By: Elizabeth Pelletreau, Charge d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy Maseru
International Women’s Day, March 8, is a time to celebrate the often-overlooked contributions of women around the world, to reflect on progress made towards equality, and to rededicate ourselves to ensuring women and girls are valued, empowered, and given opportunities to succeed. The world has often overlooked the contributions of women. From history books to the Nobel Prize, the discoveries and achievements, or simply the names of women are missing. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to learn about these missing women and honor their contributions to society.
Today is also a chance to celebrate the women who are currently making history. I’ve had the honor to meet many such women here in Lesotho. Some of these history makers are obvious while others work behind the scenes, contributing to their families, communities, and economies. As we celebrate these women, we should recognize the tremendous barriers that often stand in their way. From the very beginning of our lives, we are defined by our gender. And as babies grow from children into adults, gender often determines what opportunities are made available to us and the future paths we are encouraged to take.
Perhaps the worst manifestation of these differences is gender-based violence. Gender-based violence comes in many forms and has a devastating impact on victims and their communities. According to UN Women, violence against women causes more death and disability for women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria, and war combined. A recent World Bank study showed that violence against women has significant economic costs. These include health-care costs, lost income for women, and decreased productivity. Yet more than a billion women will fall asleep tonight in countries that offer no legal protections against domestic violence.
In Lesotho, women and girls are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Basotho girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have an HIV prevalence of 4.1%. That rate skyrockets for young women between the ages of 20 and 24 – to 24.1%. Adolescent girls and young women account for 28% of all new infections despite being only 11% of the population. As we think about investing in women and girls, we must dramatically increase efforts to protect their health.
Gender discrimination holds back families, communities, and countries. Women account for 40 percent of the total global workforce, but make up 60 percent of all unpaid work and 50 percent of informal employment. Leaving women out of the formal economy disadvantages the women themselves and equates to an economic loss for society at large. The United States understands this firsthand. Almost 50 years ago, the role of women began to change in the United States. More and more women started to enter the workforce. Because of their contributions, gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States rose by 25 percent.
United States President Barack Obama has said “The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women. If it’s educating girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward.”
Every International Women’s Day has a theme, and 2016’s is “Pledge to Parity.” The idea is that everyone can take action to empower women and girls. In fact, a community effort is exactly what is needed to make real, lasting progress. Empowering women is a complex challenge that requires a collaborative solution—one in which we can all play a role.
Here in Lesotho, the U.S. Embassy supports Basotho women and girls through several programs. One program focused on their health is the DREAMS Initiative. This program focuses on preventing HIV/AIDS infections among adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 in Maseru and Berea Districts. The goal is to reduce new infections by 40% by the end of 2017, which would mean 2,700 adolescent girls and young women will be prevented each year from becoming infected with HIV.
We also support the efforts of Basotho women leaders and business owners through training and exchange programs such as our Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and the International Visitor Leadership Program. Peace Corps Volunteers throughout Lesotho help women and girls improve their health and combat the spread of HIV/AIDS by working with community-based organizations. And they empower Basotho girls to be confident leaders through Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camps. Finally, our small grant programs help Basotho women start income generating projects and support schools nationwide.
On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions not only of powerful, famous women but also of the mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, women mentors and friends who enrich our lives. By valuing them and their contributions we support the understanding that our world can reach its full potential only when women and girls are empowered to reach theirs.