Gathered virtually with distinguished leaders around the globe on International Women’s Day to celebrate the resilience and ingenuity of women in diplomacy, Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham praised women for their strength this past year.
“Some of you have lost loved ones, others have experienced greater anxiety or depression, and some are dealing with the financial effects — all issues that can tax our mental as well as our physical health,” she said. “My hat is off to you — or should I say, my head is bowed to you — for all you are accomplishing in these difficult challenges.”
One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been having time to reflect on how resources are being spent and rediscover the passions that “have brought us to where we are today,” President Bingham said.
“As one woman to another, I rejoice in our shared vision of helping to improve the lives of women no matter where we live.”
President Bingham’s keynote address kicked off the 5th Annual International Women-in-Diplomacy Day event on Monday, March 8, hosted by Mame T. Mbaye, the Honorary Consul General for Senegal. The event also included panel discussions with diplomats, business leaders and others on improving challenges women face worldwide.
Representing the Church’s organization of 7.5 million women in 220 countries, the general Relief Society leader emphasized her belief that “every single woman and girl on this earth is a beloved daughter of God.”
“That belief gives me hope that the circumstances which oppress so many can be overcome as we remember our common origin,” President Bingham said. “My faith in the power of goodness drives me forward with optimism.”
Lack of education
President Bingham acknowledged that one of the greatest impediments to success and happiness is lack of education, specifically the inability to read and write.
Approximately 14% of the world’s population is illiterate, and two-thirds of the illiterate are women, she noted. Only 39% of the world’s countries provide equal educational opportunities for boys and girls.
A study by Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions in cooperation with Plan International reported that attaining 100% upper-secondary school completion rates for girls by 2030 through a series of interventions could lift GDP in emerging economies by an average 10% — and even greater economic returns beyond 2030.
The benefits of educating and empowering girls are more far-reaching across their families and communities, the report stated. Improving education and health of girls leads to “a decrease in mortality … rates, reduced health costs, healthier and more educated children and can also help reduce inter-generational poverty.”
The authors of this study called for cooperation among governments, NGOs, the financial community and the private sector, President Bingham said. “They understand that the real purpose of education is to light the fire of potential, not fill the pail with knowledge.”
President Bingham highlighted the Church’s Gospel Literacy initiative as one example of addressing the issue of education.
How a Gospel Literacy program is helping Church members in Sierra Leone read the scriptures for the first time
The goal of the program — which began in West Africa and is expanding to other areas — is to help women obtain enough skills to be able to assist their own children with their schooling and to be sufficiently educated to serve as a teacher or leader in their local congregations, she explained.
She shared the story of one woman she met, Martha Lusenie Kongoley, who was forced to drop out of school before learning to read or write because her parents were unable to pay school fees. As a young mother, Martha needed to earn money to purchase food for her children. By enrolling in the Gospel Literacy program, she gained the skills and confidence to start a small business harvesting nuts.
“She also accepted the invitation to serve as a mentor to teenage girls in her congregation. Her example is motivating for those girls who have witnessed the transformation in Martha’s life,” said President Bingham, showing a picture of Martha holding a voter registration card she received after passing a citizenship test.
In addition to spending time in Sierra Leone and Ghana, President Bingham has had the opportunity to help other women increase their literacy skills, including a refugee woman and her adult daughter from Afghanistan who resettled in Salt Lake City, who Sister Bingham has mentored for the past 10 years.
“Over and over, in both my professional and personal life, I have seen women become empowered when they were given — and embraced — the opportunity to become educated.”
‘Worth our struggle’
Illiteracy, poverty and violence against women will never be resolved until men and women together tackle negative cultural attitudes, President Bingham said.
She quoted former United States First Lady Michelle Obama, who said on International Women’s Day in 2016: “ … the barriers to girls’ education isn’t just resources. It’s not just about access to scholarships or transportation or school bathrooms. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs -– the belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education.”
President Bingham said she recognizes “the deep need” to value what women bring to the communal table, and though the road ahead is full of obstacles, society change around education for women and girls “is absolutely worth our struggle.”
“I know the power of good women and good men working together can create opportunities where they were once limited. … I know the power in a community that resolves to protect and then empower its most vulnerable and also most valuable resource — the next generation.”
She echoed the words of suffragist and early Relief Society Emmeline B. Wells: “I believe in women, especially thinking women.”
President Bingham concluded her remarks by expressing gratitude to those who are seeking to provide women worldwide with safety, resources and opportunities. She also extended an invitation to act.
“It is my fervent hope that each of us will accept the challenge to recommit ourselves to strengthening our communities and societies,” she said. “As leaders, we are in a unique position to influence those who create the policies that will open the doors to education for women and girls.
“I extend an invitation to each of us to leverage the advantages we enjoy in order to create more opportunities for our sisters around the world. May we have the courage and wisdom to do so, with urgency and effectiveness.”