a range of skills, services, information, and support networks beyond formal education to reach their full potential. In order to stay in school and reap the benefits of education, they must be healthy and empowered to make informed and responsible decisions about their bodies and their lives. In particular, adolescent girls and young women need information about health, nutrition, sexuality, and reproduction to build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy behaviors, both for themselves and their children. The United States will promote policies and programs that target adolescent girls both in and out of school—as well as those adolescent girls and young women who are married and unmarried—to increase their awareness of, and access to, sexual and reproductive health information and services; family planning methods; HIV prevention, testing, and treatment; and mental health services. Such information and services could be provided to girls through outreach, one-stop centers, dedicated transportation services, and mobile devices such as cell phones.
The United States will also promote polices and programs that increase girls’ awareness of their rights and their ability to advocate for themselves. Programs with proven success in increasing girls’ agency and opportunities bring girls together in safe spaces to share information. In such settings, girls receive literacy and life skills training, develop their critical thinking, improve their communication and negotiation skills, and learn about their human rights. Such training makes girls aware of the options and services that are available to them, raises their expectations for their own lives, and empowers them to advocate for themselves and make informed life choices. Safe spaces also provide girls with the opportunity to interact with peers, be mentored by older girls and young women, and overcome isolation, which is a problem particularly for married girls. Through dialogue, they can build self-confidence and social skills that will make it easier for them to pursue additional education and employment. As girls’ sense of possibility and self-worth grow, others in the community may start to view them differently, reshaping broader assumptions about girls. It is also important to educate adolescent boys about sexual and reproductive health and rights and the consequences of violence and engage them in thinking critically about gender norms.
Natural disasters and humanitarian crises increase the vulnerability of girls. Instability, conflict, and stress present acute challenges for girls that must be considered in the design and provision of humanitarian response. Consistent with the principles of the U.S.-led initiative “Safe from the Start,” staff with training in the prevention of and response to gender-based violence should be deployed at the onset of each humanitarian response effort, and all staff should be trained on gender-sensitive response and the specific needs of adolescent girls. Adolescent girls must be identified during the initial phases of conflict and linked with girl-specific services and support, including access to health, education, and livelihoods opportunities adapted to their needs; targeted sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning and HIV prevention education and services, menstruation management, and personal hygiene supplies; safe and confidential methods for reporting abuse; and protective peer networks and psychosocial support.
The environment around adolescent girls plays a key role in their ability to thrive. Girls who live in disempowering environments may not have access to programs and resources, and even when they are available they may be beyond girls’ reach due to structural or cultural barriers or household dynamics that restrict their access to such services and support. The United States will promote policies and programs that partner with communities to eliminate the pervasive inequitable norms and practices that perpetuate GBV, inhibit girls from completing their education, and contribute to broader instability and economic stagnation. Such interventions raise broad awareness about the benefits for girls, their children, and the community at large of keeping girls in school, preventing HIV/AIDS, delaying marriage, and ending harmful practices such as FGM/C.
They also engage participants in discussions about shifting gender norms and practices. Interventions are most effective when they engage whole communities, including adolescent girls and girl-led groups, parents, grandparents, siblings, in-laws, and especially adolescent boys, as evidence shows that early adolescence is a key moment in the formation of norms and beliefs. These interventions must also draw in traditional and religious leaders, and other members of the community with influence, such as political leaders, civil society organizations, mother’s groups, and parent-teacher associations. Teachers and school management staff in particular have an important role in providing positive role models for both boys and girls, identifying girls at risk of CEFM, and encouraging married girls to stay in, or return to, schools.
Many legal frameworks around the world do not protect girls from violence and discrimination, either because they discriminate against girls or because anti-discrimination provisions are inadequately enforced. Girls face a myriad of obstacles to accessing justice, including a lack of self-esteem and assertiveness; lack of awareness about the law, their rights under it, and of appropriate reporting mechanisms and services; and a fear of stigma, blame, or victimization through the justice system. Laws protecting girls’ rights and citizenship are critical first steps toward gender equality. Without a proper legal framework, girls have no recourse to protect their rights, and without equal access to citizenship (i.e., through mechanisms such as inheritance, birth, and marriage registration) girls cannot fully participate in their communities and economies.
