Senate bill aims to keep U.S. government focused on girls’ education

Facilitators provide puberty education to girls in the Ugandan district of Kawuli. (Photo: Jim Hecimovich)

Gender equality advocates are applauding a new bill in the U.S. Congress that aims to promote empowerment, economic security and educational opportunities for adolescent girls around the world.

Last week, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., introduced the Keeping Girls in School Act, which would allocate $35 million to find innovative ways to help girls around the world get an education.

The bill would put into law the mission of Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative. Earlier this month there were reports that the Trump administration was planning to kill that program, but officials then said there was no such plan. Shaheen told Cosmopolitan in an interview that she had been working on this bill before that controversy erupted.

Shaheen said in that interview that the bill has three main parts: to enable better coordination between U.S. government agencies, to authorize U.S. assistance to address specific barriers that keep adolescent girls out of school and to require the development of a global strategy to empower adolescent girls.

President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) Serra Sippel said the bill is a reminder that there are still plenty of Americans committed to advancing the health and rights of people worldwide.

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“We know that when girls can access education, they can take charge of their bodies, their future and contribute to their communities,” Sippel said in a statement. “This bill highlights the gender inequalities that keep girls from acquiring an education, such as unintended pregnancy, female genital cutting, and HIV, and situates adolescent girls at the center of U.S. foreign policy.”

The Let Girls Learn initiative has already invested at least $1 billion in the holistic program, which tackles barriers to education that keep 62 million girls out of school. There are questions about whether the program will continue because of the mixed messaging coming out of the White House.

“They’re basically not going to do anything with [Let Girls Learn],” Sippel told Humanosphere. “I think it’s kind of still there, in limbo. But there’s no movement to continue it or to end it right now.”

Many experts are concerned that the U.S. government’s attention to girls’ education is dwindling. They stress the importance of initiatives like Let Girls Learn not just to ensure girls’ education, but to overcome the barriers that keep them from school in the first place, such as child marriage, early pregnancy, violence, discrimination and harassment of girls on the way to and during school.

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The new legislation addresses many of these barriers, but doesn’t explicitly mention comprehensive sexuality education and barriers faced by LGBTQ girls – issues that Sippel said aren’t usually addressed unless they get a specific clause in government policies.

She explained that these issues were also ignored last year in Kenya and South Africa within the PEPFAR dreams partnership – a global AIDS initiative to reduce HIV infections among young women and adolescent girls. Lack of education contributes to a staggering 380,000 new HIV infections among adolescent girls annually, according to USAID statistics.

“What we found in those countries was that there was no programming that was addressing LGBTQ adolescent girls,” Sippel said. “And it wasn’t that they were deliberately excluded. One problem was that there was no actual data about them, so naturally, nobody had [LGBT girls] on their mind as important.”

“The Keeping Girls in School Act does call for scientific and research-based approaches, which is really important,” she added, “but with such low data on the barriers that LGBT girls face, that’s why it’s important to mention them by name in this type of legislation.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com