Ambassador Leonard Remarks – Launch of the State of Women’s Rights in Africa Report

Madame Chairperson, Ambassadors, Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my distinct honor to be here today to recognize the many advancements made to address gender inequality in Africa and reflect on what more can be done to realize the aspirations of Agenda 2063 towards empowering and developing women and young girls.

I would like to commend the African Union Commission, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN Women for organizing today’s High Level Breakfast on the State of Women’s Rights in Africa.

I also would like to pay tribute on behalf of the United States to the advancements the African Union has made under Madame Chairperson’s leadership, to eliminate gender inequality and foster improvement to the quality of life and respect for the rights of women and girls across Africa.

Research shows that economies grow when women’s labor force participation increases, and when gender-based violence decreases.

It is also proven that when adolescent girls have the same opportunities as boys – when they have access to education and aren’t forced into marriage – they are able to better contribute to the economy and to reverse cycles of poverty and disease in their families and communities.

When women are included in peace and security efforts—in peace keeping missions, peace negotiations, and political decision-making—communities are safer.

Africa is responding to the call to build a continent where daughters have the same possibilities as sons.  For instance, according to the World Economic Forum 2015 Gender Gap Report, nine countries from Sub-Saharan Africa are in the top 20 on the Labor Force Participation Indicator, with Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and Burundi demonstrating a higher representation of women in the labor force than men.  We must celebrate these ahcievements and encourage AU member states to do more.

Today, women serve as leaders throughout industry, civil society, and government, and their outstanding achievements affirm to our daughters and sons that no dream is beyond their reach.

While there have been great strides toward gender equality, work remains to be done.

Although women are recognized as the continent’s greatest potential to unlocking economic growth, providing the majority of labor with the least amount of resources, they experience significant barriers to their economic participation, including limited access to training, higher education, markets, and capital.

Moreover, we cannot talk about economic and political progress without also addressing a major impediment to that progress: gender-based violence.

Whether it takes the form of domestic violence, early and forced marriage, or female genital mutilation, gender-based violence will affect one in three women around the world.

Gender-based violence is even more likely in conflict-affected countries where women and girls become targets of sexual violence.

All of this comes at a terrible cost, not only for women, but for families, communities, economies, and countries the world over.

The struggle for gender equality is not unique to Africa.  For too long, women in the United States were formally excluded from full participation in our democracy.  Because of the courage of so many women who dared to transcend preconceived expectations and prove they were capable of doing all that a man could do and more, advances were made, women’s capacity proven, and barriers were slowly broken down.

The United States has been a steadfast partner with the AU in its bold vision for sustainable peace and prosperity, as outlined in Agenda 2063, and its commitment to silence the guns on the continent by 2020.

We are very proud to have helped establish and now co-lead the partners group in support of the African Union’s commitment to eliminate gender inequality and foster dramatic improvements to the quality of life and respect for the rights of women and girls.

Our partnership with the Office of the Special Envoy is scaling up the Continental Results Framework for Women, Peace and Security providing the AU and its Member States with an accountability tool to support measurable action in these critical areas.

The collaboration between the Special Envoy’s Office and the Women, Gender and Development Directorate demonstrated recently in the joint Solidarity Mission to South Sudan, is a strong demonstration of how the AU is employing cross-sectoral approaches to eliminate gender-based violence and amplify women’s voices in times of crisis and instability.

The United States also supports such programs as The African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, an initiative that identifies and builds networks of women entrepreneurs across sub-Saharan Africa.

The program provides professional networking, business development, financing, and trade capacity building opportunities for a network of more than 1,600 women entrepreneurs and 22 women’s business associations across Africa. Participants have created more than 17,000 jobs in the region. The AWEP program has established women’s business centers in Zambia and Kenya.

The AWEP networks are poised to transform their societies by owning, running, and operating small and medium businesses, and by becoming voices for social advocacy in their communities.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Of course advancing gender equality is important. But first, we have to address this more pressing crisis.”  This “first, then” argument misses the point that including women from the beginning will make our efforts more successful.

The recipe for success in any region does not involve putting women on the back burner. Women have to be part of the equation, partners in our efforts and our plans. There is still far to go in shattering the glass ceiling that holds women back.

I would like to end by reiterating that the United States remains a steadfast partner for Africa and continues to stand by the African Union, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN Women as we endeavor towards building an Africa that guarantees opportunity for all.

As President Trump noted in his presidential proclamation on Women’s History Month, America will continue to fight for women’s rights and equality across the country and around the world.