It is so wonderful to be with so many amazing women who are realizing their potential. A month or so ago, I attended a book event – I’m an English professor, so I find a particular joy in attending the many book events offered in Washington, DC. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman recently penned “The Confidence Code” – some of you may know it. In preparing for this conference and thinking of what I would say to all of you I reached out to Claire Shipman. Here’s what she said:
“If you only remember one thing from this book, let it be this: when in doubt, act. Every piece of research we have studied, and every interview we have conducted, leads to the same conclusion: nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure. Risk keeps you on life’s edge. It keeps you growing, improving and gaining confidence. By contrast, living in a zone where you’re assured of the outcome can turn flat and dreary quickly. Action separates the timid from the bold.”
I can already tell that this group of women is not afraid of risk – you are women who take action. I am so pleased to be in Morocco, the Gateway to Africa. To his Royal Highness Mohammed VI, thank you for welcoming us to your magnificent country. It’s an honor to have Minister Delegate Mbarka Bouida here with us this evening. She represents Morocco on the world stage, and has been a key partner in making the Global Entrepreneurial Summit a great success.
This summer, I traveled to Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to Sierra Leone. The trip, in preparation for the US Africa Leaders Summit, focused on the importance of girls’ education and women’s participation in government, the economy, and civil society. Each time I have traveled to Africa, I have had the opportunity to meet with doctors and nurses, political leaders and entrepreneurs, teachers and students – all of whom share a common purpose: to give back, to build a stronger community, and to move their countries forward. And I have seen what a difference these individuals are making. Today, I would like to share a few stories from this trip that inspired me, stories of hope and opportunity, stories of a new Africa.
Our first stop in Africa was Zambia, where we visited a small, open-air health clinic that is making a big difference. Women in the United States are regularly tested for cervical cancer through a Pap smear, but in Zambia, doctors do not have access to the same type of medical equipment. So, a group of entrepreneurial physicians at the clinic in Zambia devised an ingenious procedure to detect cervical cancer using household vinegar, cotton swabs and a digital camera. The morning I was there, they screened more than 50 patients. One young woman I met at the clinic, Imogen, was diagnosed with cervical cancer after she was screened several years ago – she was devastated when she heard the diagnosis. But, after only six months of treatment, she returned to the clinic and was tested again. And her results came back negative. Imogen was proud to tell me that her story was not that uncommon. In fact, over 5,000 women have been screened at that health clinic and 90 percent of them have been cleared after just six months of treatment. For the past five years, Imogen has been volunteering at the health clinic, encouraging women in her community to go in for screenings and other health services, using her own experience to help others. That type of commitment and leadership is not just saving lives. It is creating a healthier community.
The next country we visited was the Democratic Republic of Congo. When we traveled to the western part of the DRC, we confronted another challenge for women: a restrictive law known as the Family Code. By law, women are prevented from working outside the home without their husband’s permission. In Kinshasa, I met with women entrepreneurs who are overcoming these obstacles and building successful businesses of their own. One of these women, Therese, is a savvy, resilient innovative engineer. After she earned her degree, she converted an outdoor restaurant with dirt floors into a business, manufacturing and selling traffic-directing robots. Why robots? Kinshasa has a population over 9 million people and virtually, literally, no traffic lights, which makes the streets incredibly dangerous – especially for children. Not only do the eight-foot tall, solar-powered metallic robots look impressive, but they actually work. People respect the robots, and the busy streets of Kinshasa are a little safer thanks to the ingenuity of this resourceful woman. Therese is not only breaking barriers for women in science and engineering, she is showing the power of technology to change the way we live and work.
Another woman who participated in the roundtable was Monique Giekes, an intellectual property rights attorney. Her husband threatened to lift employment approval shortly after the birth of her 4th child. She is now divorced. Monique is a lawyer working with Vlisco, a Dutch fabric manufacturer as their local distributor. As she established her successful business in Kinshasa she was moved by the stories of abused women in the eastern part of the DRC. I traveled to the Eastern Congo and saw firsthand what Monique saw – a world where two-thirds of the women have suffered sexual assault, women who were rebuilding their lives but needed job opportunities and training. So this business entrepreneur became a social entrepreneur – Monique opened a sewing school in Goma with her own money. Thirty woman were initially trained, and this number quickly doubled. I was so impressed by Monique, so moved by her commitment to change not only her own life but the lives of other women that I wanted to honor her in some way. So, the evening I met her, I made an unscheduled stop at her store and asked her to help me select a traditional Congolese dress to wear at the leaders’ dinner during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. In just a few days Monique and her staff produced an elegant turquoise wax print dress … the dress was a hit with the press, and in a small way, I was able to tell Monique’s story of how she was able to lift up other women.
Entrepreneurship can sound like a complicated, or an even an intimidating concept. In reality, it is what we women have always done – solving problems that need to be solved just as women like Imogen, Therese and Monique are doing. But they can’t do it alone. In the United States, we believe women’s empowerment is critical. So two years ago, we launched the Equal Futures Partnership. What began as a challenge to heads of state by President Obama in September of 2011 has now grown into a full-fledged multilateral initiative dedicated to breaking down barriers to women’s economic and political participation. The Equal Futures Partnership has grown to 28 members, which have made specific commitments to address discrimination against women in the political and economic spheres and to create opportunities for women to become leaders, mentors, entrepreneurs, and innovators. This effort has broadened the understanding that supporting women and girls is not about treating a vulnerable group, but rather about finally tapping into the potential of half the population.
The United States is committed to making sure girls and young women have the tools they need not just to survive – but to thrive in their communities. History and experience demonstrates that women of the Middle East and North Africa are critical change agents in society. And you are playing vital roles in shaping political transitions and building more stable societies.
Here in Morocco, women were at the forefront in working with King Mohammad VI to pass the revised Family Code which expanded legal rights to women within the framework of Islam. Earlier today, I visited the King’s Education Center for Women where I was able to meet with some impressive women who are working to improve their lives by furthering their education. I have seen that Moroccan women are not waiting for someone else to grant them the possibilities they seek, they are moving forward on their own.
The World Economic Forum shows that there is an increase in a country’s economic competitiveness when we decrease gender gaps in four key areas: health, education, politics and business. Nelson Mandela is famously remembered for saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I have spent the last thirty years as a professional educator so this quotation really inspires me. I continue to teach writing full-time at a community college just outside Washington, DC.
Community colleges are a lesser known, but a critical part of American’s higher education system. They are – as the name suggests – higher education institutions uniquely able to address the needs of their communities. At the community college where I teach, I started a women’s mentoring program. The program pairs women students over the age of 30 with women faculty. The goal of the program is more than simply helping them navigate their way to graduation. It is to set them on a lifelong path, where most of all, they have the confidence they need to succeed.
I am a teacher by training, but the truth is, everyone in this room is a teacher. No matter what you do, or where you come from, you all have an impact on the young people in your life. You all have the opportunity to shape young minds. We all have the obligation to share our knowledge, to lift up other women. It is up to every one of us to make it possible for every little girl who dares to dream big.