US House votes to make girls count

A student reads during a class in Pakistan. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that aims to encourage more U.S.-funded scholarship for Pakistani women. Photo by: Hashoo Foundation USA / CC BY-SA

Women and girls in developing countries found support on Capitol Hill, as the U.S. House of Representatives passed Wednesday two pieces of legislation aimed to improve data around female births and encourage more U.S.-funded scholarships for Pakistani women.

The Girls Count Act of 2014 aims to encourage the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to support programs focused on “improved civil registration and vital statistics systems” so that female births, in particular, will be better recorded in developing countries.

In addition, the bill hopes to promote programs that target developing countries’ legal environments “to prevent discrimination against girls, and help increase property rights, social security, land tenure and inheritance rights for women.”

The House also passed the Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act — named after the Nobel Peace Prize winner and girls’ education champion — which requires that at least half of USAID’s scholarships under the agency’s Merit and Needs-Based Scholarship Program in Pakistan go to women.

Approximately 1 in 3 of all children under 5 — roughly 230 million children — have never had their births registered in their countries’ civil registries, according to UNICEF statistics. Unregistered children can be excluded from education and other social services, and girls, in particular, face higher risks of falling subject to human trafficking and child marriage.

“In the wake of the horrors we’ve seen perpetrated by terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram [which are] kidnapping and enslaving school-aged girls, robbing them of their freedoms, I know so many of us are deeply concerned by the plight of women and girls around the world,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce in a statement about the bill’s passage. “This legislation aims to empower those who have been cast into the shadows of their society.”

Kathy Calvin, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, and Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, commended the public movement that has risen to support the cause.

“Through the Girl Up campaign and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, this nationwide movement of girl advocates raised their voices and their members of Congress listened,” Calvin and Stern said in a joint statement.

The House Foreign Affairs committee will take up other development-related pieces of legislation Thursday, including the Feed the Future Global Food Security Act of 2014, which would embed U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature food security initiative in law, as well as debate authorization of emergency funding to countries affected by — or at risk of being affected by — the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

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About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.