Remarks by Ambassador Virginia Palmer at the Fabulous Women Event

Your Excellency Madame Gertrude Mutharika, First Lady of the Republic of Malawi

  • Your Excellency Madame Mary Chilima, wife of the Vice President of Malawi
  • Honorable Jean Kalilani, M.P., Minister of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare and other Cabinet Ministers here present
  • Former First Ladies present here
  • Members of the Judiciary
  • Honorable Members of Parliament
  • 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 home.  Look around – there’s a lot of FABULOUS standing here! I’m going to shout out to just a few:

  • First of all, there’s the First Lady – a former MP who has led the African First Ladies Against HIV and championed returning girls to school. I also cheered when you modeled a school uniform last year to drive that point home!
  • Second Lady Chilima – herself a banker and an entrepreneur, has supported women in tech and youth working for financial inclusiveness
  • Senior Chief Kachindamoto, now famous worldwide, inspires other traditional leaders to end child marriage.
  • Teresa Ndanga, Harvard grad, Zodiak’s Director of News and Chairperson of MISA speaks truth to power!
  • MPS Regional Commissioner Martha Suwedi, whose professionalism and swift action saved lives during last year’s bloodsucker crisis.
  • Petronil Zaina will be the first refugee woman to get a bachelor’s degree in Dzaleka. And my special Fabulous Woman, Nadia, who runs that program.
  • Madalo Samati, Executive Director of CRECCOM based in Zomba, is a tireless advocate for women and for girls’ education.
  • South African High Commissioner Thenjiwe Mtintso – who by the way inspired tonight’s dancing – was tortured and detained in solitary confinement by the apartheid government. She fought with Umkhonto we Sizwe.  Activist friends of mine say she’s the most courageous woman they’ve ever met.
  • And last but by no means least, Rose Nyirenda, Head of the Department of HIV and AIDS, is leading Malawi’s effort to achieve HIV epidemic control in the next 18 months.

I could go on……….Female pilots, nurses tending breast cancer patients, women running CSOs, women running companies, women raising successful, compassionate children….You’re all FABULOUS.  You inspire me and I know you inspire the women of Malawi.

But we’re more fabulous if we work to change the reality that women deal with – in their families, in their fields, at their workplace, in schools and clinics.

I want to ask for your undivided attention for a few minutes to talk about some sobering realities about the status of women in Malawi, in the United States and in the world because even as we celebrate the remarkable things that everybody here is doing,

we must acknowledge that much remains to be done in Malawi, in the U.S. and around the world to achieve real gender equality.

For example,

  • In the United States, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 600 women are raped or sexually assaulted EACH DAY. Three of these women are MURDERED by an intimate partner.
  • Malawi and the U.S. have roughly the same proportion of female legislators (19.3% and 19.6%), clearly not enough.
  • The #MeToo movement began in the United States and swept the world, revealing how sexual harassment can impose ridiculous limits on women at work and hinder their ability to achieve their full potential.

And in Malawi,

  • Despite some remarkable legislation like the Gender Equality Act, Malawi still ranks 173 out of 188 countries surveyed on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index and still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
  • In some parts of the country, girls are subject to initiation rites that put that at risk of unwanted pregnancy and life threatening HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control 39% of girls aged 13-24 experienced forced sexual initiation.  Forced – Rape, that is.
  • As terrible as this is on its own, its public health consequences are even more dire. A girl in Malawi is 8 times more likely than a boy her age to contract HIV.  If she’s a sexually active urban dweller, that number goes up to 22 times higher.

What can we do?  I think the first step must be that more girls need to finish high school.  On international Women’s Day my First Lady declared “education is the most powerful way to promote and ensure women’s rights. Together we will achieve this not only by striving for gender parity at all levels of education, but also by showing all children, and especially boys, that it is through empathy, respect and kindness that we achieve our collective potential.”  I’m very pleased that last week we received the first $20 million of $90 million for secondary school construction.  USAID will “street” tenders for that construction this week.

I hope we leave here reinvigorated by knowing what great things women in Malawi are doing and with a renewed commitment to working together to make an impact on the next generation of girls and young women.  Because for Malawi to thrive, girls and women must have access to education, healthcare, and technology.  They must have equal rights and equal opportunities.  And they must be surrounded by women – and men – who will contribute to their empowerment and urge them toward success.  That’s all of us.

Zikomo kwambiri!