An Op-Ed by Ambassador Rebecca Gonzales
On International Women’s Day 2019
International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect on the status of women and gender equality around the world. It seems more than reasonable to dedicate attention to this issue for at least one day – since women are the pillars within communities and yet around the world they face challenges from gender inequality a full 365 days a year. In spite of the enormous progress women have made in my own country, with a record number elected to the U.S. Congress this past year and women outnumbering men in graduating from university, we still have much work to do to address gender equality in the United States. Since arriving in Lesotho, I have met so many impressive girls and women, individuals from all walks of life and all corners of the country. They are vibrant, courageous, and committed to uplifting their nation. On countless occasions, they have inspired me to be a better mother, daughter, sister, Ambassador – indeed a better human being. Yet when I consider the status of women in Lesotho at large, in particular adolescent girls and young women, I am cognizant of many troubling trends. From recent data, I learned that Lesotho ranks third highest in Africa in prevalence of intimate partner violence, with more than 86% of women having experienced gender-based violence. Early marriage is also a common practice as Lesotho’s 2016 census shows that nearly a quarter of women ages 20-24 were married before the age of 18.
A few weeks ago, I attended an event for the DREAMS program, which is funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS Free, Mentored, and Safe Women. I am proud that the U.S. Government through the generosity of the American people funded $10 million for DREAMS in 2019. This specific event was an opportunity for the DREAMS Ambassadors, whose role is to provide information to adolescent girls and young women at safe spaces and during community mobilization activities about DREAMS services and become advocates sharing their own experiences and those of their peers. I was deeply moved by what they told us – including harrowing stories of how a young Mosotho girl who seeks sponsorship for schooling or a creative endeavor is told she would first have to offer sexual favors. I was saddened – and angered – to hear how some young women are chided or ostracized when they go to a clinic seeking contraceptives or access to medication, by the very health workers who are duty bound to assist them. While I was disheartened by what they told us, I was incredibly proud and honored to witness as these DREAMS Ambassadors so confidently and courageously made their voices heard.
I share these details with you now and extend the invitation to all Basotho, whether policy makers, community leaders, or engaged citizens, to respond to the calls from these young women. Responsiveness begins with simply listening, but it must go further to include action. The DREAMS partnership is built upon a multi-layered approach which goes beyond the health sector, addressing other structural risk factors, like poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, and lack of education. To make an impact, we need to ensure that girls stay in school all month long and those that need education assistance can access it. There needs to be teachers who are dedicated and well-trained for the important work they do. In cases of gender-based or sexual violence, there must be a safe place of refuge where an individual can receive appropriate care. Together we can do more to create a better future for adolescent girls and young women across sub-Saharan Africa.
This is not just about what is best for individuals, it is about the health and well-being of the country. Lesotho’s Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (LePHIA) results show that girls and young women still bear the greatest burden of new HIV/AIDS infections, with an infection rate more than 10 times that of boys the same age. Key contributors to these differences include instances of sexual violence and/or unequal power dynamics in sexual relationships, particularly transactional and intergenerational sex. If we want to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2020, we cannot pretend that these situations are not happening. We cannot pretend young people are not sexually active or stigmatize them for seeking health services.
While some may point out that I am an outsider in Lesotho, I never lose sight of the fact that I am a guest in this country. Nevertheless, I see reflections of myself in these young women, from my humble beginnings as a young Mexican-American woman in the southern United States.
Despite our modest circumstances, I grew up with the example of hard-working family members, including my mom and dad who were both committed to public service. When my attentions veered away from studies, it was their encouragement that ensured I continued my education through university and beyond. With my studies, I was able to work my way up from the bottom entry-level job into the diplomatic corps and to the position of U.S. Ambassador. Early on in my career, there were times when I too was vulnerable and had to fight to make my voice heard. Yet no one gifted me any of these opportunities along the way. I earned them through hard work and dedication.
To young Basotho women, I tell you my story in hopes that you are inspired, in hopes that you pursue your education as far as it can take you. My hope is that you see the noble path of effort to achieve your DREAMS on your own terms is a far greater and more durable reward than any false offer of material blessings, especially with the risks and cost so often attached. My hope is that each one of you will be seen and valued for the quality of your mind, the content of your character, and your enormous potential above all else. This is what I wish for each and every one of you, on International Women’s Day, and every other day too.