DCM Remarks – Wat’s Up Ug? Youth Conference

Deputy Chief of Mission Patricia Mahoney

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hotel Africana, Kampala, Uganda

Good afternoon, everyone!  Thank you for inviting me.  You know, there is very little that is GOOD about getting older—very little—but if there is one good thing I can say is that you get to witness progress.

I’ve seen lots of change in my lifetime—most of it good.  You may look at the U.S. now, and say, “The United States is a country that respects women’s rights.”  But was it always that way?  Was it that way when my grandmother was a child?  No.  Was it that way when my mother was a child?  No.  Was it that way when I was a child?  No.  But we changed.

How did we change?  Many women and men fought, and continue to fight, to change some of the unjust social, cultural, and political structures that kept women down.  Changing social and cultural structures is hard to do.  How do you change the way people think?  How do you change their expectations and assumptions?

In the U.S. the first thing that had to change—the very first thing—was the law.  And in the U.S. we have lots of laws.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination on the basis of sex illegal.  The Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women less for doing the same job.

Did that mean that the very next day people accepted women’s equality and did not discriminate against them?  No, it did not.  But you have to start somewhere, and with that law people knew that it was no longer acceptable—no longer allowable—to discriminate against women because of who they were.

People knew that they couldn’t do certain things that used to be okay.  And when they couldn’t do certain things that were now illegal, they also—gradually—stopped saying things that weren’t okay.  And over time, the expectation and hope are that when people’s actions change and the things they say change, eventually the things they think change as well.

A few years later, it became illegal to advertise a job to one sex only.  This allowed women to begin to apply for leadership positions previously available only to men.  In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act said that a woman cannot be fired or denied a job or a promotion because she is or may become pregnant.  In 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States found sexual harassment a form of illegal job discrimination.

These laws have helped change the way people think about women in the U.S.  And because of these laws and the attitudes they helped change, my daughter is growing up in a different world from the one I grew up in.

I am proud of the progress the U.S. has made, but I’m also not kidding myself.  I know we still have a long way to go.  I know that there are still some people in the U.S. who don’t believe that women are men’s equals.  I know that women and girls still face many challenges.  But at least I know the girls of today’s U.S. are better equipped—with knowledge, with legal protections, with opportunities—to take on these challenges.

What about Ugandan girls?  How do you feel?

We at the U.S. Embassy want you to succeed.  That’s why I’m proud to announce U.S. financial support of Success Chapter’s Girls Leadership Academy.

Girls Leadership Academy is the brainchild of Nulu Naluyombya. Nulu and her team have recognized that girls in Uganda are intelligent, talented, passionate change-makers.  However, they also know that girls in this country face a number of challenges.  So they decided to empower a group of young female leaders to realize their own potential and make a difference in their communities.  They know that our investment in these young women will pay off as they, in turn, empower other young people.

In its first year, Girls Leadership Academy will bring together 30 teenage girls during their breaks from school.  These must be some pretty dedicated young women if they are willing to give up their holidays for leadership training!

These girls will participate in Mentoring Camps, an intensive development experience including training in leadership skills, self-esteem, business and life skills, problem-solving, and networking. They will have the opportunity to learn from some incredible leaders like Nulu and her team, some of our U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers and diplomats, and other prominent Ugandan trailblazers.

Then these young women will take what they have learned back to their home communities.  As part of their Girls Leadership Academy contract, they will share their new skills with their peers.  This is the type of long-lasting, far-reaching change that we are very happy to support.

We put our resources into initiatives like Girls Leadership Academy because we want young women’s voices heard in this country.  There is no better time to start nurturing leadership skills than the teen years.  It’s hard to be a leader when you’re a teenager.  It’s especially hard when you’re a female teenager.  Why?  There is a tendency to criticize girls who try to be leaders as “bossy” or “pushy.”  A boy is “confident,” which is good, but a girl is “pushy” or “obnoxious,” which is bad.  I learned this when I was younger, and as a result when I was in school, even if I knew the right answer, I’d always say, “I’m not really sure, but I think it may be this.”

I don’t want my daughter and the girls of her generation or any of you talking like that anymore.  This theme is something Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has pointed out, and she’s right.  Let’s change the way we think about female leaders.  As Sheryl Sandberg said, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to instead be told that she has leadership skills…It’s time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table.”

And speaking of Facebook, I’d like to close with a post I saw shared there recently: “Here’s to strong women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Thank you.