Khotsong, Bo ‘Me le Bo ‘Ntate
Please allow me to pay my respects to:
Her Majesty the Queen
Director of Alliance Française
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
And, most importantly today,
Basotho women and girls
I am delighted to be a part of today’s ceremony and proud of the U.S. Embassy’s support for the spotlight Alliance Française is shining this month on the contributions of Basotho women. As someone whose life has been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by strong, wonderful women, and as the father of a 10-year-old daughter who clearly is going to change the world, this event has a powerful personal resonance for me.
I’d like to begin with a quote from my boss, President Barack Obama. “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. But if women are oppressed and abused and illiterate, then they’re going to fall behind.” Powerful, compelling words, which challenge us, all of us, to nurture, to strengthen, to empower women and girls. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing so has dramatically positive consequences for societies.
In too many places, women and girls are still undervalued. They are denied opportunities to contribute. When the voices of women and girls are left unheard, when their health and safety are left unprotected, when they are denied an education — their potential is wasted. And the societies in which those women and girls live, inevitably fall far short of their potential.
Research shows that progress in women’s employment, health, and education can lead to greater economic growth and stronger societies. When women and men are equally empowered as political and social actors, governments are more representative and effective.
Every crisis we face as a global community – from infectious disease to extreme poverty and climate change – has an impact on the world’s women and girls. Globally, while women and girls often suffer disproportionately from disease, they are also often on the front lines, as primary care providers, caring for the sick and raising the next generation.
Here in Lesotho, HIV/AIDS remains a national emergency – and adolescent girls and young women are disproportionally infected and affected by it. Let me give you a couple of troubling figures. 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 even though they only comprise 11% of the population. As we think about investing in women and girls, we must dramatically increase efforts to protect their health.
Under the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States government has provided more than $225 million to help Lesotho combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Working in close collaboration with the Government and other stakeholders, we have made some progress. But we have a long way to go.
Through our new DREAMS Initiative, we will focus on preventing infections among adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 in Maseru and Leribe districts. The goal is to reduce new infections by 40% by the end of 2017, which would mean 2700 adolescent girls and young women each year will not become infected with HIV who otherwise would have been.
The U.S. Embassy supports Basotho women and girls through several other programs as well. Our PEFPAR Gender Challenge Fund provides grants to small predominantly female-operated businesses. To date, we have awarded $300,000 to 14 gender advocacy groups for small scale projects.
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. Additionally Peace Corps Volunteers throughout Lesotho work with community-based organizations to contribute to the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Many of the beneficiaries are adolescent women and young girls. And finally, our small grant programs have helped Basotho women start income generating projects and supported schools nationwide.
I am pleased the U.S. Embassy has been able to support the Alliance Française in highlighting the role and accomplishments of influential women. Specifically, we are partnering with UNDP and Hillside Digital to host an afternoon discussion on May 20 entitled: Unleashing Women’s Potential through Economic Empowerment. The event features two highly successful Basotho women entrepreneurs, Ntsepeng Tsita Tikiso, and her twin sister Tsepang Tsita Mosena, who founded the BAM group of companies. These successful companies provide a wide range of services including: media publications, events management, music promotions, and financial consulting. Both women will discuss the challenges they overcame in building their business and share practical advice for women entrepreneurs. The session will be held here, at the Alliance Française, on May 20 at 3:00pm. I hope some of you will be able to attend.
I’d like to conclude with the words of my other boss, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Secretary Kerry said “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to U.S. foreign policy.” Today, I hope we can all embrace that call to action as we rededicate ourselves to lifting up women and girls across this beautiful country.