Women in positions of power, including first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, joined forces in a summit to focus on improving life in Africa.
Hosted by the George W. Bush Institute, the African First Ladies Summit on "Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa” addressed health, economic empowerment, and education for women Tuesday morning in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
After Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete spoke about the importance of investing in women, first lady Salma Kikwete took to the podium to reiterate the gathering’s goal: "This summit will consider things that are of much significance to the well being of women in Africa, namely education, entrepreneurship, and innovation," she said.
The much-anticipated event featured first ladies from around the African continent, including Matilda Amissah of Ghana, Sia Nyama Koroma of Sierra Leone, Roman Tesfaye of Ethiopia, Janet Museveni of Uganda, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma of South Africa, and Maria da Luz Dai Guebuza of Mozambique.
Laura Bush, attending with husband and former president George W. Bush, underscored the Bush Institute's purpose: "As you might guess, our overriding theme is freedom—freedom from ignorance, our education initiative; freedom from disease, our local health initiative; promoting free enterprise in the free market, our economic initiative. And, of course, freedom from tyranny," she said.
The Bush Institute’s long-term plan to invest in women will lead to a more stable, prosperous world, she said.
In a discussion between Bush and Obama, moderated by journalist Cokie Roberts, the two first ladies spoke about some of the pressures that come with being in the spotlight and how it is important to be role models for young girls, who tend to be overwhelmed by societal messaging that indicates a female’s looks are far more important than her substance. Obama even mentioned her now-infamous bangs.
"Being able to pursue our passions and do things that not only help our country and connect us with the rest of the world, it's a great privilege," Obama said. "So while people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair—and whether we cut it or not—we take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of."
Other prominent speakers explored an array of topics about empowering African women.
Summit sponsor ExxonMobil’s President Suzanne M. McCarron interviewed U.N. Foundation Senior Fellow Mayra Buvinic on the research the U.N. and Exxon found in their 2012 report, "A Roadmap for Promoting Women's Economic Empowerment," which explores interventions that "increase women's productivity and earnings in particular economic and country contexts."
Cherie Blair, the founder of her eponymous foundation for women, and representatives from Women Entrepreneurship Development, Covenant Bank for Women, and Omidyar Network discussed how female entrepreneurs could be best equipped with training and technology. A second panel, moderated by Dr. Jemimah Njuki of Pathways and CARE Tanzania’s Women and Agriculture, explored how to create opportunities to female farmers.
Bush encouraged every African first lady to speak up about issues important to her respective country, which may include Africa’s educational divide. According to a study performed by Achieve in Africa in 2009, 18 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school and 50 percent of women older than 25 are illiterate.
McCarron and James K. Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, reiterated the importance of education in a Huffington Post op-ed: “Improving educational opportunities for women and girls also yields tremendous benefits. A child whose mother can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age 5. An extra year of primary school increases girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent, encourages girls to marry later and have fewer children, and makes them less likely to experience violence.”
The event marked the conclusion of Obama’s tour in Africa, which included visits to other countries, including Senegal and South Africa.