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A few weeks ago, I was honored to be asked to deliver this speech to two U.K. Government institutions on the transformative power of global women’s leadership and its impact on development. The first was at The Speaker Series at the Department for International Development and the second at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I mention several remarkable women Vital Voices has had the privilege of working with, including: Inez McCormack, who fostered the infrastructure to support the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland; Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala, an anti-trafficking organization in India; Panmela Castro, a Brazilian graffiti artist who has highlighted the problem of domestic violence in Rio; and Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a school for young girls in Kenya and a 2013 CNN Heroes nominee. Each of these women represents some of the most innovative and courageous examples of individual leadership that has accelerated positive development outcomes for their communities and thus for us all.   

Please find the transcript from the speech below.

I am thrilled and delighted to be here, certainly to have the opportunity to speak with you, but also to look at ways that we can strengthen our partnership between my organisation, Vital Voices, and the fantastic work that you are doing here. I want to talk to you about how I believe that women’s leadership has the opportunity to transform our world. 

Leadership has long been synonymous with those people at the top: people with titles, in positions of authority, or with many people reporting to them. Yet recently we have seen some profound shifts in what leadership could look like and could mean. 

The woman on the screen is Malala Yousafzai. Many of you are probably very aware of her. She is 16 years old. She comes from probably one of the most dangerous places on the planet: the Swat Valley of Pakistan. This is a place where, if you are a woman, you have very few rights and opportunities. If you are a girl, you have none. 

Malala, at the age of 11, was told by the Taliban that she could no longer go to school, but Malala believed differently. She knew that she had rights under the law and she decided to fight for them. She decided that she was not only going to fight for her rights, but also for those of other little girls in her community. This little voice ignited a movement. 

A year ago exactly this month the Taliban decided to punish Malala. A 23-year-old gunman shot her in the face and left her for dead. That bullet did not kill Malala. In fact, it only amplified her message. In doing so, it created a global groundswell of support, not only for Malala, but also for the support of girls, their empowerment and their education. 

Malala is not alone. From Tunisia, Egypt, Burma to Brazil, we have witnessed citizen activists, exercising and wielding power derived from the grassroots: toppling dictators, breaking down barriers and creating opportunities where there was once none. Women, who have long been frozen out of official positions of power and decision making, are finding new ways to exercise a leadership model of their very own, derived from strengths they have always possessed: a bias for inclusiveness, crossing lines that typically divide, having roots in the community and leveraging individual power for collective empowerment. 

In the past, those of us who have cared about the rights and achievements of women and girls have spoken in this language of fairness. Although I think that that language and sentiment is certainly still true today, there is something that is even more powerful emerging. Not so long ago The Economist declared, ‘Forget China. Forget India. Forget the internet.’  Women will be the force to drive economic growth and opportunity around the world, contributing more to global GDP than all three: China, India and the internet combined. Clearly the world is waking up to this idea that women are the emerging market. 

Just last month in fact, world leaders, including leaders from this government, gathered at the United Nations and acknowledged that women’s economic and social investment was the single most powerful driver in achieving not one but all eight of the Millennium Development Goals. In fact, Helen Clark, the Head of the UNDP, said that investing in women and girls was a silver bullet for development. Women are the emerging economic force. 

What I have seen over the past two decades working with extraordinary women around the globe is that women are not only an economic force. We are not only another number in the economy to be tapped. We are a different kind of number. Women are not only an economic force; we are a transformational leadership force. Vital Voices has been supporting and enabling this transformation for the past 15 years: encouraging, mentoring and training women to step up and seize their leadership potential and make change. We have done this, not because it is the nice thing to do – although it is – and not because even it is the right thing to do, but because we believe it is the only thing to do if we are to meet the challenges of our time. 

Vital Voices was founded almost 15 years ago on this very simple, but powerful, idea: no country, community or corporation in the world could expect to move forward if half the population – the women and girls of that nation or community – are left behind. When we first started we thought that if we could just move women up to power and decision-making tables in business, civil society and government, we could make things 50% better. It is just simple maths. 

