Good afternoon. Habari zenu! I am honored to be with you as we celebrate International Women’s Day. This is a very important day for all of us – both women and men.
The first International Women’s Day was celebrated 103 years ago. It was a turning point on women’s rights. It offers us all an opportunity to show respect and appreciation for the extraordinary accomplishments of women. It is a day to welcome the progress that has been made and to renew and redouble our commitment to making further advances in one of the great causes of our time: full equality for women.
Looking back over the past century, we have made progress. Women in the United States won the right to vote in 1920. Over the years, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, women have won the right to vote in most countries… though unfortunately not yet all women in all countries. There has also been a gradual awakening to the great contributions women make to society. Over time, in virtually every profession from business to government to sports to the creative arts, the world has witnessed an increase in women’s participation in the workforce. Greater equality has brought us greater innovation, creativity and productivity. Just one fact to make the point: research shows that the stock price of companies with at least one female board member perform better than those companies that do not have a woman on their board. There is no doubt that decades of increasing empowerment for women has made the world a better place.
But we’re not done yet! Fifty years ago, a female reporter asked John F. Kennedy what his administration had done to advance women’s rights. President Kennedy quickly replied, “I am sure not enough.” It was true in President Kennedy’s time and it is true today – though the United States and the entire world has come a long way, there is still more to do.
For example, the United States still struggles with the advancement of girls and women in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and technology. Women still earn 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn. Tragically, violence against women remains a problem, too. The United States, like Kenya, is continually working to improve. Just a few examples: President Obama’s chief advisor on national security issues is a woman. Three of the last five secretaries of state – my former bosses – were women. The secretaries of the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, and Commerce, as well as the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, are women, as is the top American diplomat at the United Nations.
In business, American women run some of the largest corporations in the world in very diverse sectors. These companies include Pfizer, Disney, Xerox, General Motors, and Johnson and Johnson, just to name a few. The number of women chief executive officers at the helm of Fortune 500 companies continues to grow.
Step by step, through the actions of countless women and men, women’s rights have advanced in the United States.
Since the last time I served here, a little more than ten years ago, Kenya has made great strides in the advancement of women too. Enshrined in Kenya’s new constitution is a commitment to increasing the voice of women and to equal rights. Kenya’s foreign affairs and defense ministries are led by women, indeed six of Kenya’s 18 ministries are headed by women demonstrating a strong commitment by President Kenyatta to advancing women’s rights. Women political representatives give a voice to the needs of Kenyan women and girls and raise public awareness about the valuable contributions women make at the county and national levels.
The Kenya Women Parliamentary Association has an extensive membership of distinguished lawmakers dedicated to public service and to empowering women in this great country. More women in Kenya are involved in business and civil society, too. In commerce, there are role models like Kenya Association of Manufacturers Chief Executive Betty Maina, and Managing Director of Equity Group Foundation Dr. Helen Gichohi. They help to inspire the next generation of women to lead Kenya’s companies. In civil society, environmentalist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai moved millions through her courage and commitment. And, Wildlife Direct’s Dr. Paula Kahumbu is doing extraordinary work to protect elephants and advance conservation.
And let us not forget another great Kenyan woman – the actress Lupita Nyong’o, who has climbed to the summit of her field. Just a few days ago, she reminded the world that “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Women and girls around the world need to hear that, to believe it, and to live it. Regardless of your gender, your upbringing, your nationality, or your race, you have the right to dream, to aspire, and to achieve. This is an important message, an overdue message, and a message whose time has come.
Yet, as in the United States, challenges remain in Kenya. In last year’s election, not a single woman was elected as governor in Kenya’s new counties. Women are not always given equal consideration for jobs. And, of course, the level of violence against women remains unacceptably high. The journey to achieving women’s equality will be a long one, as the United States can attest to. It will require vigilance and action by people like you and me, and commitment from all – the private sector and public sector, civil society and community based organizations, the media, and male champions: spouses, brothers, and fathers.
Through continued effort, I am confident that Kenya can and will continue to make progress. There is a clear commitment by so many Kenyans to do so. Moreover – and this is what gives me the greatest hope – there is an abundance of talented women here in Kenya. Just look around this room. Visit university campuses. Stop by Kenya’s corporate board rooms and government ministries. There are so very, very many women leaders and potential leaders in every part of this country. We must help empower these women and celebrate them on their journey. We all share of the goal of helping these women and I am pleased to say the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi plays a role in achieving this goal through our initiatives.
In 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the African Women’s Entrepreneur Program, commonly referred to as AWEP, as an outreach, education, and engagement initiative that focuses on African women entrepreneurs in order to promote business growth, increase trade, and create better business environments for African women entrepreneurs. The Embassy has partnered with AWEP Kenya, which is ably led by Zohra Baraka and Nancy Gitonga, both of whom are here today, to support Kenyan women entrepreneurs. We also sponsor mentorship and exchange programs for women in business, politics, and civil society such as the Department of State’s and Fortune Magazine’s Global Women’s Mentoring program. Through this and other exchanges, dozens of women have traveled to the United States to receive training from our top female executives.
The U.S. Embassy Nairobi looks forward to continuing to work with you – the Kenyan government, civil society, community based organizations, and the private sector – to further our shared goal of advancing and empowering Kenyan women.
Together, as we all celebrate Kenya’s 50 years of independence, I know that Kenya will succeed in achieving this goal. For rights and equality for women is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do. By improving the lives of women, we make everyone better off.
To all the women here today – and to all the men too – I wish you a happy International Women’s Day!
Thank you. Asanteni Sana.