Advancing Women Starts with Shifting Culture

I just returned home from a deeply meaningful trip to Lesotho (pronounced li-soo-too).  Lesotho is one of two small countries (the other Swaziland) embedded inside of South Africa.  The Kingdom of Lesotho, today a constitutional monarchy, is home to the Basotho people, decedents of an African tribe led by the late King Moshoeshoe. 

I came to Lesotho at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy located in the capital, Maseru.  This country of roughly 2 million is surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges, and its main industries are cattle, agriculture, mining, and textiles.  I was invited there to speak about women’s leadership.  This was my fourth State Department trip where I have been asked to share my experiences as an American working to train and inspire women to lead, particularly in politics. 

On each of these trips, as I speak about the dearth of women leaders around the world, I share my belief that our countries cannot and will not be as productive, peaceful, and dynamic as they could be if we do not embrace women leaders in all levels of public life.   I also point out that nation’s with the most instability, extremism, and economic strife have the least progressive views on the role of women.

Yet, time and again, I see that while many developing countries have embraced women as economic generators – as small business owners and breadwinners for their families – in many cultures, politics is still seen as an exclusively male bastion.  This was the case in Lesotho.  Although Lesotho actually has a higher percentage of women in parliament than the U.S., and girls and boys receive an equal education, women’s voices and contributions are frequently demeaned and disregarded.     

The women I met were dynamic, self-aware, and well educated.  Yet they told me:  “We are considered minors who need to be protected.”  “We are not trusted to make decisions.”  “Women do not even support other women, this is a major issue here.  But we are raised to think this, it is not what we really want.”  “A girl-child is worth nothing compared to a boy-child.”  “We are abused by our husbands, we don’t even have a voice in our own homes.”  

These were just a few of the disheartening messages I heard.  

As we discussed the challenges the Basotho women face, I was careful not to suggest that the U.S. is doing much better.  I emphasized in almost every meeting and conversation that the struggles we face are universal.  And I mean that, because no matter what issues we’re facing, at the end of the day, changing the face of our leaders is about changing our culture.  It’s about changing the way women’s voices are heard.  It’s about valuing women’s opinions and contributions both in public life and at home.

Making this kind of culture change can feel overwhelming.  But as I told the women I met: It only takes one of you to reach out to another woman and help her make her voice heard.  You can support her by affirming her decision to lead in politics, or her decision to start a small business, or even simply speaking up when you hear a comment that diminishes her value.   When you stand up – you become a leader with your action – and you encourage that woman to do the same.  Together, you serve as role models, showing women and girls – and men and boys – the kind of change you want to see in your society. 

The Basotho women I spoke with agreed – and many have committed to support other women.  I was inspired by their passion and humbled by their courage, and I look forward to the progress they will continue to make for themselves and their country. 

Jessica GroundsComment