In Africa, Educated Girls and Empowered Women Offer Hope and Promise for Brighter Future

August 5, 2014
Ambassador Russell Speaks With Students at the Shalom Community School in Lusaka, Zambia

In the run-up to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, unfolding this week in Washington, D.C., I had the distinct privilege of joining the Second Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, on a trip to three African nations: Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Sierra Leone.  We highlighted the critical importance of supporting African women’s leadership and participation -- in government, the economy, and civil society -- to positive and sustainable outcomes in Africa.  We discussed how advancing the rights of women and girls goes hand in hand with the broader goals of economic development, improved health and educational outcomes, democratic governance, and peace and security in the region.  And, we highlighted the important ways that African governments, businesses, and civil society are investing in opportunities for women and girls. 

In addition, we met with an array of government officials, civil society leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, doctors, and teachers to hear their perspectives on some of the key challenges, opportunities, and aspirations of women and girls in their countries.  We also listened to the ideas and concerns voiced by adolescent school girls -- they shared many of the same dreams as my own teenage daughter.  They want to excel in school and continue their education, find their place in society, and build better lives for themselves and their families.  The experience in these three countries was both humbling and enlightening, reinforcing the importance of our collective work to advance gender equality across the continent.

In Zambia, where we were joined by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, we were thrilled to meet with a group of bright students at the Shalom Community School, which partners with USAID and PEPFAR to improve teacher skills, increase the involvement of parents in schooling, and ensure that vulnerable students have what they need to succeed both inside and outside the classroom.  Their exuberance and enthusiasm embodied the kind of qualities needed for the next generation of leaders.  We visited the N’gombe One Stop Center, a small open-air health clinic that provides quality women’s healthcare, including services for survivors of gender-based violence and treatment for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS.  We also had the chance to sit down with an influential community leader, Chief Madzimawe, and a group of activists to discuss ways to break the cycle of early and forced marriage, and to keep girls in school.  Committed to eradicating early and forced marriage, Chief Madzimawe underscored the importance of working with both boys and girls in order to change attitudes and mindsets that perpetuate the practice.

In the eastern DRC, I was so moved and inspired by the survivors of sexual violence, who had suffered unspeakable brutality, but then went on to become true community activists.  While their stories are heartbreaking, these women have incredible spirit and truly really embody resilience and courage.  They have been given a new chance to regain their lives due to the heroic efforts of Dr. Denis Mukwege and his medical team at Panzi Hospital.  One woman named Louise was attacked by soldiers in 2003.  She was forced to watch as members of her family were killed before she and other girls were taken into the forest.  She eventually escaped her kidnappers and received treatment at Panzi Hospital, participated in socio-economic programs, and has now become a community activist and leader helping other women rebuild their lives and raise their children.  The experiences of women like Louise and her Congolese sisters underscore the need for legal reform to bring perpetrators to justice and a change in gender norms to ensure that women enjoy equal rights and economic opportunity. They are a fierce reminder that rape as a tactic of war must no longer be tolerated in today’s world.

In Sierra Leone, I was happy to see many signs of progress and hear first-hand how the country has made strides in ensuring that women are engaged in their communities and more young girls are receiving a quality, safe education.  At St. Joseph’s Secondary School, young girls from all over Sierra Leone came together to meet with us and share their aspirations.  They were full of such hope and promise, reflecting the vibrant potential of the region.  While Sierra Leone is currently struggling with the Ebola crisis, the United States remains firmly committed to standing with the country and its neighbors to stop this epidemic.

A recurring theme of the Africa trip was that both boys and girls must be afforded access to quality and safe schooling, particularly beyond the primary school level.  Whether we are striving to end poverty, root out corruption, stop gender-based violence, end early and forced marriage, create conditions for peace and prosperity, or counter radical extremism, education is the foundation of any viable, long-term solution.  When we educate a girl, we are empowering women and their families, and investing in a brighter future for all.  I trust the leaders gathering in Washington this week will agree, it’s time to let girls learn.

About the Author: Catherine Russell serves as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.

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