Hillary Clinton’s speech was met with silence from the male-dominated envoys at the African Union as she criticized the continents aging autocrats. The mood changed when the U.S. Secretary of State turned her attention to women.
“The women of Africa are the hardest working women in the world,” said Clinton, addressing the 53-nation body in Addis Ababa on June 13. Interrupted by loud cheers from the visitors’ area in the upper gallery in the back of the hall, she exclaimed: “If all the women in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, decided they would stop working for a week, the economies of Africa would collapse.”
If African women were given equal access as men to vocational training and technology, the continent’s economy would expand by at least 40 percent, according Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The disparities are most evident in agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of employment and 30 percent of the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa. About 100 million women in Africa use only rudimentary farm tools. That limits them to cultivating at most an hectare (2.5 acres) of land, which they spend almost 2,000 hours a year weeding.
“Weeding is literally breaking the backs of African women,” said Juma author of “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.”
After all that, as much as 45 percent of what they produce is wasted because they cannot store their crops adequately or access markets, Juma said in an interview.
For Clinton, the plight of women has helped drive an aggressive travel schedule that her office says has clocked up more miles than any of her predecessors. She’s gone 567,305 miles, visiting 85 countries in 232 days on the road since taking office in January 2009. She makes it a point to meet local women in impoverished nations.
In Zambia, which hadn’t hosted a secretary of state since Henry Kissinger in 1976, Clinton was met by a singing and dancing chorus of local businesswomen who had taken part in a U.S.-funded program to train female entrepreneurs on how to tap financing and export their goods.
“Have you been to a market? Have you looked at fields being tilled? Have you watched children being raised?” Clinton told her hosts at a meeting in Lusaka, Zambia to discuss a U.S. trade agreement with 37 African countries. “Women are holding up half the economy already.”
‘Anything is Possible’
Among those listening was Linda Moono, part of a group that set up the only Mexican restaurant in Lusaka and helps young entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.
“I was inspired, particularly by her focus on young women,” she said in a June 9 interview. “She makes one believe anything is possible.”
Even as a privileged woman in America, Clinton told her female audience, she had run into double standards. In the 1970s in Arkansas, Clinton recalled how she was earning three times her husband’s wages as lawyer, yet she could not get a credit card in her own name.
As Clinton battled sexism in her own country, across the Atlantic Ocean in Copenhagen, Danish economist Ester Boserup had published in 1970 “Woman’s Role in Economic Development,” drawing attention to the growing productivity gap resulting from women being ignored by economic policy makers.
Boserup, who wrote the book in her 50s, described how the gap in productivity between the two sexes widens when boys receive vocational training while girls got initiated by their mothers on how to be housewives. In schools, the teaching differs depending on your sex and, at home, parents teach their children that boys are superior to girls.
Four decades after Boserup’s book the gender gap persists. Women make up almost 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, though they are still tend to be segregated into lower-paid jobs and have less access to land than men, according to a report published in March by the Rome- based Food and Agricultural Organization. For developing countries where FAO was able to obtain data, in some places as little as 3 percent of landholders are women.
“In too many places, it is still too difficult for a woman to start a business,” Clinton said. “Cultural traditions may discourage her from handling money or managing employees. Complex regulations may make it hard for her to buy land or keep land or get a loan.”
Stoves and Mobiles
To help improve women’s lot, the top U.S. diplomat has thrown her weight behind the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, even recruiting Hollywood star Julia Roberts to join the cause, and pushed for setting up telephone hotlines or text messaging services to far-away authorities that can help rape victims in places such as Democratic Republic of Congo report crimes committed far from urban centers.
The U.S. last September committed $50.8 million, about 80 percent of the funds raised so far, to bring clean-burning stoves to homes in poor villages in places such as Africa.
Inhaling smoke from poorly ventilated stoves is linked to lung cancer and respiratory infections such as pneumonia and leads to the early deaths of more than 2 million people a year, according to the UN Foundation. The stoves are also more efficient, which means users don’t need to go miles looking for wood, risking attacks in dangerous areas.
In conflict zones such as Darfur, women and girls have been attacked while spending hours foraging for firewood.
Awa Coulibaly, a mother of seven in Mali, said she saves about $150 a year in fuel costs from trading her old stove for a more efficient cook stove that emits less smoke and doesn’t cause skin burns, according to Erik Wurster of E+Co, a nonprofit company based in Bloomfield, New Jersey, that invests in clean energy projects in Africa.
Women’s rights have been the defining issue for Clinton, from her time in Arkansas to the empowered wife of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s to senator for New York and finally the face of American diplomacy.
As first lady she traveled to China in 1995 to attend the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women and defied Chinese authorities by refusing to tone down a speech that state radio and television blacked out.
“It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights,” she told 180 delegates from the podium. “Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words.”
As she prepares to leave office next year, Clinton has given a glimpse of where her future lies.
“I think I’ll serve as secretary of state as my last public position, and then probably go back to advocacy work, particularly on behalf of women and children and particularly around the world,” Clinton told a town hall meeting in December.
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