On the sidelines of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Presidential Summit in Washington, several Mandela Washington Fellows met with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell to discuss the state of women’s rights in Africa and ways to work for positive change in their home countries.
The reason why the United States actively supports the advancement of women and girls around the world is “really very simple,” Russell said. “Countries do better when women do better.” Every country wants to expand their economy, and the best way to do that is make sure everyone can participate, including women, she said.
One of the most effective ways to advance women’s rights is to promote women’s entrepreneurship, Russell said.
“It’s a way that women can get into the economy that takes into account all of the other demands on their time. They can still take care of their families, and they can care for the household. They can do some sort of business on the side that makes it possible for them to start and hopefully move up the economic ladder,” she said.
In addition, women entrepreneurs “invest in high rates back in their families, which in a development context is very important. They’re more likely to get their kids immunized, and they are more likely to keep their kids in school,” she said.
The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs coordinator, and founder of the YALI Network, Macon Phillips, said social media is helping to shed new light on problems like gender-based violence, despite some concerns that violent images and themes are being shared between many people.
“Social media hasn’t increased the amount of violence that’s happening. It’s made it more visible, and it’s forced us to talk about it,” he said.
“It’s important to look at these problems, in some sense, as opportunities to bring what has been talked about behind closed doors or thought about in people’s heads or … kept private as an opportunity to talk about these issues in a much broader way and change culture,” Phillips said.
It is also important for men to be included and play a role in making positive change, Russell said. “Women can’t just talk to ourselves. Men are part of this discussion, and there are great male allies out there and they are critical to the success to our efforts.” Men can also be great role models to children and each other on how to treat women with respect, she said.
Russell encouraged all of the participants to make a pledge to invest in women and girls as a part of the YALI Network’s #Africa4Her campaign as well as to both take and teach the YALI Network Online Course on understanding the rights of women and girls as a part of the #YALILearns initiative.
“We want you to go back to your country and take what you’ve learned here, share it with other folks in your country, and really become the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
“At the end of the day, your countries will change because of you, not because of us, and we want to make sure that whatever we are doing will support you and we are doing it well.”