In fact we were wrong. A number like 50 percent, when it comes to women, is too small because when women get their voices heard and obtain a piece of power and opportunity, they bring others along. Women believe differently. That is what I have learned. I believe that that difference is precisely what our world needs today. If we look around the world we see growing inequities and divides. We see countries trying to recover from economic crisis and move from recovery to resurgence. We see people feeling very connected to each other through modern technology yet wildly disconnected from their leaders. Clearly status quo leadership styles do not work for this century. 

I would like to take you on a journey around the world to meet some of the most extraordinary women leaders that we have worked with: women who have shown us a new model of leadership, one that I believe is quite relevant for us all. 

This is Buthayna Kamel. Buthayna Kamel decided that she was going to run for President in Egypt in last year’s presidential elections. She was the only female candidate to raise her hands and throw her hat into the ring. She is the only candidate who travelled all over the country on a listening tour, collecting people’s concerns and ideas. She believed that if she were elected to the highest office in Egypt, she would need to reflect the concerns of the people. She knew that it was the people that called for this revolution and she would need to be their authentic voice.

Buthayna Kamel has strong roots in the community in which she serves. She believes and understands that you cannot expect to move the people forward if you cannot put yourself in their shoes and if you do not have their concerns and voices in your head. 

Inez McCormack from Northern Ireland was a woman who was a unifier, collaborator and remarkable change agent. She was one of the few bold women who many years ago reached a hand across the political and sectarian divide and said, ‘Enough, enough of our husbands and brothers dying in this bloody civil war. Enough.’

She began to first foster co-existence and then trust. Then slowly, over 20 years, began to build an infrastructure within the community that would, 20 years later, support the Good Friday peace accords. Inez believes that we must always ask, ‘Who is not at the table?’  Women understand how to harness the power of local solutions and to solve some of the most intractable problems our world is facing. 

Sunitha Krishnan is on the vanguard of a survivor-centred movement to prevent and respond to human trafficking. Sunitha connects with survivors of exploitation and violence against women because she was, indeed, a victim herself. When she was a teenager she was gang raped just outside her home in India. She decided, instead of staying in that isolated darkness, she would find a way to pull herself out. She did.

She did something next that I think is quite profound. Rather than moving forward with her life and never looking back at the past, she decided that she would turn around and pull others out with her. Today, from her organisation in Prajwala, she has rescued 8,200 women, boys and girls from modern day slavery: human trafficking. She has done more than that though. She has started 18 schools for children in vulnerable communities to stop that vulnerable cycle and to disrupt this cycle of exploitation. She has trained 25,000 police officers, judges and prosecutors to inform them about human trafficking: how to recognise it and how to defend and support the victims of it. She leads a team of 218, 60% of whom are survivors, because she believes that any solution to human trafficking has to be led by those who have gone through it and come out on the other side. 

She is quite extraordinary. This past year alone, she was able to help secure 95 convictions of human traffickers. In terms of global standards and statistics, we are not bringing enough of the traffickers to justice. 95 convictions in one country in one year is a huge step forward. 

Sunitha has been beaten 19 times. Traffickers have filed litigations against her. Yet she continues because her mission is so much larger than herself. She steps up to make change because she is motivated by seeking power to empower others. 

Women are innovators as leaders. They think outside the box. I believe this because many women around the world have never been in the box. They do not know what the box looks like. Therefore it is natural that they come up with innovative and creative ideas. 

This is Panmela Castro. She is an artist from Brazil. She was a victim of domestic violence but she was able to escape that relationship. When she escaped she found out that there was a law against this problem, which she thought had no name. There was a law in her country that said it was a crime. However, the police did not know about it. The people certainly did not know about it and it went completely unenforced, so why would it even matter if there were a law? 

She decided that what she could do was bring her art to the streets. She is a graffiti artist. She started painting murals all over the favelas of Rio to begin with. The favelas are the slums of Rio. She knew that women would probably not have any access to information about this law and may not know that it should be a crime. She believed that in order to combat this issue, we must first hold the community accountable. To be able to do that we needed to change their mindset and the way they think about and value women. Today Brazil has one of the highest enforcement rates of their domestic violence law. Through the work that Panmela was doing, she was able to take this issue, from an invisible, unspeakable issue that had no name, to something that was not only visible but also taken seriously and enforced. 

