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Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard’s Participation in the Gender and Inclusion Summit (GS-22) 
November 16, 2022

Summit Theme:  Connecting the Dots for a Gender Inclusive Society

Distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen, I am honored to be your keynote speaker today.  Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are causes I care deeply about.  And they have long been a priority of the U.S. government at home and around the world.  President Biden has made gender equity and equality a cornerstone of his Administration with a first-ever national strategy to advance the rights and empowerment of women and girls.  The Department of State has an office dedicated to Global Women’s Issues.  Globally, the United States contributes over 200 million dollars annually towards programming on gender equity and equality.

In Nigeria, the U.S. Mission works to promote environments which support women’s economic success, to address challenges that hold women back and, to empower Nigerian women to do the same.  Fundamentally, we see it as our duty – and that of everyone who seeks a just and equitable society – to ensure women and girls have opportunities to participate and lead in all aspects of life.  Strategically, it is equally as important – because nations that have gender parity have greater economic and developmental growth, less conflict, and higher rates of literacy than those that do not.

You all have done much to advance women’s issues including not just conferences such as this one, but the passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act and the implementation of the National Gender Policy.  There are still, however, many structural inequalities that impede women’s access to economic resources and opportunities and that hinder women’s full participation in society.  According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Index, Nigeria ranks 78th out of 156 countries in terms of economic opportunities for women.  And, according to the World Bank, in Nigeria women earn 22 percent less in wages than men.

Today, I would like to share with you how the United States Mission in Nigeria “connects the dots” towards gender inclusivity.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said earlier this year at our International Women’s Day gala, “Women for so long have been excluded and now we are slowly righting the wrongs of history.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s five-year plan, that began in 2020, highlights gender inclusion as a cross-cutting issue required to achieve Nigeria’s development objectives.  The strategy prioritizes narrowing gender gaps and equalizing access to health care, agriculture, education, economic empowerment, political participation, and peacebuilding.

This strategy has resulted in several successes, which I’d like to share with you, starting with health care.  

In Benue State, a retired nurse-midwife and primary health care clinic director named Grace Akpegi traded her stethoscope for a studio microphone and began working as an anchor for a health radio program called Community Doctor.  She is one of 69 radio station producers working with a USAID-led project called Breakthrough ACTION-Nigeria which promotes positive behaviors to protect families from malaria.  As a health worker, Grace could only attend to around 10 patients a day, but with her radio program she now reaches as many as 500,000 people a day.

We have also had successes in the agriculture sector.  

Women and girls should have full autonomy to create a successful life for themselves – however they see fit.  Greater control over income, property, and land can help them do just that.  This is certainly vital in the traditionally male-dominated agricultural sector, where USAID’s Feed the Future program is addressing that challenge.

In four Northeast Nigerian states, the Feed the Future Rural Resilience activity has over 46,000 female beneficiaries who received assistance in “agri-preneurship,” demonstration plot farming, farmer field schools, and reducing the economic impacts of COVID-19.

To take on example, with the support of Feed the Future, Gladys Dalung, an orphan, single mom, and food processor, transformed her business into a unique brand, called The Afrieden Foods.  Gladys told us her production capacity has increased by 35 percent.  She added that her success also benefits her staff and the small-scale farmers they work with, 80 percent of whom are women and all of whom now have more financial freedom.

Let me turn to another vital area, education.  

Across Nigeria, only 58 percent of girls, compared to 70 percent of boys, are in primary school.  And Nigeria’s literacy rate for women is 41 percent, which is 20 percent lower than it is for men.  We understand that parents often prioritize schooling for boys, and Nigerian girls leave school at a younger age than their male counterparts.

USAID/Nigeria’s education activities involve parents, parent-teacher associations, and school or community-based management committees to increase girls’ school enrollment and non-formal educational opportunities.  The activities include inclusive educational materials that depict women and girls in diverse and empowering roles.

And, do you remember when schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic?  USAID’s efforts in response led to the enrollment of 20,000 adolescent girls in non-formal learning centers.  20,000!

Add to that our efforts to boost girls’ engagement in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  

This includes our TechWomen program that has included 55 Nigerian participants since its launch in 2014.  TechWomen empowers, connects, and supports the next generation of women leaders in STEM fields by providing them access and opportunities to advance their careers, pursue their dreams, and become role models for women and girls in their communities.  And building on the success of TechWomen, we added TechGirls in 2021 to help encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Additionally, on the International Day of the Girl, we honored a young woman named Queen Esther who had never thought of studying science before attending a Bring Your Daughter to Work Day at our partner Eko Electricity Distribution Company.  There she found her calling and told us, “Now I want to become an engineer; it’s really cool!”

It warms my heart to know that, in a country where as few as 22 percent of university science, technology, engineering, and math students are female, Queen Esther plans to pave the way for more female engineering students.

The issue of educational advancement ties into the vital area of economic empowerment.

You may have heard about the U.S. Power Africa program.  In 2020 and 2021, Power Africa hosted a Professional Skills Development Course for Women in the Energy Sector.  The program started with a two-week course to provide junior and mid-level women with professional skills.  Following on this program’s success, we formed the Energy Sector Women’s Leadership Initiative, to provide women in the industry with professional skills development in more than 20 topics across the energy sector value chain.  To date, over 700 women have participated in the program, building skills in professional communications, time management, conflict management, salary negotiation, leadership, and teamwork.

Through another program that our Public Affairs team leads, the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), we support women entrepreneurs who want to start and grow their businesses. Since its launch in 2019, another 770 women entrepreneurs across Nigeria have received business training in leadership, management, and finance from experienced facilitators and have developed a supportive network of successful women entrepreneurs, many of whom serve as mentors for the participants.

The last area of society I’d like to touch on is the political.  

Women’s participation in political life is essential to the challenge of gender inclusion.  As Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria sets the tone for the rest of the continent.  Nigerian women’s full participation in public life is fundamental to sustaining Nigeria’s vibrant democracy.  Yet, women and girls often face high barriers in electoral politics, governance, and peacebuilding.  Nigeria’s representation of women in state and national government stands at only 4 percent in elective office and 16 percent in appointed positions.  Women not only lack a platform, their viewpoints are excluded from the decision-making process.

The upcoming 2023 elections present a critical opportunity to include more women in leadership positions in government.  We encourage women not only to vote on Election Day but also to consider running for office at all levels of government in future elections.  This campaign season presents an opportunity to demand candidates prioritize policies and legislation for women and girls.

Mission Nigeria has several programs aimed at supporting Nigeria in reducing gender-based violence.  During these elections we will be working with local NGOs, aiming specifically at reducing violence against women in politics and during the elections.  And we will work to strengthen the capacity of women’s groups to advocate for laws and policies that provide better protections for women.

Elections also provide an opportunity for individuals not just to participate in the governmental processes of their country but to hold officials accountable for their actions or for their inaction.  Challenging candidates to share issue-based campaign strategies with the public is one way to hold officials to their word once they are in office.

Reflecting on our work to “connect the dots” thus far, we know there is hope.  Recognizing the challenges women face, the United States is committed to promoting women’s empowerment.  We will continue to support Nigerian women in their efforts to have greater productivity, economic diversification, and income equality.  We will continue to push for full implementation and enforcement cooperation of laws and regulations already enacted, with emphasis on those complicit in violations of the law to be held criminally accountable.  And we will continue our long-standing partnership with the Nigerian government, the private sector, and civil society, to each do our part to build a more gender-inclusive society, where women and girls can reach their full potential.

Thank you all for inviting me to participate today, and for sharing your own insights and experiences as we march forward on this journey toward full gender inclusivity in Nigeria.