In late 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution stating that, from them on, every October 11th would be designated International Day of the Girl Child. That resolution recognized the need for action by all nations to promote human rights and education opportunities for girls around the world and to combat the discrimination and abuse they suffer too often in too many places.
On Oct. 9, 2012 – virtually the eve of the first observance – 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken advocate for girls’ education in her home country of Pakistan, was gunned down and nearly killed by the Taliban while she was on her way to school. Malala recovered from her wounds and courageously continued and even expanded her fight. In 2014, she became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Whether the timing of that heinous attack was coincidental or planned, it illustrates a challenge that must be addressed: while the majority of the world’s people support a full measure of rights and opportunities for girls, there remain dark forces committed to violence and oppression.
The theme of the 2015 International Day of the Girl Child is “The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030.” The UN is calling upon governments and the private sector worldwide to commit to an ambitious 15-year agenda of investment in education and job-training for girls and to a zero tolerance policy for physical, mental, and sexual violence. This violence includes sex trafficking and forced marriage.
Girls’ education is fundamental to a society’s social and economic well-being as it promotes the health and welfare of the next generation. Research shows that an increase in the female share of labor-force participation results in faster economic growth, which can help developing nations rise out of poverty. The World Bank estimates that some of the poorest countries lose more than $1 billion in annual economic output by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys, and that every year of secondary school education correlates to an 18-percent increase in a girl’s earning power.
Yet, more than 31 million girls around the world are not in school. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women; of the 103 million youth worldwide who lack basic literacy skills, more than 60 percent are girls. For nations struggling to break the bonds of poverty, this is an enormous amount of wasted potential.
The United States is a global leader in education equality. Starting with the generation born in the 1950s, the majority of our high-school graduates have been young women. Women born in the 1960s pulled even with men in college enrollment and graduation; today, the majority of college degrees are earned by women.
America also leads the world in promoting and supporting education equality around the world. For example, the Peace Corps has 7,000 volunteers in 60 developing countries working side-by-side with families and community leaders to break down the barriers to education for girls.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a key partner in Africa, where one out every four girls do not receive even a basic education. Efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Malawi have improved education and health outcomes for more than 130,000 girls. From El Salvador to Afghanistan, USAID and our State Department are working to address the challenges confronting adolescent girls around the world.
Tragically, as the story of Malala Yousafzai makes clear, many girls are denied an education not because their country lacks the resources but because someone wants to prevent them from having it. A particularly horrifying example of this is the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria, which kidnapped more than 275 girls last year and is responsible for the deaths of more than 11,000 people.
The name Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.” This descriptive moniker helps explain the organization’s determination to terrorize young girls who seek an education – girls who seek nothing more than a better life and a path to independence. And it is seeking to extend its malevolent influence to neighboring counties.
In response to the kidnapping, I led all 20 women Senators in urging Secretary of State Kerry to pursue UN sanctions against Boko Haram. Boko Haram is now subject to a complete asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo. This September, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation I introduced to strengthen our efforts against Boko Haram, including the development of a long-term diplomatic and military strategy to counter the threat. This strategy is to include bolstering the government of Nigeria’s ability to protect schoolchildren and to combat gender-based violence and inequality.
Combatting oppression against women and girls and increasing their opportunities abroad has been a long-standing priority of mine. The bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act I introduced with Senator Barbara Boxer would ensure that the U.S. will take a leadership role in combating these problems. This bill would establish that it is the policy of the United States to take action to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls around the globe and to coordinate efforts to address gender-based violence into U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance programs.
When a girl receives a quality education, she is more likely to earn a good living, raise a healthy family, and improve the quality of life for herself, her family, and her community – as well as for her country and our world. As a world leader, the United States is committed to this cause, but we must never forget that the girls of Nigeria and Malala Yousafzai were targeted simply because they went to school. We must send a message to women and girls around the world that their safety and well-being matters and that everyone deserves the opportunity to seek an education.