Africa's Future Depends on Women

By Suzanne M. McCarron and James K. Glassman

On July 2, First Ladies from nations across Africa will join First Lady Michelle Obama, President George W. Bush, Laura Bush and distinguished leaders in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a two-day summit, entitled "Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa." The event will focus on strategies for advancing opportunities for African women.

Research confirms that when women have access to the right tools, training and opportunities, they act as catalysts for broader economic and social advancement. As the African proverb so wisely states, "When women move forward, the world moves with them."

However, we know that development issues are complex and require cross-sector collaboration to address them. Unlocking the extraordinary potential of women in low-income countries will require ambitious collaborations between governments, businesses, universities and non-profit organizations.

Consider the challenges faced by women farmers in the developing world. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, many of these women lack access to the financing, land, education and technology available to men.

The UN reports that eliminating this one gender disparity would increase food production by as much as four percent in developing countries, and pull upwards of 150 million people out of hunger1. Such gains would be particularly beneficial for many African nations, where explosive population growth poses one threat to the continent's food supply2.

Developing countries also prosper when women are empowered to take charge of their finances and become involved in their economies. The World Bank published a series of major studies highlighting gender equality as a critical foundation for development investment. Their reports note that investments in women and girls strengthen countries' ability to grow their GDP and reduce poverty.

When women have control over their income, they propel their children forward as well as other women, which further benefits entire communities. This creates a powerful multiplier effect that advances all of society and lays the groundwork for future economic growth3.

Improving educational opportunities for women and girls also yields tremendous benefits. A child whose mother can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age five4. An extra year of primary school increases girls' eventual wages by 10-20 percent, encourages girls to marry later and have fewer children, and makes them less likely to experience violence5.

It's for these reason that the Bush Institute and ExxonMobil are committed to fostering partnerships between public and private institutions in their efforts to help advance Africa's women and develop their abilities. The Investing in Women summit will foster relationships between some of Africa's most influential women and leaders from prominent businesses, governments and NGOs and stir discussion around strategies for female empowerment.

We know collaboration works. Public and private institutions have already made great progress in this area. For instance, the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative, founded by the Bush Institute, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, UNAIDS and PEPFAR integrates lifesaving cervical cancer screening and breast cancer education into existing healthcare platforms in Sub-Saharan Africa.

And the ExxonMobil Foundation has partnered with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to publish research and expand access to the Nokia-designed Business Women mobile service to help women entrepreneurs gain the necessary information and skills to enhance their businesses.

Research demonstrates that 88 percent of women entrepreneurs are willing to use mobile services to address the challenges they face in their businesses6. By leveraging the 5 billion mobile connections globally, the Business Women tool has the potential to reach tens of thousands of women entrepreneurs. The ExxonMobil Foundation and Cherie Blair Foundation will share the initial results of the program and expansion plans in Africa at the Summit.

But, confronting the problem of gender inequality in the developing world will take more than a few innovative projects. It will require a sustained, collaborative effort from leaders around the globe.

Suzanne M. McCarron is the President of the ExxonMobil Foundation. James K. Glassman is the Founding Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute.