By Kemi Osukoya
April 27, 2015

Photo by Kemi Osukoya. Chelsea Clinton addressing audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

Chelsea Clinton addressing audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

On the eve of a four-African country tour with President Bill Clinton to highlight the Clinton Foundation’s work and its impact in Africa, Chelsea Clinton stopped by Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations headquarters in New York to talk about women’s rights issues and the importance of women’s empowerment.

Emphasizing education as key to women’s and girls’ empowerment and success around the world, Clinton said even though much progress have been made in certain areas, there are gaps that still need to be closed.

“When we think about education, we have largely closed education gaps around the world largely because we have removed schools fees so that parents don’t have to make decisions as to the importance value of education, on whether they have to choose [between sending] a boy or a girl to school,” said Clinton. “But to ensure that every girl has the education opportunity, we know we need to do more like ensuring that secondary school fees are removed the same way that the primary school fees have been removed in the last two decades.”

She underscored this, noting that these gaps remain largely in sub saharan Africa, in places like Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Niger, where only 10 percent of girls graduate secondary schools.

Developing world are not just the ones behind on addressing issues affecting women. For example, United States is among the countries that do not have paid maternity leave, which Clinton said “that’s shameful. We are in the company of small countries, particularly given the resources that we have.”

“While we are doing everything to shine light on these issues, we ourselves [U.S.] need humility to recognize we have challenges and gaps, even though it not on same level as Saudi Arabia, Niger. We all have responsibility,” She said. “For U.S. to have to say A,B,and C need to be done, we also have to look at ourself.”

Clinton added that understanding why women’s empowerment has stalled- for examples, some countries still prohibit women from working at certain jobs, while others won’t even allow women to open a bank account on their own without a male cosignatory “which diminishes the prospect for women’s entrepreneurship,” – and working to eliminate those barriers will ensure that the progress made remain sustainable.

Citing another example where progress has stalled, Clinton recalled the famous women’s rights speech her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, gave in 1995 during her then visit to Beijing as the U.S. First Lady, and how that speech changed the trajectory of women’s issues, but how 20 years later, the labor force participation for women was only 10 percent higher, at 55 percent in 2014, than it was in 1995 at 45 percent.

“That’s not progress,” she said.

Clinton said it is important for governments around the world to recognize it is in their nation’s long term best interest to ensure women can enter the labor force with less barriers by ensuring women enter the labor force with the proper education and skills, ensuring there are healthcare for older women, and understanding that many things have to converge.

“If we look at Rwanda, for example, which is often viewed through the prism of President Kagame, 50 percent of its parliament are women. The country has made important, radical budgetary decisions both that are importance in terms of investing in women’s education but also in long term investments – over 10 years horizon,” she said. And having more women engaged, “Chancellor Angela Merkel has also passed law for women to be included on board,” said Clinton.

These barriers and issues, said Clinton and her co-speaker, Anju Maholtra, UNICEF Principal Advisor for Gender and Development, including ending early child marriage, childbirth mortality and women inequality, should be discussed in less simulacrum ways.

They urged the international community and world leaders to add these issues to their top priority list for this year’s upcoming UN General Assembly meeting where new sustainable development goals will be set to replace the old MGGs that was set 15 years ago.

“Girls education isn’t getting quite the attention it was getting,” said Maholtra. “We somehow seem to be complacent in getting girls beyond primary schools and as the world keeps moving forward, we really need to be ambitious for girls, encourage STEM education, help them to have access to technologies or they are not going to have access to the choices that we really want them to make.”

According to Maholtra, around 700 million women around the world were married as children in developing countries, in places like India, and estimating that in the next 30 years, there will still be 700 millions children- girls at risk of child marriage if necessary actions are not taken or laws put in place to protect them.

“If we look at the number now, it’s staggering to think of what those women would be doing now if they were not married at fourteen or fifteen,” she said. “So we need to find ways to invest in those kids, not just in primary education but secondary education as well, especially during those adolescent years where you have girls as young as seven or eight years old fetching water because that’s the vision their family and society have for them. It’s not unusual or the right thing to do, they don’t have alternatives,” said Maholtra.

