remarks made by Kathy Calvin, COO of the UN Foundation, at Breakthrough: The Women, Faith, and Development Summit to End Global Poverty
I want to speak to you about three things this evening: First, about adolescent girls and why the UN Foundation has spent over $42 million in the past ten years to try change the realities that far too many of them live; second, about a new initiative we are announcing as our commitment to the Women, Faith and Development Alliance; and, third, to urge you to join us in elevating adolescent girls on the global agenda.Let me begin with by reading a short quote from a girl in Niger: “One day my father told me I was to be married. I was never asked how I felt. It was my duty to respect his decision. . . I would have wanted to wait and find the one I love. But now it is too late.” This girl was 12 years old when she said this, referring to her marriage at the age of 9. Like too many girls, her aspirations were left aside and her possibilities for a better life cut off because of the cultural perception that she is inferior. There are many dire consequences for girls like this. One of them, which I’ll speak about more later, is fistula, a debilitating obstetric condition that over two million girls and women in the Global South are living with today, with an additional 100,000 added to that each year.
One of the top priorities of the UN Foundation since its inception has been to advocate for women and girls. Instead of emerging from their teenage years ready to make their mark on the world, too many bright girls on the brink of adulthood find themselves shut out, invisible, and ignored — their talents wasted. The statistics are astounding.
In many countries around the globe, girls spend up to 15 hours a day fetching water and firewood and doing household chores instead of learning to read and write… taking care of other family members instead of caring for their own health… toiling in fields and factories for no or low wages, without possibility to improve their economic lives.
Nearly half of all girls in the developing world are married, and one-third give birth before they turn 20. Girls ages 10-14 are five times more likely than women over age 20 to die from childbirth, and girls 15-19 are twice as likely — medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death for girls in the 15-19 age group. For every woman who dies in childbirth, some 15-30 survive with chronic disabilities, the most devastating and debilitating of which is obstetric fistula.
Girls make up over two-thirds of those under age 25 currently living with HIV/AIDS — in sub-Saharan Africa, 75 percent of HIV-infected youth are female. Fifty percent of sexual assaults are against girls younger than 15. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 17 percent of girls enroll in secondary school.
Many girls in the Global South are not registered at birth — they have no birth certificate or identification card to for example, prove their age so that they may avoid being married young; sit for school exams or in some cases enter school at all; have legal recourse if anything happens to them; or to ensure that they do not become victims of trafficking. The lack of identification makes them invisible before the law.
When girls’ lives are made invisible in these ways, they are not the only ones who lose out. Families… communities… entire countries are stunted when half their human resources are squandered.
Girls are continually left out of the equation not only in their own communities, but in development efforts as well. While we still struggle to even ensure that data from development and humanitarian efforts is disaggregated by sex, rarely is it disaggregated by sex and age. Girls are routinely excluded from programming that is targeted toward women, because of age, and from programming that is targeted for adolescents and youth, because of their sex. All of this contributes to the entrenched invisibility of girls.
Girls’ education ranks among the most powerful tools for reducing the vulnerability of girls on many fronts. It has been shown to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and it contributes to female economic independence, delayed marriage, family planning, and work outside the home.
An educated woman is not only more likely to be healthy, and more likely to have a smaller, healthier, better educated family… but she is more likely to participate in civic life and to advocate for community improvements. A 100-country study by the World Bank shows that increasing the share of women with a secondary education by one percent boosts annual per capita income by .3 percentage points.
A key priority for the UN Foundation’s is to elevate adolescent girls on the global agenda in the least developed countries of the world. We began this advocacy work with various partners because we realized that, unfortunately, development strategies and dollars have traditionally ignored these girls in much the same way that their own societies have. Even the best-intentioned people cannot successfully work to alleviate the injustices adolescent girls face unless businesses and NGOs, philanthropic leaders, the UN, governments and the faith community work together.
In all of our spheres of influence, we need to advocate for girls — supporting the policy and funding reforms that can redress the violence, discrimination, and poor health so many adolescent girls endure. If our sectors work together, there’s virtually nothing we can’t achieve.
The UN Foundation has partnered with faith communities on a variety of causes and efforts. We recently formed a malaria prevention initiative, the UN Foundation Malaria Partnership, with the United Methodist Church and Lutheran World Relief. Together we aim to mobilize their combined 25 million members to raise $200 million toward the elimination of malaria. Indeed, malaria is a major cause of death and illness in children and pregnant women in particular. We want to build on this and support and collaborate with international faith and development leaders to also forge a common agenda for empowering women and girls around the world.