However, laws alone are not sufficient. Governments are accountable for ensuring that laws protecting adolescent girls are implemented and enforced, and that all citizens, especially girls, are aware of their rights under the law. The United States will work with governments and civil society organizations to advocate for policy and legal reform to protect adolescent girls; improve implementation and enforcement of existing laws and policies; and raise awareness of the laws and legal protections adolescent girls are granted under the law. Interventions will provide girls with rights-based education and support networks; equip legal systems to address the needs of adolescent girls by protecting them from violence and all forms of discrimination; examine potentially exclusionary policies around women’s political participation; and challenge gender norms and stereotypes.
A working group will measure the progress of the implementation of the strategy. The progress of this strategy will also be assessed in line with various existing policies and strategic frameworks, including the Department of State’s Policy Guidance on Promoting Gender Equality, USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy; MCC’s Gender Policy, the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, as well as the agencies’ implementation plans.
Examples of Key U.S. Coordinated Efforts
The United States’ efforts to empower adolescent girls and expand their opportunities build on the foundation laid by agencies across the U.S. government and by Congress. This strategy will complement and reinforce these ongoing efforts, as detailed below.
LET GIRLS LEARN
In March 2015, the President and First Lady launched Let Girls Learn, which brings together the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), as well as other agencies and programs like the U.S. President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), to address the range of challenges preventing adolescent girls from attaining a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential. Recognizing that adolescent girls face multiple challenges in pursuing an education, Let Girls Learn is employing a holistic approach to change the perception of the value of girls at the individual, community and institutional levels; foster an enabling environment for adolescent girls’ education; and engage and equip girls to make life decisions and important contributions to society. Building on existing U.S. government efforts and expertise, Let Girls Learn elevates existing programs and invests in new ones to expand educational opportunities for girls—including in areas of conflict and crisis. It leverages public-private partnerships and challenges others to commit resources to improve the lives of adolescent girls worldwide. The initiative will also expand collaboration with experts and place particular emphasis on community-led solutions to help adolescent girls complete their education.
The United States response to global HIV/AIDS is saving lives and changing the very course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. PEPFAR and private sector partners are investing almost $500 million in ten African countries to reduce HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women. The DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDs-free, Mentored, Safe) portion of this funding will allow participating countries to implement a core package of evidence-based approaches that go beyond the health sector, addressing the structural drivers that directly and indirectly increase girls’ HIV risk, including poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, and lack of education. The balance of the investment will support complementary activities such as targeting medical male circumcision and HIV treatment to males that are likely to pose the greatest risk of transmission to adolescent girls and young women.
U.S. STRATEGY TO PREVENT AND RESPOND TO GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE GLOBALLY
In August 2012, President Obama issued Executive Order 13623, “Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally,” directing agencies to implement the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally (“GBV Strategy”). This strategy, developed by the Department of State and USAID in coordination with other relevant U.S. government departments and agencies, identifies early and forced marriage as a form of gender-based violence and emphasizes the need for increased programming to address the practice in countries where it is most prevalent. It also calls on U.S. agencies to address root causes of violence as a means of raising the value of girls while developing best practices, programs, and policies. In August 2015, the State Department and USAID submitted an evaluation of implementation report to the National Security Council, which found that the Department achieved significant progress toward the objectives of the GBV Strategy. In December 2015, the Department and USAID released the “Evaluation of the Implementation of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.” In it, the Department has also identified internal and external challenges to full implementation. In adherence with E.O. 13623, the GBV Strategy will be updated to ensure continued work to achieve the objectives beyond 2015.
