Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you Director Lake—and UNICEF staff worldwide—for their brave and determined efforts on behalf of the world’s children. Day after day, you strive to improve children’s lives, often at great personal risk and we are all here grateful for your service, as are the children of the world.
I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak at this special session on a child-centered approach to development and sustainability in Africa. It is a tremendous signal of the importance of this issue, and the importance attached to this issue, so many ministers and dignitaries have travelled to New York to be part of this special session. So I’d like to thank these excellencies. And Mr. President, also, I thank you for investing so much of your time on behalf of promoting the welfare of kids. Kenya is right to be proud of your leadership.
Africa is the world’s youngest continent. Forty percent of its population is under the age of 15; another 200 million youths are between 15 and 24. It is also one of the most dynamic continents – with 6 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies.
Through African leadership and strong international partnerships, great strides have been made to improve the lives of Africa’s children. Mortality of children under five has been reduced significantly, malaria mortality has been cut in half, and school enrollment has improved dramatically, with nearly 80 percent of children now enrolled in primary school. These advances are critically important in and of themselves. And they are essential to ensuring that African children can seize the unprecedented opportunities within their reach.
Yet, despite these advances, children in many parts of Africa continue to face daunting obstacles to accessing these opportunities. Under-five mortality in Africa remains the highest in the world; more than 3 million African children under age 5 are living with HIV; and the continent has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world.
These problems are significant, but they are by no means intractable. On the contrary, efforts such as The Millennium Development Goals show that we can make significant progress towards addressing them when we set concrete benchmarks and marshal robust coalitions. That is why the United States is committed to programs with proven track records such as PEPFAR and the Child Survival Call to Action. It is also why we know that above all national leadership, African leadership will be the key predictor of success. And it is why we are determined to set out an ambitious post-2015 development agenda. It is also why we will continue to press for constant and rigorous evaluation of these initiatives, as well as course corrections to make them more effective if and when they are falling short.
I would like to use my remaining time to focus on one persistent challenge for African children, and African girls in particular: keeping girls in school. Of course, that presumes that girls are in school in the first place—which remains an important goal in and of itself. Yet, while we have made major progress in broadening girls’ access to primary education, far too many girls are leaving school early. In several African countries, nearly half of the girls who finish primary school don’t make it to secondary school. We can do two things to address this problem.
First, we must make schools safe for girls. This need was brought into sharp relief by the recent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram. But this is far from the only instance – in Africa or in many other parts of the world – where girls have been targeted for asserting their right to an education. Indeed, it was a similar fear of empowered girls that motivated a gunman to board a bus in Pakistan and shoot one of their bravest advocates, Malala Yousafzai.
Making schools safer for girls also means reducing widespread sexual violence against schoolgirls – a horrific problem made worse in times of conflict, as we have witnessed in the Democratic Republic of Congo – where a 2009 study found that two out of three young women’s first sexual experience was non-consensual – and, most recently, in the Central African Republic. Put simply: no girl should be forced to choose between being safe and getting an education.
Second, we need to reduce the pressure on girls to abandon their studies prematurely – whether it is to care for siblings or get jobs; bear children; or simply because their education is undervalued. Regardless of the cause, the impact is the same: it deprives girls of an essential tool of empowerment and has lasting negative effects on the health and welfare of their families and communities.
Now, the beliefs and practices underlying the pressure for girls to leave school are often deep-seated; so they will need to be addressed both with great persistence and great sensitivity. But we cannot and should not accept that some girls – simply due to the communities into which they are born – will be denied their fundamental right to learn, and thus denied all of the doors an education opens.
If, together, we can make it safer for girls to go to school, and keep them there, then we will knock down one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of their collective destiny, and we will help them seize their rightful place as the leaders of Africa’s very, very bright future.
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