I’m sure many people are familiar with the Chinese proverb, “women hold up half the sky.” But, after meeting some of the dynamic and accomplished women from the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) last week, I’m convinced that, in Africa, they probably hold up 60 or even 75 percent of the sky!
AWEP, a program sponsored by the Department of State, has brought 34 African women business leaders to the United States this week in conjunction with the 9th Annual African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) Forum. Secretary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, and I have met with them.
Our goal is to connect these remarkable and accomplished women with their peers in other countries and with U.S. policymakers and business people. We want to help them develop contacts, exchange ideas that can further build their businesses, and seize new opportunities in the global economy. These women are voices of change in their countries. For far too long, women have been left on the outskirts of opportunity. And whether it’s discrimination in business or any other denial of a woman’s right to realize her potential, this phenomenon will always have a harmful effect on a country’s economy. No nation can power its economic growth without empowering its women. It is like trying to succeed in an increasingly competitive world with one arm tied behind your back.
There are few better ways to empower women — particularly in Africa — than investing in their education. Countries that promote girls’ education, and especially secondary education and skills training, tend to have higher rates of employment, higher wages, and lower maternal and child mortality. Better health, better jobs, and better businesses are all easier goals to reach if we make a priority of getting girls in schools and giving them a good education in Africa — and around the world.
Those working in development have long known that investments in the education of women don’t just benefit the women themselves, but their families and their communities as well. Studies consistently show that women allocate more resources to nutrition and children’s health and education than do men. We also know that educated mothers are more likely to educate their own children — and that can have carry-on effects for generations.
Educating women isn’t just a moral imperative; it makes good business sense. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to be more productive in her work — and, one hopes, to start her own business. A good education increases the chances that women entrepreneurs will make the transition from start-ups to established businesses. Having lived in East Africa and having traveled throughout the continent, I have seen the hard work women in Africa do on their farms and in the market. Education enables women to better fulfill their aspirations in whatever they do. And, after educating them, we need to provide them with opportunities for skills enhancement and networking so they continue to advance to higher positions.
When the women attending AWEP head back home, having networked with one another and with American business representatives and government officials, we hope they will return with new ideas and contacts. We further hope that this experience will enable them to be even more motivated in serving as force-multipliers, laying the groundwork for greater prosperity in their own countries now and for new generations of women entrepreneurs, to enable them to sustain economic growth and upward mobility for years to come.
Someday I’d like to be a paralegal in the legal department of a non profit working to promote girls/women’s education globally. This is very important stuff. However, I have mixed feelings about promoting our system and business ideals in Africa.