When I first visited the Victoria Mxenge co-operative in Cape Town in 1997, I met homeless women working to transform an empty patch of land into a new community.
They pooled their savings and microloans, bought shovels, poured concrete and built new homes for themselves and their children. In 1997, there were just 18 homes. I returned a year later and saw 104. Yesterday I found a village of thousands of homes where once there had been only dust and despair.
The determination and entrepreneurial spirit of the women of Victoria Mxenge underscore a basic truth: empowering women is key to global progress and prosperity. This is not just a moral imperative – it is an economic one as well. When women are accorded their rights and afforded equal opportunities in education, health care and gainful employment, they drive social and economic progress. When they are marginalised and mistreated, as is the case in too many places in Africa today, prosperity is impossible.
This week I am traveling across Africa to highlight the continent’s promise and possibility. Empowering women is a crucial step towards seizing the economic opportunities of this new century. No nation can succeed in spreading prosperity or increasing security if it leaves out or leaves behind more than half of the population.
Our broader agenda for progress and economic growth also includes increasing trade, implementing development strategies that build capacity and opportunity, and advancing responsible governance that rejects corruption, enforces the rule of law and delivers results for people.
South Africa’s leadership is essential in advancing this agenda across Africa.
South Africans have many reasons to be proud on this National Women’s Day. President Jacob Zuma recently appointed Gill Marcus as governor of the South African Reserve Bank. Across the country, women are leading small and medium-sized businesses that are the foundation of economic progress.
And South Africa is home to dynamic entrepreneurs such as Sally Marengo, who started the KPL Aluminium and Zinc Die-Casting factory which now manufactures car parts in Bedfordview, and Lillian Masebenza, who created the Mhani Gingi Social Entrepreneurial Networks to turn traditional stokvels into collectives that help disadvantaged women generate income and start new businesses.
The women of South Africa have helped to make the country an economic anchor for the continent. They are an example of what can be accomplished through civic responsibility, commitment to the rule of law and a diversified and inclusive economy.
Across Africa, women are driving positive change. Kenya’s Wangari Maathai has launched an international movement on behalf of environmental stewardship. Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken the reins of a nation once gripped by civil war and proven that women can lead at the highest levels.
But in many parts of Africa, and indeed around the world, the picture is not so encouraging. Laws deny women the right to own property, access credit or make their own choices within their marriage.
Women comprise the majority of the world’s poor, unfed and unschooled. They are subjected to rape as a tactic of war, so-called “honour” killings, maiming, trafficking, child marriages, genital mutilation and other violent, degrading practices.
This week I will visit survivors of sexual and gender-based violence used as a tool of conflict in eastern Congo, where women have been victimised on an unimaginable scale. Some 1 100 rapes are reported each month, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day.
In the face of such depravity the world must speak with one clear voice: this violence must end.
The United States is working to develop partnerships across Africa to ensure that the rights of women are protected and respected, and that they have the opportunity to pursue an education, find a good job, live in safety and fulfill their own potential.
President Barack Obama and I believe in Africa’s promise. Too often, the world views Africa only through the lens of poverty, disease and conflict. But we see a continent of opportunity, home to 800 million people – more than half of them women – ready to build, create and thrive.
National Women’s Day commemorates the 20,000 South African women who marched for justice on August 9,1956. Fearless, they sang an anthem that has become a rallying cry: “Wathint’a bafazi, Wathint’ imbokodo” (You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock). Women can be the rock on which a freer, safer and more prosperous Africa is built.
They just need the opportunity.