Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018, addressed an Addleshaw Goddard/Save the Children event in London recently. Her speech to business lawyers, entrepreneurs and politicians focused on uplifting and encouraging women to become equal players on the global stage. Below is a shortened version of her speech
Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018
“It is a great pleasure to be here today among friends and kindred spirits. I say ‘kindred spirits’ because we all gathered here believe in the mission of ‘Save the children’.
This 100-year-old organization has done so much to improve the livelihoods of children as well as promoting their rights across the world.
It is with respect for all these efforts that I am standing in front of you today as one of the new members to this prestigious organization.
Let me start with a story that I read recently and I would like to share with you.
A young boy is involved in a traffic accident and is immediately rushed to the hospital for urgent surgery. In the bustle and chaos of the hospital environment, the surgeon strides into the operating room. Think of the quintessential surgeon—the A-type, brimming with confidence and authority: one who knows instinctively how to take charge. Yet this distinguished surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps: “I can’t operate on this boy… he’s my son”.
Indeed, the boy is the surgeon’s son. Yet the surgeon is not the boy’s father. How do we explain this riddle?
I know that everyone in this room can see the answer immediately. It is simple—the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yet I also know that plenty of educated and erudite people—no less including plenty of educated and erudite women—do not see this at first blush. They puzzle over it and circle around it; they suggest uncle, grandfather, step father—answers that really make little sense. Unfortunately, despite all our gains, this is the persistent reality. Similar scenarios have also happened to me in the course of my career. When I was a university pro-vice chancellor and found myself alone in the office, responding to a ringing phone, the typical question I received from the other side of the line was, “Is this the secretary of Professor Gurib-Fakim?”
When it comes to thinking about women in powerful positions, we are often blinded by and stubbornly products of long-embedded bias that tends to mire our thoughts. The higher up the status pecking order, up to and including the position of Head of State, the more this tends to hold true.
We are all aware of this and fight against it on a daily basis, in Mauritius and all over the world. We are also aware that this attitude pulls us back, and slows the evolution of our country, our region and the global economy.
But these prejudices date back to the existence of mankind; this sort of entrenchment takes active, sustained and dedicated effort to drive away. It cannot be done in a single generation, but it must be done.
We need a complete mind set shift for this 21st century for the full and equitable economic participation of women to fully unleash all of the earning power of our national economies and, eventually, the global economy. It is not sufficient to make progress against ingrained gender inequality – we must eradicate it altogether.
How do we build a critical mass of empowered, prosperous and confident women who can drive our own destiny?
Let us start with the basics - Education! As Nelson Mandela said, education is “The most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world”. Mandela’s belief has special leverage as applied to women.
And, as another great world leader, Mahatma Gandhi, once said: “Educating a girl is educating a family, a community, a nation and eventually the world.”
Educating women creates an amazing ripple effect as an educated woman is likely to spend her resources on her family and on the education and health of her children.
If the moral imperative to educate girls is not sufficient, the economic returns should be: the IMF recently reported that a study of 60 developing countries revealed that the economic loss from not educating girls at the same level as boys amounted to 90 BN USD/year.
Thus, educating a girl must not be perceived as a threat, but rather as both a blessing and as a practice that makes good economic sense.
I am a product of that vision. My parents believed deeply in education for their children, no less for me than for my brother. Indeed, they were right: education has elevated me, giving me that springboard of substance and self-confidence to aim higher. Good education empowers, breaks down barriers; promotes critical thinking and frees the individual from exclusion, and in my case, insularity.
Without a good education, we start life with a severe disadvantage, one that few are ever able to compensate for. This will become increasingly true into the future, given the technological world in which we live. For those without education, the future is beyond bleak.
Conversely, for those with a good education, avenues of opportunity open up. Countries that have invested in education have shown that it leads to not just empowerment and access to opportunities, but also to a reduction in gender inequality. This is a focus I would like to bring within my role at the Africa Advisory Board… my way of giving back.
But for all our progress, persistent gaps exist. This tends to be increasingly true as we move up the ladder of seniority and therefore influence. For example, while girls and young women are the majority of those who enter the biological, health and medical sciences in many countries, they fall out of the pipeline in numbers much greater than do men as they move up levels of seniority. We must and can do better.
In 2015, for the first time in the history of the UN, science was recognized as having a central role to play in helping humanity achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Success in the SDGs will lead to a better world for all of us.
This is where the investment in a girl’s education is critical, especially in developing countries: it is precisely in these regions that the contribution of women and girls can make the biggest difference in stimulating the economy.
In the 20th century, the USA showed the way by its trailblazing education policy that institutionalized the integration of races in education settings, favored science in the thick of the Cold War, and ensured equal education opportunities between the genders through the passage of Title IX.
While these milestones may seem modest today, at the time, they were controversial and courageous. Today, the US is still reaping the benefits of these decisions, which have helped drive the country’s economic leadership, with gender equality a crucial component of that strategy.