Maholtra noted how not addressing situations such as those she described could quickly turn into a dire situation such as what is happening right now in Syria where UNICEF is facing what she called “level 3 emergency,” where an entire economy has become disheveled.

“A lot of these situations that started off as level one emergency- needing food and shelter often end up at level 3, with exposure to sexual violence and needing protection. Even in these dire situation, surprising and stunning, what women are asking for is education for their children,” she said. “UNICEF and the world need to understand and appreciate that fragile states are not just hurtful for sustainability of the world, we are part of everyday and if we ignore the fact that our stability is also threaten and if we want to reverse that, investing in not just the protection but the well being of those people is critical.”

Clinton and Maholtra also urged both women and men with public platform to use their platform to inform and speak about these issues and ask for formal laws as well as cultural and societal normative to be instituted around the world to protect women and girls.

“We know that changes in laws do impact whether or not girls are married when they are adolescent,” said Maholtra. “As we talk about these issues, men and boys have to be part of sharing- for both boys and girls- and that’s something the UN community broadly need to put a focus on. We have to teach men and boys from early on – it’s the environment that we provide that shape how boys see girls- to see [girls and women] as people, and provide the same investment, the same opportunity for [girls] to prosper.”

Moving forward, they said there’s need for greater participation of women in peace and security issues [UN 1325 law] to help address and resolve such issues as ongoing in Syria because women are often the ones that suffer the most in such conflicts. However, they are usually not at the table to help resolve these issues when it is being done.

They also said more needs to be done on a larger scale to accommodate more girls and women rather than the usual NGOs small scale focused projects that are often geared toward 100, 200 or 500 girls.

And speaking of setting ambitious goals for girls and women’s empowerments, Maholtra said government and NGOs really need to think about not micro-finance for women, they should think about finance for women. “We need to up the game a bit,” she said.

They urged women in college and those graduating college to think about having both concrete skills in finance and technology, which will help prepare them for understanding politics and diplomacy and how they work and how political negation works. Clinton said a focus on STEM education for girls is a good place to start early.

Clinton said becoming a mother to her daughter Charlotte has changed her perspective and given her a different level of responsibility to try to help more on these issues: “I didn’t know I could care anymore, emphatically about [girls and women] until I became a mom and had a daughter, so everything we are talking about I talk about excessively with my family – so how has the role improved or diminished – how opportunity for Charlotte will look.”

To cap it off, Maholtra said the international community has to find the right balance for holding people accountable and highlighting the positives of what countries have done.

When asked if she plans to run for office in the future, Clinton responded, “I very much believe my life is with the Clinton Foundation, it’s where I can invest and make a difference. If office opens up, I will think about it but right now, the foundation is my focus.”

On being on the campaign trail with her mother, she said “my life is very different now than it was in 2008 when I campaigned with my mom. I plan on focusing on her daughter and the work at the foundation and will figure it out as things unfold with the campaign.”

As expected, there were questions about the controversial allegation involving the millions of dollars the foundation solicited from foreign donors while her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton was Secretary of State. At first as she took the question, it seemed like the 1990s all over again when her parents were fending off allegations, but Chelsea seemed to have drawn from both her parents’ strengths and come into her own too. She responded that the foundation has always partnered with governments and NGOs mainly because the work that it does is important- about women, girls and children.

“What we have said [foundation] is we will even be more transparent in quarterly basis not annually basis,” she said. “My role as the vice chair, I have fiducial responsibility to 10s or 100 thousands of people being impacted by our work and there are staff on the ground in 36 countries to help access the initiative, so I believe it is the right policy to be more transparent to eliminate any more questions while we are in this time [presidential campaign]”

While in Africa, Chelsea and President Clinton will tour a school that is part of the foundation’s initiative dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. They will also tour a maize field in Malawi and a solar energy distribution cooperative operated by women. The Clintons will also stop over in Liberia to visit Ebola survivors.They will wrap up their trip in Morocco at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting taking place starting May 5th.

Much of President Clinton’s efforts and work since he left office have been involved in building upon the initiatives he started during his two-term presidency, such as climate change, providing and improving access to drugs in the developing world for treatments of diseases, and providing economic opportunities for women and their children.

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