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U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama walked into the symbolic Regina Mundi Church on June 22 in Soweto, South Africa, filled with eclectic stained glass and harmonized choir voices. The church was packed with over 200 people, but the First Lady came specifically to address 76 young African women leaders, including a Vital Voices network member, Kunyalala (Kunya) Maphisa

“The world is looking to Africa as a vital partner,” said Mrs. Obama to the young African women leaders. “You can be the generation that proves that women are no longer second-class citizens.”


In Soweto, Michelle Obama gave the keynote address to the women of the Young African Women Leaders Forum. The two-day workshop and conference gathered women from 25 different African countries who work in many fields: education, civil society, health, media, and business. 

Hosted by the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassy in South Africa, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the White House, the Forum centered around break-out sessions where participants used activities as platforms for women’s empowerment and discussed how to be better partners for a more just, prosperous future for all Africans. 

To stay in communication with each other and engage new American partners, the African women leaders are now part of webchats with White House employees and American NGOs and digital video conferences with the American advocacy community, as well as recipients of small grants provided through local U.S. embassies. They are also involved with Youth Leadership Program and Global Exchange and Connections Program. 

Kunya’s involvement in the Forum is especially crucial because of the widening race and gender gap in unemployment in South Africa, leading to new calls for gender equality in the workplace. Kunya is currently the President of the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) and part of the Africa Businesswomen’s Network (ABWN) Think Tank. Recently, Kunya attended the La Pietra Coalition Third Annual Meeting in Florence, Italy and became a member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum.

Kunya said meeting Michelle Obama (pictured below) was “one of the most inspiring encounters in [her] life.”

Tess Perselay was a summer intern for Vital Voices’ Africa team in 2011.