Small investments can result in large gains for girls. One extra year of primary school can boost earning potential by 10-20%. At the secondary level, an extra year can result in an impressive 25% boost in earning potential.
Mauritius, I am very proud to say, showed the way in the early 1980’s. Education was made free in 1976, as my country achieved big gains in our budding manufacturing sector.
The same uneducated women who were cutting sugar cane could now manipulate machines and eventually program the software that ran those machines! An educated woman contributes to the labour force… and when a woman thrives, the country thrives.
Females represent over 50% of the world’s population, yet the contribution of women is less than half of many measured economic activities. Still today, nearly one billion women are excluded from full participation in the economy.
Africa suffers particularly from this reality – this gender gap of almost 50% is a large contributor to lesser economic productivity in Africa than in fully developed countries.
When women do progress beyond the lowest tiers of the labour market, they tend to remain at middle management positions, earning low pay in often low status jobs.
Not surprisingly, the informal sector has a high representation of women, and, moreover, in this sector, employees tend to be unskilled, realize unstable earnings and are left unprotected.
And, of course, women dominate in unpaid jobs, caring for children and the elderly, where they are not just uncompensated but also unrecognized, unappreciated and unprotected.
Here I think of my own mother. Had she not dedicated her blood, sweat and tears, her every ounce of energy to our family, I would not be standing here talking to you. I salute her and all women like her who toil every day to keep families whole and together.
Thus, another clear message: the more women contribute, the better the economy fares.
Eliminating the gender gaps in economic participation implies big jumps in income per capita – a vital measure for the economic wellbeing of any country.
Those countries in the Middle East and in North Africa that have experimented by investing in the economic advancement of women have reported between 23-27% increases in GDP.
And of course it goes to follow that productivity begets productivity: the contribution of women in the paid workforce increases expendable income, which in turn increases spending capacity, which in turns drives a healthy economy.
Change will happen where we make it a priority. Another area ripe for attention is the law. In many countries, women are still being subjected to old inheritance laws, and loans and bank accounts require a male co-signor -- father and husband. Changes in laws can become powerful agents of change.
Think of progressive countries, like Sweden. Sweden’s pro-family, pro-women policies have resulted in massive progress.
Policies like publicly-funded parental leave; quality, affordable, government-subsidized childcare; free or subsidized early childhood education; individual instead of family income taxation, and tax credits or benefits for low-wage workers.
Sweden has the highest female participation rate in the world in part because of these policies that support family and children, and also places a premium on flexible work and parental leave policies.
We need to sweep aside that macho attitude that has kept women behind for so long.
One area where this is happening is in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The ubiquity of technology and the centrality of science to sustainable development have influences far beyond the STEM fields themselves, to create greater participation of females in many areas such as agriculture, for example.
With education and labour comes another important element that will ensure full female economic empowerment – Leadership. Female leaders have been few, but those that have made it to the highest level of leadership have had a lasting legacy.
I think of Catherine the Great; Elizabeth I, Wangari Maathai and Marie Curie – my role model! They are women who declined the well-beaten track and followed their own courageous and visionary trail.
But the sad fact remains that the higher you go up the ladder, the fewer women you meet. In my country, there’s less than 15% representation in the national assembly.
Fewer than 5% of Nobel Prize winners are women. One irony and tragedy of this is that women leaders have qualities that can result in better leadership, because they tend to make decisions based on consensus, inclusion, caring, empathy, compassion and focus on long term sustainability.
Now I will say something that I thought I would never say. In many sectors, especially in the political world, we may only achieve the goal of equality through quotas.
The slopes are too high for us to climb without some help towards the top. Quotas, unfortunately, may be a prop that we need in the initial stages.
Role models and the availability of mentorship of successful women can be critical success factors that need to be plugged into the equation to achieve true parity.
For example, mandates on the proportion of women in parliament and on corporate boards may be necessary for the immediate and even foreseeable future.
One hopes, I hope, that quotas are a temporary necessity, but they may be a necessity for now.
My message is simple: we need to change the mindset in our 21st century. We need to do away with this ingrained mentality that works against women’s empowerment. We need to keep daring to make the difference and we need to keep investing in the ingredients that will provide for the empowerment of empowerment.
Let us all start looking out for each other. Let us create a world where that little girl out there in any village in Africa can grow up prepared and able to fulfill her potential.
Let us ensure that nobody ever again will doubt that an African woman can become that top engineer, doctor, or that minister, and that the she can lead because she has the education, intelligence, charisma, drive and, maybe more importantly, the confidence, compassion and caring attitude that this fragmented world needs right now and beyond.”
Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim serves on the Africa board of Save the Children.
Save the Children is the world’s leading independent organisation for children. Founded in 1919 they are in their 100th year of defending and upholding children and their right to survive and thrive. To find out more about how you can support it, click here.
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