Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues
Willard Hotel
Washington, DC
November 28, 2012

Good evening—I would like to thank our host Ambassador Ali for bringing us together this evening as we honor the important role that women are playing around Africa to promote peace and prosperity. On behalf of the United States, it is a pleasure to join you this evening to honor African women’s leadership, and especially to welcome one of the most important African women leaders—Chairperson Dlamini-Zuma—and to celebrate her election as the first woman head of the African Union.

Women are in leadership roles in all areas in government, civil society and the private sector. They are strong, resilient, courageous, visionary and dedicated.

I think of President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Banda of Malawi and now AU Chairperson Dlamini-Zuma. I think of the powerful and effective women ministers, like Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the South African Foreign Minister; Ngozi Okanjo Iweala, the Nigerian Minister of Finance; Hanna Tetteh, the Ghanian Minister for Trade and Industry and so many other leaders across governments who have guided their countries to greater development, while ensuring that women’s rights are protected and their access to opportunity is promoted. I think of the African women leaders on the international stage—Fatou Bensouda at the International Criminal Court and UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangur—who are making justice a reality.

In Africa, we have seen some of the best examples of women's political participation. I think of the Rwandan women Parliamentarians who – at 56 percent of the lower house - have the distinction of being the largest majority of elected female parliamentarians anywhere in the world. And three other sub-Saharan countries have at least 30 percent female representation.

When Secretary Clinton went to Senegal this year just after the election, she was so impressed by the network of women whose efforts had helped to prevent violence and had promoted the participation of women as voters and as candidates. Not only did Senegal have a peaceful election, but Senegalese voters elected women to 65 of the 150 seats in the new National Assembly—giving Senegal one of the highest percentages of women in directly-elected legislative bodies in the world. The vision of this network was supported by the formidable Bineta Diop, founder of Femme Africa Solidarite, who like so many others understands so well the importance of women’s participation and raising their voices.

I think of the countless women peacemakers and freedom fighters – women who were on the frontlines from South Africa to Liberia, Burundi to Sierra Leone. Their commitment to making their countries secure, to ensuring that their families and communities have what they need to thrive—has been inspiring for me and countless others who have witnessed their efforts. They are testimony of the key role women play and manage to continue playing.

And I think of those who are struggling today for peace and a better life—who are staring violence in the face—from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Somalia to Mali. We must combine our efforts, from civil society to government to the United Nations, to ensure that women have the resources they need to overcome violence and build a peaceful and prosperous society.

Women need to be fully participating in peace negotiations and conflict resolution and in rebuilding their countries. Women know what is happening on the ground and can help inform negotiations and decisions. In Darfur, when male negotiators deadlocked over control of a particular river during the seventh round of the 2006 negotiations, local women pointed out that the river had already dried up. Women are a vital force and for any peace to be sustained for economic recovery, they must not be marginalized. That’s why President Obama and Secretary Clinton launched the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Everywhere we look in Africa, we see women leaders at all levels of society working to make a difference, particularly ordinary women doing extraordinary things like working to end child marriage, domestic violence and the trafficking of women and girls. Across the continent, we see women who are pillars of strength and determination in every sector. In my travels, I’ve met women building housing projects, running clinics to help stop the spread of HIV and bring an end to mothers dying in childbirth, bringing together tribes to commit land for a nature conservancy, and educating all on the economic benefits of conservation. I think of all the women farmers who produce much of the food supply—often with no land rights—in the fields working to put food on the table. We must support them in these efforts.

And I think of the women entrepreneurs all across Africa from micro to macro level, from artisans to executives who are growing Africa’s economy; women in science and technology who are ushering in a more prosperous Africa for all.

Dr. Dlamini-Zuma understands the important role that women play in a country’s economic growth and development potential. This year, Africa’s growth rate is expected to rise again. Six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Arica, but if women’s economic potential were tapped, poverty alleviation and economic opportunity would be even greater.

Women are a powerful economic force. Currently, in Africa women contribute more than a third to the GDP of Africa’s economies, although this number still understates women’s contribution to their economies because it does not consider women working in the informal economy.

According to the World Bank, gender inequality directly and indirectly limits economic growth in Africa—“gender equality is smart economics.” Removing gender-based barriers to growth and prosperity will make a substantial contribution to realizing Africa’s growth potential.

We know that women-run small and medium size businesses—SMEs—are key to economic prosperity. Yet, if women are to start successful small businesses and grow their businesses, they cannot do so unless barriers they confront are removed and they are able to unleash their potential. Women face barriers like discriminatory laws and regulations. Customs and entrenched practices also can provide roadblocks. In some places, no rights to inheritance or property rights. They often lack training, mentors, networks, access to technology, and access to credit. We must do all we can to enable women to flourish in the global economy.

Everywhere we look in Africa, we see young girls dreaming of what they can do when they grow up. We watch them determined to go to school—often having to fight off violence on the way, but still showing up, so that one day they can be the future leaders in Africa like Dr. Dlamini-Zuma.

The African Union had the vision to declare 2010 to 2020 the African Women Decade. You have seen how essential women’s leadership is to advancing the vision you and African member states have laid out for the continent.

The United States is a partner with you in raising the status of women and girls, growing their leadership and development access your great continent. From our investments in the Feed the Future to grow agricultural productivity—the majority of small farmers are women—to our Global Health Initiative to the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program and so much more. We know that investing in women is a high yield investment.

When women thrive everyone thrives—men and women, boys and girls. After all, in the raising of the women is the raising of us all.