Remarks by Ambassador Virginia Palmer at the ‘Fabulous Women’ Reception, April 12, 2017

  • Your Excellency Madame Gertrude Mutharika, First Lady of the Republic of Malawi
  • Right Honorable Mrs. Mary Chilima, wife of the Right Honorable Vice President
  • Honorable Jean Kalilani, Minister of Gender and Social Welfare
  • Former First Ladies present here
  • Senior Chief Teresa Kachindamoto
  • Members of the Judiciary
  • Honorable Members of Parliament
  • Deputy Mayor of Lilongwe Juliana Kaduya
  • Senior Government Officials
  • Members of the Diplomatic Corps and Heads of International Organizations
  • FABULOUS women, all of you!

Takulandirani!    I’m so glad to welcome you to my home. I’m so honored to welcome you – political leaders,  civic leaders, business leaders, health care professionals, teachers, artists, volunteers, mothers – who are working hard to give Malawi’s women and girls lives free from violence, empowered by education and rich in opportunities.

I’m happy to have an opportunity to do a little networking and celebrate the amazing things you’re doing for Malawi.  If you want to continue that networking, I encourage you to look at the issue boards in the back and leave your business card or contact info if you’d like to be included in a WhatsApp group and future events.   We’ve done it by category:

  • Empowering Adolescent Girls and Young Women
  • Access to Justice
  • Economic Empowerment and Financial Literacy (including agriculture)
  • Women’s health issues

Tonight we can celebrate some amazing things that have happened in Malawi this year:

  • The first all female flight on Air Malawi – that’s all female – from the pilots who are here tonight, to the ground crew to the air traffic controllers. Only the second time IN THE WORLD that that’s ever been done.  Seeing that big plane land was a powerful demonstration that women really can do it all.  To my mind, the clear winner among all the events to mark International Women’s Day!
  • We celebrate the constitutional amendment that raised the legal age of majority and made ending child marriage easier.
  • We celebrate Inkhosi Kachindamoto’s Vital Voices Global Leadership Award (She spent some time with Hillary Clinton at the ceremony, I saw on YouTube) for all the work she’s done to end child marriage and for showing us that committed individuals can truly make a difference.
  • We celebrate the First Lady’s election as Chairperson of the African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS and her role in Let Girls Learn events in New York with First Lady Obama.
  • We’re celebrating President Mutharika’s formation of an Inter-Ministerial Task Force on Adolescent Girls and Young Women which is crafting a strategy for empowering Adolescent Girls and Young Women. If it’s done soon (I’m hoping, Minister Kalilani…..), it will be the first one of its kind in Africa and a something all the donors can get behind.

There is much to celebrate, but there is much still to do – in Malawi, in my country, around the world –  so that together we can make an impact on the next generation of girls and young women and achieve real gender equality.

In Malawi one in five girls who’ve had sex before they were 18 report that their first sexual encounter was violent.  One in seven girls have been the victims of violence.  I want to give a shout out to Justice Fiona Mwale for the work she’s doing to protect Malawi’s children and to Justice Esme Chombo, the head of the Women Judges Association for all she has done to show rural women that improvements in Malawi’s laws are real and that they can get justice if they speak out and say “this must stop.”

Malawi still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.  It is both a cause and consequence of early sexual activity and childbearing, and can lead to major health risks including maternal death, obstetric fistula, and increased vulnerability to HIV infection.  In Malawi, girls are three times more likely than their male counterparts to contract HIV.  They get the virus from older partners and, in turn, transmit it to young men.  So to interrupt the life cycle of the epidemic, we have to keep girls in school.  I know, Your Excellency, that you have been outspoken about both these causes – HIV and keeping girls in school.  Thank you for that.  It’s so important.

I’m proud that in Malawi, we’re taking a holistic approach to doing this – providing block grants, community awareness programs, school feeding and scholarships to help girls stay and coupling these programs with youth-friendly health services to help girls get the HIV tests or family planning services or advice they need to stay well.

In December, a delegation from PEPFAR (our HIV program), our Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues (it was her third visit last year – Thank you, your Excellency for hosting her), the  Global Fund, Gavi the Vacine Alliance, and the Global Partnership for Education came to Malawi to see this “whole of girl” approach for themselves.  It was in meeting with this group that President Mutharika announced the formation of the Task Force on Girls and Young Women.

I’m so pleased that as a result of those effort, the U.S. government is going to provide major funding for the installation of pre-fab classrooms to expand urban secondary schools and open schools in more remote areas so that all Malawi’s girls can attend secondary school.

And as we talk about big problems and big programs, let’s not forget that we’re really talking about real, individual girls.  I was struck this week – at a hop hop concert Second Lady Chilima and I attended (that’s how cool we are!) – that Malawi’s girls are just magnificent.  I love their promise and their drive and their potential.

I think women all too often are shaped by “other voices.”  When I was the age of the girls we saw at the hip hop concert, I was lucky.  I had my mother’s voice in my head “Stand up straight…..  Walk like you’re a queen…..Dress for the job you want to have. …Study hard.  Well, say something about that!….   Don’t apologize for that. ….You can do it!”  So be a positive voice for yourself, for the other women here tonight and especially for the girls and young women coming along behind us.

Zikomo kwambiri!