Obama’s Kenya Trip Should Elevate Focus on Women and Girls

Debate about President Obama’s legacy will shift to Africa in late July, when he travels to Kenya on his fourth and likely final presidential trip to the continent. The trip is expected to focus on supporting economic entrepreneurship and combatting terrorism, which, along with increasing Africa’s energy capacity and food security, have been central to his Africa policy. But this agenda misses a necessary component for progress on the continent; the President could cement a lasting legacy by explicitly linking U.S. Africa policy to the health and empowerment of women and girls, arguably the continent’s most dynamic and underdeveloped resource and an indispensable component of any successful economic and security program.

The need for high-level global attention to these interrelated issues was starkly evident when I traveled to Malawi and Kenya in May as part of a CARE learning tour, led by Helene Gayle, CARE’s President and CEO, about the importance of U.S. investments in women and girls. The delegation included five members of Congress—Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA), and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL)—as well as Ambassador Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Kim Nelson, President of the General Mills Foundation, and Joseph Blount, founder of the Joseph W. Blount Center for Health and Human Rights at Emory University. The fact that the delegation was composed almost entirely of high-powered women leaders gave gender-related issues a particular resonance, especially in exploring how U.S. foreign assistance can achieve measurable impact by reaching marginalized women. 

The realities on the ground are sobering and illustrate why continued U.S. investments are so critical in such areas as education for girls, family planning, HIV/AIDS, food security and nutrition, gender-based violence, and women’s economic empowerment.

The delegation learned that every week in southern and eastern Africa, 7000 adolescent girls and young women are infected with HIV, reflecting social and economic factors that put them at risk. In Malawi, the delegation saw that high maternal mortality rates were linked to limited access to reproductive health services and healthcare providers, high rates of gender-based violence and early marriage, and few opportunities for women’s economic empowerment.  At the Santhe secondary school in Kasungu district of Malawi, for example, an eager 16-year-old girl named Khalidwe explained that girls can achieve their goals if they can stay in school, but that many are raped on their way to school or are forced to drop out when they are married as adolescents or become pregnant.  At a women’s savings and loan group in another part of Kasungu, one woman expressed the hope that her daughter would not suffer like she has, telling us that she wants her daughter to be self reliant, to be able to stand on her own. That means finishing school and getting a job, possibilities that were beyond her own reach.

President Obama’s trip to Kenya provides a timely, choice opportunity to ensure that the health and empowerment of women and girls is elevated as a guiding lens in U.S. policy toward Africa. The President’s famous rhetorical skills could debunk the view that these issues are not as “important” as economic prosperity or security; to the contrary, the ability of women and girls to succeed is essential to sustainable development and security. President Obama already acknowledged this in his January 2013 Presidential Memorandum: “Ensuring that women and girls, including those most marginalized, are able to participate fully in public life, are free from violence, and have equal access to education, economic opportunity, and health care increases broader economic prosperity, as well as political stability and security.”

This is a moment for the President to champion the issues of women and girls on the global stage, building on the unprecedented focus on developing strategies on women and girls from his first term and the new initiatives of his second term. He can describe the Let Girls Learn program to support girls education, announced by the President and Mrs. Obama at the White House in March 2015, and which she spoke about this week in London as an urgent moral, public health, national security, and economic issue. He can discuss the DREAMS Partnership, to reduce new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women, launched on World AIDS Day 2014. And he can point to the powerful women he’s appointed as his key foreign policy advisors, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, not to mention his first secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who made women and girls a key priority.

The Obama administration has already put in place an extensive policy framework for advancing the health and empowerment of women and girls globally. What it needs to do now is ensure that those goals are funded and implemented, and fully integrated into its economic development and security programs. The President’s own words from March 2015 set forth the challenge for U.S. policy, and echoed Khalidwe’s own dreams: “Wherever they live, whoever they are, every girl on this planet has value. Every girl on this planet deserves to be treated with dignity and equality.  And that includes the chance to develop her mind and her talents, and to live a life of her own choosing, to chart her own destiny.”

For President Obama to make this a key theme of his Kenya trip is not only the right thing to do for the women and girls in Africa; it’s the right way to further U.S. priorities on the continent.

photo credit: Josh Estey/CARE

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