U.S. foreign aid empowers women and girls worldwide

Traveling across Sierra Leone, 16-year-old Zainab and her group perform educational dramas for different villages on girls’ and women’s empowerment. In nearly every village, Zainab hears stories on why her work is so important. She remembers one girl’s story about a friend who never returned to school. Before she vanished, the two girls had spoken of a secret society she was about to join. In Sierra Leone, her parents and grandparents never told her what would happen at the ceremony, but she knew it was a “rite of passage” that every woman in her village took. Now, Zainab knows what happened. Some of the girls that went into these ceremonies never returned.

In Sierra Leone, nearly 90 percent of all women and girls above 15 years of age have suffered from a practice called female genital mutilation – or FGM. The country has one of the highest rates of FGM globally, and each year more than 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing this dangerous procedure. The practice results in preventable deaths and carries lifelong health risks for those who do survive, including infections, hemorrhaging, and birth complications. Today, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal death rate and the second highest child death rate in the world.

This summer, I traveled to Sierra Leone with CARE, an organization focused on fighting global poverty by empowering women and girls, to see firsthand U.S. investments supporting global health and gender equality. We met with survivors of FGM and other young women in their village communities. It was incredibly impactful to hear their stories. That was where I met Zainab.

Zainab takes part in the Girls Access to Education (GATE) program implemented by Plan International. They work in Sierra Leone with families, local authorities, and village chiefs to stop FGM and help young women who have suffered the practice move forward with their lives. The program also empowers girls and women to become advocates for change, helping tackle issues like gender-based violence and girls education. Previously shy and soft-spoken, Zainab is now a vocal advocate for women’s empowerment. She attends weekly sessions for students with trained mentors that help spread awareness on the dangers of FGM. Zainab even spoke with her parents about the risks of FGM and avoided undergoing the practice herself.

Hearing women and girls speak of Sierra Leone’s strong trust in their cultural beliefs and traditions, I can understand how difficult it can be to educate communities. Right now, nearly 40 percent of Sierra Leonean girls will be forced into marriage before their 18th birthday. But Zainab and young women like her are changing that dynamic. Zainab now works with students going door-to-door performing those educational dramas and spreading awareness about the dangers of FGM. These programs help keep girls in school and protect young women from the forms of gender-based violence that persist in many communities and Sierra Leonean households.

Speaking with Zainab now, she’s very proud of her work and excited about the future. She knows there are thousands of women who don’t know their options. She wants to continue her studies and become an electrical engineer – or maybe become president. She wants to be a driving force for change in her community and inspire other young women to do the same.

Today is the International Day of the Girl. When I think of my time in Sierra Leone and learning about the incredible young women like Zainab working to improve their communities, I was proud to know that these programs were partially funded by U.S. foreign assistance. That funding is vital for women and girls like Zainab fighting to educate communities and stop female genital mutilation. Every time I see the United States’ work abroad, I return home wanting to share just how much good we do across the globe. These women deserve lives where they can get an education and live free from violence and forced marriage. The United States helps thousands of communities do just that – and we need to understand the impact we have. So, on this International Day of the Girl, we should recognize just how important these programs are. We should celebrate today by continuing to fund U.S. foreign assistance. The future stability and growth of countries like Sierra Leone – and Zainab’s future – will certainly depend on it.

Congressman Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraU.S. foreign aid empowers women and girls worldwide The importance of advancing the U.S.-India partnership Dem, GOP groups prepare spending blitz for midterms MORE is the vice ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.