Last week United States Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told a conference in Washington, D.C., that education was the “key to success” in reducing poverty, especially for women. In making the assertion she drew on her development experience as a former director of Peace Corps.
But just one day after Chao’s positive comments were given at the opening plenary for the non-profit CARE, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its budget request, which called for a 30 percent cut to foreign aid spending, and especially targeted education programs.
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These seemingly contradictory statements are an example of what some experts in the aid sector see as confusing messages coming from the administration on the vital development issue of educating girls, which many say are key to improving their economic, social and health outcomes.
A recent report by the the United Nations Human Rights Council underscored the importance of education for girls and estimated that 15 million girls — mainly those living in developing countries — will never set foot in a classroom.
Speaking at the CARE meeting, Chao herself emphasised that point: “We know that education is the key to success in all countries, rich and poor … Illiteracy means that there’s a huge impediment to reducing poverty rates, especially for women.”
Furthermore, economically empowering women and girls appears to be an important issue for some senior members of the Trump administration, as indicated by the fanfare around the new World Bank fund for women entrepreneurs, initiated by Ivanka Trump.
Some experts have therefore been dismayed by the cuts to the education budget, and reports — which were later denied by the White House — that the Trump administration planned to scrap the Let Girls Learn program, started by former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2015 to promote access to education for adolescent girls.
“The Trump administration’s reported move to dismantle key international programs to help adolescent girls is both beyond disheartening and economically foolish,” according to Christa Stewart, who works on justice for girls at human rights organization Equality Now.
The mixed messages coming out of the White House have prompted some politicians to take action on their own to preserve girls education programming. For example, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen has initiated new legislation to enshrine the work of the Let Girls Learn program into law: “... The landmark Let Girls Learn initiative brought much-needed attention to the unique obstacles that adolescent girls face in getting an education around the world,” Shaheen said.
The Keeping Girls in School Act, which has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would see $35 million allocated every year to finding innovative ways to help girls around the world access education.
The draft legislation is designed to “ensure that the United States remains committed to adolescent girls as a critical demographic in the growth of every nation, with a specific focus on developing nations,” Shaheen said in a statement.
Initiatives like Let Girls Learn are critical to helping adolescent girls speak out against and potentially avoid harmful practices such as sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, according to Equality Now’s Stewart, who warned that without such programs, adolescent girls would be more at risk.
Shaheen’s legislation, if passed, will go some way to correcting the situation according to Stewart, although $35 million against a proposed USAID education budget cut of $435 million will only go so far.
Aside from the specific numbers, the Equality Now manager pointed to a wider problem within the administration’s approach to education which fails to take into account the need to look at access challenges through a gender lens.
“The problem with this administration is that they are dismantling the holistic approach to adolescent girls and education … You can give money to build schools, but if girls can't come because they're married off, bearing children while still children themselves, or will be subject to gender-based violence at school, what's the point?” Stewart said.