We work with women who understand that leadership is not about individual success but collective progress. They have a great resolve that when they are invested in, they will turn around and invest in others, paying forward what has been given to them. 

This is Kakenya Ntaiya. She lives in Kenya, in the Maasai Mara. When Kakenya was seven-years old her father pulled her out of school and said that that was the end of her education. He also told her that she would undergo a culturally harmful practice called FGM. Then she would be promised off to be married. For this seven-year-old, that was a death sentence. She realised that the only thing she had to negotiate with was this practice of FGM. She knew it would bring huge shame on her family if she did not go through it. So she went to her father and said, ‘Okay. I will go through this practice but only if you let me stay in school – only if you let me stay in school as long as the boys are allowed to stay in school.’  So he did, because it would have brought great shame to the family.

When she ended the equivalent of high school and she was about to go to university, she knew she had another negotiation, but this time she had to make it with the entire village. She had been granted a scholarship somehow; these were the days before the internet came to the Maasai Mara. She had achieved a scholarship in the United States but she needed her family’s permission. She wanted her family’s and communities’ permission to leave the community. No girl had ever left, let alone to go to a university, or stayed in school as long as she had. 

She went to all the village elders. She went before sunrise because, in their culture, any news that is brought in sunrise must be good news. She told them about the scholarship and she asked them for permission to go. She asked them if they would contribute to her plane ticket to the United States and they agreed because she had brought this before sunrise. Then when she left that day on the plane, I remember she told me that the only person that came to see her go was her mother, because still the community felt that it was a great shame that a girl was leaving their community. They were not sure how to embrace or think about it, but they did let her go. 

I met Kakenya in 2006. At that time, Kakenya told me that she was only a dissertation away from her PhD in Education, but she told me more than that. She told me she had a really bold dream, so bold that she could not even talk about it yet. She said that she had to repay the investment that her community made in her by returning one day to the Masaai Mara village and building the first girls’ school, so that other girls would not have to go through that practice of FGM. They would not be taken out of school. They would not be promised off to be married. They would have a whole future before them.

Right then and there Vital Voices decided to invest in her, not because she was as yet leading change but because she had extraordinary potential to, one day, make a huge impact in her community. We started to mentor her and provide her with training. We helped her to build a website for the new school. We introduced her to funders that would help her make her dream a reality. We honoured her with an award just for this bold vision that she had. 

Then two years later, in 2008, I travelled with her to her village. We had brought leaders from all over the United States, Africa and Europe to arrive at this village. I remember when we arrived there to break ground on this new school that she was going to create, thinking it did not matter who I brought and what their titles were: the important thing was that we showed up. People in the community knew that their daughter had created pride among people around the world, one of their daughters. It was someone they should be proud of as well. That day when we broke ground on the school, every single man came up to me and told me how he was somehow related or connected to Kakenya. That is when I knew we had made huge success here; Kakenya was indeed the right investment for us to make. 

Today Kakenya has 150 girls in her school: 150 girls whose lives have been changed; 150 girls who have bigger, bolder dreams than even Kakenya. Kakenya has also been selected as one of the finalists of the CNN Heroes; we hope to find out whether she wins in a few weeks.

Leaders, I believe, are beacons of belief in the impossible. That is why they are so valuable in our world.

Think about the women in the world out there whose leadership is yet to be unleashed. Think about that potential. Leadership is not a final destination. It is not about title, position or how many people report to you. Leadership is about the decisions that you make and actions that you take every day. 

There is so much to learn from these women that we have worked with around the globe. They understand, as Aung San Suu Kyi understands – this woman I know and you all know quite well. When I travelled to visit her right after she was released from her house arrest, she told me something I thought was quite profound. 

It was a message that I took back to so many other women that we work with. She said the difference between good intentions and great leadership is the courage and commitment to stay the course, no matter how difficult the path. I think it is a message for all of us. 

Thank you again and thank you so much for your leadership on the advancement of women.