Opinion: Could looming foreign assistance cuts be the end for the US global empowerment strategy for girls?

By Lyric Thompson, Helena Minchew, Rachel Clement, Gayatri Patel 15 March 2017

Girls attend a class at Kursa Primary School in Afar Region of Ethiopia. Photo by: Ose / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

One year ago, the U.S. government launched the world’s first foreign policy strategy solely dedicated to the rights and empowerment of adolescent girls: the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. Since then, in an unprecedented effort, six U.S. government agencies have joined forces to bring to bear the critical priorities of this strategy — which aims to ensure adolescent girls are educated, healthy, economically and socially empowered, able to live lives free from violence and discrimination, therefore promoting global development, security and prosperity around the world. The value of this policy is clear: evidence shows that approaches to empowering girls must take into account all of the complex ways in which girls lead their lives.

This is the good news.

The bad news is that at a time when the United States should be redoubling its efforts to show leadership to tackle some of the biggest issues facing girls, President Donald Trump has suggested a dramatic slash in an already stretched foreign affairs budget that, if realized, will have devastating effects on this important work. At Girls Not Brides USA, we know that for any policy to be impactful, it needs to be resourced to bring it to life. Otherwise, it’s just words on a piece of paper. The Girl Strategy is no different.

What would deep cuts to US foreign aid look like?

There has been a flurry of speculation and warning about what cuts of the magnitude President Donald Trump is proposing — up to 37 percent — would mean for U.S. global development programs and the populations they serve. Here's a look at how deep cuts could impact foreign assistance.

Since the launch of the strategy in March 2016, the U.S. government has been a leader in thinking strategically and creatively about what works to empower girls. Through the strategy, the Let Girls Learn initiative and other efforts, the U.S. reports that it has invested more than $1 billion in new and ongoing programming for more than 50 countries globally, which will help girls address the range of obstacles both inside and outside the classroom to gain “the education they deserve.”

They have developed toolkits to better equip U.S. representatives at home and overseas to address critical issues affecting adolescent girls — including violence and female genital mutilation — which stand in the way of effective development. Recognizing that adolescent girls are 14 times more likely than boys to be infected with HIV, PEPFAR’s DREAMS program has actively worked to address this at the country level in the hardest-hit areas. And the Peace Corps has trained 5,000 volunteers in gender equality programming, which will have lasting effects in communities where volunteers serve.

Special attention and portions of the funds will be devoted to countries affected by conflict and crisis, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is set to receive funding over the next five years to benefit an estimated 755,000 girls ages 10 to 18. In the DRC, the U.S. has been working with support from the U.K. Department for International Development, just one example of the type of international cooperation specifically called for in the Girl Strategy. All of this has been achieved in the first year of the strategy, with much more work to be done.

A key component of the strategy's objectives is the coordinated work called for across the U.S. government to end child marriage. This is important because we know that the negative impacts of child marriage are wide ranging and long lasting. Estimates show that 90 percent of births to adolescent girls in the developing world occur within a marriage or union, and complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 globally. Physical consequences of child marriage are not the only effects — girls married during adolescence are more likely to be pulled out of school and face violence and abuse within their marriages and have fewer, if any, options for economic development.

The way that this strategy takes an integrated approach to broad challenges is both innovative and unique — the United States has never attempted to bring different agencies’ resources and expertise to bear to jointly solve a social problem as complex as the marginalization of adolescent girls, but neither has any other nation. This is not easy work and it will not come from the U.S. government alone, which is why continued partnership with other governments and civil society is critical. Girls Not Brides USA applauded the strategy when it was released. We continue to believe that if it is fully funded, implemented and supported from the highest reaches of government to local civil society partners in communities, the strategy could be an example of how to work across sectors, across agencies and across development sectors to engage in truly sustainable development.

Including girls in development and diplomacy and working to achieve true gender equality is one of the most critical elements of achieving lasting peace, economic prosperity, sustainable development and human rights for all. In President Trump’s March 1 comments about Women’s History Month, he stated that America “will fight to protect young girls.” The U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls and other efforts, such as the DREAMS program, to empower women and girls around the world does precisely that for girls abroad. For President Trump to keep America’s promise to the world’s most vulnerable girls, the U.S. must not cut the foreign aid budget and the financial support for the strategy and important programs. Doing so is good for girls, good for the global community, and good for America.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the authors

Lyric Thompson

Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. In this capacity she leads the institution’s formulation of evidence-based policy recommendations and manages ICRW’s advocacy efforts with the U.S. government and internationally. In addition to serving as the co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA advocacy coalition, Lyric is also on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Gender-Based Violence Globally, the board of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, the Executive Committee of the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the board of the Community Center for Integrated Development of Cameroon.

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Helena Minchew

Helena supports IWHC’s U.S. foreign policy portfolio through working with a number of technical and advocacy coalitions, including as a co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA, and helps to define IWHC’s engagement with members of Congress and administration officials. Helena also contributes toward achieving IWHC’s advocacy objectives for sexual and reproductive health and rights at the international level, having represented IWHC at the U.N. in New York, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Geneva, Switzerland.

Rachel Clement

Rachel Clement is a policy associate at the International Center for Research on Women. She is a co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA and on the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls. She has worked in Austria, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines, Russia and Vietnam with and for youth, primarily on gender issues. Rachel earned her M.A. from George Washington University and in International Development and her B.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder in Sociology and Spanish.

Gayatri Patel

Gayatri Patel is the senior policy advocate for gender at CARE USA. In this capacity, she leads the advocacy and outreach efforts of the organization on the gender priorities that cut across all of CARE’s work both in the United States and globally. Gayatri is a co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA Coalition as well as of the Steering Group of the Coalition to End Violence Against Women. Gayatri joined CARE after nearly 10 years advising the U.S. State Department on a variety of human rights and humanitarian issues.

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