The Obamas’ Africa Opportunity

President Barack Obama’s trip to Africa this month is focused on the pressing issues of economic growth and investment, democratization, and the next generation of African leaders. Yet a central element for achieving those goals is missing from the list—advancing the health and empowerment of women and girls. The Obamas have an opportunity to make this trip historic by explicitly committing the United States to focus on women and girls as a key pathway to progress for Africa. But will they seize it?

The president and first lady can speak powerfully to African and global audiences on these issues. On January 30, President Obama issued an unprecedented presidential memorandum on advancing gender equality and empowering women and girls globally, calling it “one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time.” For many who worried that the energy and commitment that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton brought to those issues might dissipate with her departure, this high-level statement was most welcome. Many have also wondered whether Michelle Obama herself might become a champion for global women’s issues in the second Obama term, building on her support for women and girls in the United States.

The Africa trip provides a timely opportunity to rejuvenate the administration’s commitment to women and girls in Africa and around the world. Growing evidence demonstrates that investments focused on women and girls—maternal health services, voluntary family planning, access to HIV services, education for girls, economic empowerment for women, and preventing and responding to gender-based violence—are not only critical to improving health outcomes, but produce substantial positive returns in poverty reduction, development, and economic growth.

In its first term, the Obama administration elevated women’s health and gender equality as a central foreign policy goal and accelerated policy development to that end. Despite the often polarized atmosphere in Washington, it is useful to remember that these policies built on a number of bipartisan successes in support of women’s global health. In particular, the Bush administration created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which included gender strategies to reach women and girls with HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. Faith-based organizations also have devoted considerable resources to empowering women and girls.

Clearly, significant challenges remain in advancing women’s health and gender equality issues, and progress remains vulnerable at home and abroad. The administration will have to navigate political obstacles, notably the polarizing discussions around abortion, which are often erroneously conflated with family planning. In addition, national governments in many African countries have to demonstrate their own commitment to advancing women’s health and gender equality, working with civil society and other development partners.

The itinerary of the Africa trip—Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa—highlights key priorities and challenges for U.S. policy in women’s health, ranging from HIV to gender-based violence to family planning. In Tanzania, the President and Mrs. Obama can see innovative examples of U.S.-supported programs to address the dual epidemic of HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence, which exert a destructive and disproportionate impact on women and girls. South Africa, despite much progress in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, still faces unacceptably high levels of HIV-positive pregnant women, maternal mortality, and gender-based violence. Senegal has made recent advances in improving access to voluntary family planning.

To build on the administration’s strong foundation and lead to real progress for women’s global health and gender equality, the Obamas should use the Africa trip to emphasize three key priorities. The first is leadership, with the president and first lady committing to sustain high-level U.S. leadership on women and girls and to support leadership in other governments and in civil society. The second is implementation, with Obama directing the U.S. agencies to translate U.S. policies on women and girls into programing, and holding agencies accountable for success. The third is new partnerships, with the President and Mrs. Obama highlighting the importance of building partnerships with host governments, private partners, multilateral organizations, and other donors to make best use of existing U.S. funding to reach sustainable outcomes.

In a meeting in March with the first lady of Zambia, Christine Kaseba Sata, an obstetrician and gynecologist herself, I asked her if she had a message for the Obama administration. Her response encapsulated the worldwide imperative to strengthen women’s health and empowerment: “At the end of the day, mothers and women make the difference. Whatever you do should be woman centered…It’s the cornerstone for every country.” The Obamas have an unparalleled opportunity to heed this advice—and to make this part of their legacy.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 18, 2013, issue of CNN Global Public Square and is reprinted with permission.)

Janet Fleischman is a senior associate with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Janet Fleischman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Health Policy Center