Congress Can Help Girls Worldwide Stay in School

Every year on October 11, when the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl Child, I think of young women like Alem, who I met in Ethiopia this past summer. Alem was thirteen when her father arranged for her to marry one of the older men in her village. She ran away and came to the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to find work.

Alem has been working for five years. She’s just just 18 years old. She told me that even though having an income was nice, she really wanted to go back to school.

Girl students in the Oromia region of Ethiopia discuss their issues a Girl’s Club meeting at Oda Aneso Primary School. (UNICEF Ethiopia / Creative Commons)

In Ethiopia, where my family is from, child marriage is the norm. There, as in many countries around the world, girls like Alem are married to near-strangers in their early teens or even younger. They face the end of their education and start childbearing before their bodies are ready.

I am driven to join global efforts to protect them. That’s why I organized my fellow students at American University to go to Congress and speak about HR 7055, the Keeping Girls in School Act. Over 30 students from American University and other colleges in the D.C. area joined me in calling on Senators and Representatives to support this important legislation. 

Introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen and cosponsored by Senators Cardin, Murkowski, Young, Collins and Cantwell, the bipartisan Keeping Girls in School Act calls on the U.S. government to address barriers to education like child marriage or early pregnancy. It focuses on closing the gender gap for adolescent girls and keeping them in school at the secondary level—when girls are most at risk of dropping out of school due to forced marriage, pregnancy and other family pressures. 

The economic benefits of girls’ education are substantial. Educated girls can help lift households, communities and entire nations out of poverty. Girls who stay in school marry and have children later, safeguarding their health and increasing their ability to plan their families. That’s important in a world where complications from childbirth are one of the leading causes of death for girls ages 15-19 in the global south. 

Girls who receive 12 years of education also earn more over the course of their lifetimes—double the amount of peers who do not receive secondary education. Denying girls the right to an education adds up to $15 to $30 trillion dollars of economic loss worldwide. 

Ethiopia has committed to ending child and forced marriage by 2030. Federal funds and government agencies are working toward that goal, as are non-governmental organizations throughout the country who have united to educate and change the culture around child marriage. Young women there and in countries around the world are also fighting back against forced marriage, educating their peers and changing norms. 

As an American college student, I have opportunities that young women who faced early or forced marriage will never have. That is why taking action on the Keeping Girls in School Act is so important to me. We need to support young women around the world in the fight for education, health and autonomy.

Today, I’m calling on all of us to support countries that are working to end child marriage—and calling on Congress to help keep girls around the world in school.

About

Kefai Debebe is a student at American University and an International Youth Leadership Council activist with Advocates for Youth.