When Girls Thrive, Nations Thrive

By: Matthew T. Harrington, United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho

The United States is proud to celebrate the International Day of the Girl with our partners across the globe.  The United Nations established the day in 2011 to recognize girls’ rights and galvanize global commitments to end gender stereotypes, discrimination, violence, and economic disparities that disproportionately affect girls.  It reminds us and inspires us to consider how we can work together to ensure that all young people – both girls and boys – have equal opportunities to contribute to their societies and build brighter futures for themselves, their families, and their countries.

Promoting gender equality and investing in women and girls are central to promoting prosperity, peace, and security. Evidence shows that countries will only progress economically, socially, and politically when girls participate fully in all aspects of society and when they are protected from discrimination and gender-based violence. That is why Secretary Kerry and the Obama Administration have made advancing the status of women and girls a key priority for the United States.

We know that in too many communities around the world, girls do not enjoy the same opportunities to realize their full potential as boys, simply because of their gender: Too many girls and women still receive inadequate health care and nutrition. An estimated 10 million girls are married every year before they reach the age of 18, and about 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year, which is linked to maternal mortality and health risks, curtailed education, and limited economic opportunity.  And more than 62 million girls around the world aren’t in school, which means they face diminished economic opportunities and increased risk of discrimination and violence.

When girls are educated and empowered, entire families, communities, and nations benefit. Data show that when girls are educated, countries are more prosperous. Providing girls with an extra year of schooling increases their wage-earning potential by 10 to 20 percent, and the returns from a secondary school education are even higher. Girls who are in school are more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, have lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and enjoy greater equality at home and in society, and their future children are more likely to survive and be educated themselves. When girls thrive, nations thrive.

President Obama recently said during his visit to Kenya, “The evidence shows that communities that give their daughters the same opportunities as their sons, they are more peaceful, they are more prosperous, they develop faster, they are more likely to succeed… And that’s why one of the most successful development policies you can pursue is giving girls an education, and removing the obstacles that stand between them and their dreams.”

Here in Lesotho, one of the ways we are supporting Basotho girls is by working to help keep them healthy. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in Lesotho have an HIV prevalence of 4% but that rate skyrockets to 24% for young women between the ages of 20 and 24. This means adolescent girls and young women account for 22% of all new infections even though they comprise only 11% of the population. We are working with the Ministry of Health to dramatically improve these numbers through two new initiatives: Accelerating Children’s HIV/AIDS Treatment (ACT) and Determined, Resilient, Empowered AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS). ACT will enable 10,000 more children living with HIV/AIDS in Lesotho to receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment (ART). DREAMS will target 130,000 adolescent girls and young women in two districts to reduce new infections by 40% over two years. These programs are part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), through which the American people have provided more than $225 million in bilateral support to help Lesotho combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ensuring that girls, and all children, are healthy and live to adulthood enables them to boost the economy, create jobs, and contribute to their families and communities for decades to come.

This International Day of the Girl gives us all an opportunity to discuss these important issues – and how we can work together to break down the barriers that keep girls and boys from achieving their potential as    the next generation of leaders.