To date, UNF has invested over $42.5 million on behalf of adolescent girls, much of that through investment in UN agencies. We have participated in and heavily supported initiatives like the Coalition on Adolescent Girls, led by UNF and the Nike Foundation and made up of leading international NGOs, UN agencies, and other partners committed to the idea that girls are the most cost effective and best investment that can be make to alleviate poverty and improve society.
The work of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls has thus far culminated in a key report, entitled Girls Count: A Global Investment & Action Agenda, which makes the case for why and how to effectively count, invest, and advocate for girls. I know all of you will be getting copies of the report at the Leadership Council Dialogue tomorrow. The report was launched globally at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. A work session followed that asked participants to make concreted commitments to work to leverage the untapped resource of adolescent girls.
The discussion prompted a series of remarkable actions. UNAIDS pledged to convene the world’s largest funders to develop a girl-specific strategy on HIV/AIDS; Standard Chartered Bank agreed to allocate $50 million of its microfinance fund to girls; the Gates Foundation agreed to track the progress of girls and women in its agricultural investments; and faith leader Rick Warren committed to mobilize churches to focus on adolescent girls in their development efforts.
But we still have a long way to go. And one of the key issues that UNF has been focusing on of late is the problem of fistula. For those who don’t know, obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury, specifically, a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged labor without prompt medical intervention, usually a Caesarean section. The woman or girl is left with chronic incontinence, other health problems, and, in most cases, a stillborn baby. Most of them are abandoned by their families and communities and relatively few obtain surgical treatment which costs about $300 per operation. Girls, whose young bodies are not yet ready for the physical burden of pregnancy and childbirth, are particularly vulnerable. Obstetric fistula was virtually eliminated in the US and Europe one hundred years ago as medical advances and ending preventable maternal deaths were prioritized. Traumatic fistula, though less common, results from sexual violence, and particularly affects women and girls in countries in conflict where sexual violence is used as a tool of war.
Fistula is a very real illustration of poverty and inequality at its most cruel. Its continued existence into the 21st Century reflects a lack of progress on achieving equality for women and girls, and is verification of their continued invisibility and lack of perceived worth in too many places around the world.
The elimination of fistula through treatment and prevention will be a manifestation of our combined efforts to remove health burdens and allow women and girls to benefit and thrive. To achieve this we need the help of faith leaders and communities around the globe.
To that end I am pleased to announce a very special new initiative to eradicate fistula around the world through focused advocacy, outreach efforts, financial support, and partnership building. We hope to mobilize faith communities, governments, the private sector, and NGOs to work toward the elimination of fistula. The Breakthrough Summit motivated us to get going on this and not allow another generation of girls to suffer needlessly. And we are thrilled that American Jewish World Service, Catholics for Choice, Jewish Women International, National Council of Churches USA, the Muslim Women’s Coalition, and the United Methodist Church have already agreed to join us as part of the adolescent cluster at Breakthrough. Nine other NGO partners and counting, as well as the UN’s lead on fistula, UNFPA, will be part of this. But we need your help too.
Faith leaders have a long history on the front lines of human rights and poverty alleviation efforts by actively engaging their members to fight for justice and human dignity, and we believe that the faith community holds the power to make girls around the globe visible and considered both significant and valuable members of their communities. We believe this is true of fistula and of other issues that impact adolescent girls so profoundly.
So on behalf of the UN Foundation and its hundreds of partners, I ask the leadership of faith communities with us here tonight to use their power and influence to Preach, Teach, and Reach out on behalf of adolescent girls. We ask that you mobilize your communities to help challenge the status quos around the globe that are maintaining the invisibility of adolescent girls. Partner with other faith leaders and communities in the US and around the globe, partner with us, the UN, and other NGOs to work to end fistula with this generation. And we have several ideas of concrete actions you can take within your faith communities when you return home from this Summit. We hope you’ll consider employing some of the 10 Actions for US Faith Leaders that we have developed — guidelines on how you can Preach, Teach, and Reach out on behalf of adolescent girls. Please have a look and let us know your thoughts.
Together we can eliminate fistula and change for the better the lives of so many women and girls. We share a vision of a better and more just world and a steadfast determination to witness that kind of world in our lifetimes — regardless of our faith or circumstances. Thank you again for inviting me to be here tonight and thank you for your commitment and work to ensure that women and girls play a central role in shaping their own worlds.