U.S. NATIONAL ACTION PLAN ON WOMEN, PEACE, AND SECURITY
In December 2011, President Obama released the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security and signed Executive Order 13595 directing the NAP’s implementation. The goal of the NAP is to promote U.S. national security by empowering women abroad as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, conflict, violence, and insecurity. The NAP commits the United States government to strengthening efforts to prevent and protect women and children from harm, exploitation, discrimination, and abuse, including gender-based violence and trafficking in persons. Of central importance to adolescent girls in crisis and conflict settings, the NAP outlines actions that increase women and girls’ access to health, education, and economic opportunities.
The United States has developed the U.S. National Action Plan on Children in Adversity, the first-ever whole-of-government strategic guidance for U.S. government international assistance for children. The United States also contributes to the Global Partnership for Education, and recently increased its annual contribution for FY 2016 to $70 million. At the United Nations, the United States has cosponsored resolutions on eliminating harmful practices affecting adolescent girls, including CEFM and FGM/C, at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and made statements at the HRC condemning CEFM and calling on nations and the scientific community to systematically implement the Action Plan.
President Obama has stated that addressing the challenges faced by adolescent girls and supporting them to fully participate in their communities and economies are critical to U.S. foreign policy and development efforts. The Department of State, USAID, the Peace Corps, MCC, and PEPFAR are the primary implementers of United States government programs to empower adolescent girls globally, including the Let Girls Learn initiative launched by the President and the First Lady in 2015, which is aimed at helping adolescent girls attain a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential. As appropriate, other U.S. government agencies will support these efforts by aligning their work with the goals and objectives outlined above.
Pursuant to the strategy’s objectives, efforts will be coordinated across the U.S. government and integrated into agencies’ ongoing work, including the Let Girls Learn initiative and PEPFAR’s DREAMS initiative. Agencies will implement the strategy through a range of approaches appropriate to their respective mandates and capacities, including diplomacy, programmatic interventions, public engagement and outreach, coordination with international and private sector partners, and evidence building and data collection. Each agency acknowledges the value and importance of empowering adolescent girls and, in keeping with its mission and authorities, intends to integrate advancing the rights and empowerment of adolescent girls into its operations, including in policy development, strategic and budget planning, staff training and capacity building, implementation of policies and programs, and monitoring and evaluation of results.
The interagency working group, in consultation with the National Security Council, will meet regularly to coordinate the implementation of the U.S. Adolescent Girls Strategy. In addition, consultations will be held with civil society to discuss ongoing efforts and preview future plans for implementation. These consultations will be an opportunity for civil society to continue to provide feedback and inform prospective implementation of the strategy. This strategy will be reviewed regularly and updated as necessary to assess funding and respond to emerging challenges and opportunities.
The following implementation plans outline the specific modalities that each agency will employ to achieve the goals and objectives of the strategy:
- U.S. Department of State Implementation Plan
- U.S. Agency for International Development Implementation Plan
- U.S. Peace Corps Implementation Plan
- Millennium Challenge Corporation Implementation Plan
 This document follows UNESCO’s definition of adolescents as those individuals aged 10–19. More information on defining adolescence can be found here: http://www.unicef.org/adolescence/files/SOWC_2011_Main_Report_EN_02092011.pdf
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 Although there is currently limited research about the impact of child marriage on economies, in 2014 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation announced a new $4.2 million investment toward a three-year research program to measure the economic cost of child marriage, to be led jointly by the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
 These objectives are based on key approaches that emerged from a systematic review of the evidence base on CEFM. This study, conducted by ICRW in 2011, reviewed evaluations of 23 programs to identify program interventions and policy strategies that had documented measurement of change in child-marriage related behaviors and/or attitudes. It is available at http://www.icrw.org/files/publications/Solutions-to-End-Child-Marriage.pdf. Although these strategies emerged from a review of programs to address CEFM, it is our view that these same strategies are the most effective to empower adolescent girls more broadly.