Remarks by Kathleen FitzGibbon, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Men’s Conference on Gender-Sensitive Constitutional Reform

To all the donors, partners, advocates for gender equality, and government representatives, thank you for your commitment to increasing the participation of women—half of your population—in the political discourse of Nigeria.

As Vice President Kamala Harris said at the 65th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March, “Democracy is a means to establish peace and shared prosperity.  It should ensure every citizen – regardless of gender – has an equal voice.  At the same time, [it] requires constant vigilance, constant improvement.  It is a work-in-progress.”

The United States understands the importance of women’s representation, as well as the structural challenges that exist globally — and in our own political system — for women to both seek and win political office.

In the U.S. today, women now constitute 27 percent of the members of Congress.  Twenty years ago, the figure was just 11 percent of seats.  While not sufficient, this still shows how far we have come and how far we still need to go to ensure equitable access to political participation.

I count myself fortunate to have been born in the United States and to have been born at a crossroads in our history for women.  At the time, we were left out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Equal Rights Amendment was languishing.  In 1972, the landmark Title XI Amendment to the Education Act change the playing field, literally, for me and millions of other American women.  Fortunately, Senator Birch Bayh, a visionary legislator, fought for the right of women to have an equal chance to attend schools of our choice to give us the opportunity to secure jobs of our choice.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

The 37 words he crafted gave me access to the education I needed, enabled me to land my dream job as a diplomat, and to succeed in a male-dominated profession, where women are only 30% of the senior ranks.  This makes the fact that U.S. Mission Nigeria is run by an all-female leadership team and we are joined by a powerful group of female ambassadors in the diplomatic corps all the more remarkable.  This gives me hope for the future.

Just think about the power that the 37-words of a legislator had in changing my life and enabling young girls like me to achieve their dreams.  There were so many other men whose support guided my journey.  These included my father and male relatives; my soccer, softball, and track coaches; university professors; and foreign service mentors.  All of them gave me the leadership skills and confidence to succeed, excel, and reach higher.  Most importantly, they championed my positions and taught me how to navigate the system.  Of course, I emulated so many of my female role models, those who courageously broke the gender barriers for our generation.  Women leaders—whether in the United States or Nigeria–need both the glass-ceiling breaking women to follow and male colleagues to support us along the way.  That is why we are here today.

We agree that increasing women’s representation and amplifying women’s voices is critical to overcoming challenges facing Nigerians.

We celebrate senior women leaders in the National Assembly, Senate, and federal and state governments for their commitment to equity, efficiency, and the elevation of other women into positions of power.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, civil society, and private sector continue to pave the way in opening doors to female leadership in political and civic life.

We commend the male leaders here today who are committing to be advocates for reforms and champions for female leaders that will help to level the playing field for women seeking an entry into Nigerian politics.

We applaud the diverse coalition of voices from across Nigeria and the  globe who are here today representing the rising tide of stakeholders working to empower women in Nigerian political life.

We acknowledge that together we need to openly tackle the challenge Nigerian women face in political life, coalesce around the issue to draft bills to address these challenges, and identify ways to support far-reaching reforms with your colleagues.

Your contributions today and your commitment to advocate for gender- sensitive legislative reforms will help not only the current cohort of women hoping to win political office, but future generations of women and girls who want to forge a more equitable and politically stronger Nigeria.  Be the Birch Bayh that unleased the power of half of all Nigerians!

Thank you for listening and leading change that will truly make a difference for all Nigerians!