Jennifer Redner is a senior program officer, U.S. foreign policy, with the International Women’s Health Coalition. Her work focuses on achieving a just and healthy life for all women and girls and building awareness and increasing support for the development and implementation of comprehensive and evidence-based sexual and reproductive rights and health policies and programs. She is a leader in a number of advocacy and technical working groups and coalitions, including serving as co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.

Today, celebrations across the world are taking place to mark the first ever UN International Day of the Girl.  We have come a long way in recognizing the importance of addressing the most pressing needs of adolescent girls (ages 10‒19). But there is a growing urgency to translate this political will into action and to achieve meaningful and measurable improvements. Hundreds of millions of girls around the world simply cannot and should not have to wait any longer to receive the information, services, and support they need to exercise their human rights and realize their full potential.

Many young women have been able to avoid or escape a life determined by others and are now working to realize a different life for their daughters and other girls in their community. The young women of APAD, a survivor-led organization focused on ending early and forced marriage in the far north region of Cameroon, are one such example. They are a testament to resilience amidst seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as the lack of power to make decisions about getting married, having sex (or not), childbearing, staying in school, accessing social and economic assets and other basic rights that many of us take for granted. They know what’s needed in their community to help other girls avoid the human rights violations they themselves have had to bear.  We should prioritize the support of local indigenous organizations like APAD to realize the change they seek for themselves and their community.

Unfortunately, millions more find themselves condemned to a life stripped of opportunities to grow, learn and survive, let alone thrive. We must collectively ensure that girls, and in particular very young adolescents (10–14 years old), are not underserved and unrecognized by policies and programs. In fact, as we learn more about the experiences of girls, it is becoming increasingly clear how critical it is to reach them before they turn 10 years of age and before they first experience violence, including forced sex; unintended pregnancy; and lost educational and economic opportunities.

We will only be able to reach our global development goals by prioritizing investments in married and unmarried adolescent girls. The solutions require investments in the development, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of evidence-based and multisectoral approaches implemented at the community level and with the protection of sexual and reproductive rights and health at their core. Specifically, the United States must:

  • Work with other donors and national governments in sub-national districts to provide national governments and local organizations with technical and programmatic support to design and implement new programs, and better evaluate and scale existing programs.
  • Increase efforts to work directly with girls and their families and communities to provide married and unmarried adolescents with the social, economic, health and human rights information and services they need to prevent child marriage and mitigate its harms.
  • Integrate activities for preventing early marriage and for helping married adolescents into existing programs, including those focused on improving outcomes related to maternal health, HIV/AIDS, economic empowerment, food security, and education.

Through communication, collaboration and coordination among a range of stakeholders, we can galvanize the political and financial commitments needed for the policies, programs and research required to secure a just and healthy life for married and unmarried girls. Broad-based constituencies such as the Coalition for Adolescent Girls  and Girls Not Brides  are ready, and the International Women’s Health Coalition is working as a leader in these coalitions and with other key stakeholders, including local organizations such as APAD, which is leading the charge for change in their community. Will you seize the opportunity before us as we celebrate International Day of the Girl and join us in making sure that girls have a choice and a chance to make decisions about their own lives and fulfill their unlimited potential?