TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
April 1, 1998
The women my husband and I met on our trip to Africa greeted us with song. Everywhere we stopped, they sang of their lives, they sang of their hopes for themselves and their families, and they sang of the new Africa.
In Ghana, the women who greeted us were dressed in aqua, orange, yellow and other bright colors. They were united by a common mission -- the chance to become full participants in their country's political and economic development. They showed me the micro enterprises they've created selling jewelry, art, clothing and other goods. But nothing delighted them more than showing me their day-care center, where children were being cared for while their mothers worked to support their families.
Last year, when I visited South Africa, the women sang to me of strength, money and knowledge. When my husband joined me there last week, we witnessed the remarkable changes born of these three ingredients.
As we approached the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project, we could still see the shanties where homeless squatters -- mostly women -- lived. Now, on the other side of the street, we found a vibrant community that women have built by pooling their resources, securing small loans and constructing homes together.
Last year, I asked the women if they believed they would own a home themselves someday. Their answer was a resounding "yes." This time, when I asked how many had become homeowners, hands shot up throughout the group. In just one year, the number of homes in that village has increased from 18 to 104.
Roads once made of dirt are now paved. The concrete slab where we gathered last year is now a community center, complete with a day-care center and a store. And the women have just bought a larger plot of land that will provide fertile soil for new businesses and new homes.
In Rwanda, I was anguished as women spoke of the struggle to rebuild lives ripped apart by genocide. In Uganda, I heard the stories of women striving to provide education for every boy and girl and using microcredit loans to increase their incomes and improve their lives. And in Botswana, I listened to women leaders who are helping combat the scourge of AIDS and promote legal rights.
In Senegal, I met with a group of women from the Malicounda Bambara village who have done something truly remarkable. Although female genital mutilation affects less than 20 percent of women in Senegal, in many villages like Malicounda, it is considered a rite of passage for all girls.
These women decided that female genital mutilation had harmed their daughters' bodies and spirits for too long. They decided that it was time to end the pain, hemorrhaging, infections, AIDS and childbirth complications caused by this deadly tradition.
They showed me a skit that they have used to educate their religious leaders, their husbands and their neighbors. Malicounda Bambara villagers have now banned female genital mutilation, and in the process, they are inspiring others to do the same. Just last month, 13 villages with a combined population of more than 8,000 people joined together to end female genital mutilation in their communities. And now, Senegal's President Diouf has called for a new law to abolish it throughout the country.
In Thies, Senegal, I visited a group of parents at the Mode Kane School who are improving their children's lives by improving their own education, literacy and health. They, too, sang a song of their journey, a song they called "Women's Rights": "All people ... have equal rights. The right to education. The right to health. These rights have changed our lives ... in our homes, in our neighborhoods and in our country."
As I leave this remarkable continent to return home, I am reminded of how one of Senegal's greatest authors, Ousmane Sembene, described a group of women from Thies who marched and sang in the name of simple fairness and progress. He wrote, "Ever since they left Thies, the women had not stopped singing. As soon as one group allowed the refrain to die, another picked it up and new verses were born. ... No one was very sure any longer where the song began, or if it had an ending. It rolled out over its own length, like the movement of a serpent. It was as long as a life."
With every generation, the chorus of African women becomes stronger and more powerful. No one remembers where the song began. But I hope the song of Africa's women never ends.
COPYRIGHT 1998 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED