GABORONE, Botswana — At an intimate gathering at a nursery and tea garden — a green patch in Botswana's otherwise dry and dusty capital city — first lady Michelle Obama approached a tearful Kemiso Ntope.
After delivering brief remarks at a Women's Leadership Lunch in Gaborone last week, Obama greeted and hugged each participant: Ten outstanding Botswana leaders representing fields from law to sports, and 23 university and secondary-school students chosen because of the challenges they've overcome.
Some of the young women attended with a parent or caregiver. Sixteen-year-old Kemiso told Obama that she wished her mother could attend, but she passed away in February. "She told me to go out there and rule the world," Kemiso said. "It made me feel so special."
If young women in Botswana need anything, it is such encouragement. Typically hailed as an African success story, the nation of 1.8 million citizens is aggressively fighting HIV/AIDS, combating government corruption, skillfully protecting and profiting from its natural resources, most notably diamonds, and maintaining World Bank-classified "middle income" status. Yet too few women climb to the highest levels of leadership. They're easy to find in secretarial and manual-labor positions and often relegated to subservient positions in the home — even when they are leaders professionally.
According to a 2010 Human Rights Report by the U.S. Department of State, women, by law, enjoy the same civil rights as men, but discrimination lives on. There were 90 reported cases of passion killings, or femicide, the report said. Also troubling: Committing rape is illegal, but spousal rape is not a crime. Traditional laws limit women's property rights and economic opportunities in rural areas. Sexual harassment by men in positions of power persists. The military went coed just three years ago.
Neither does leadership to initiate change exist in the highest ranks of government. Of 63 parliamentarians in government, only five are women. And even the bachelor president has said that his main requirements for a wife are that she be tall, slim and beautiful.
Change must begin with Kemiso and her peers. For them, the American First Lady provided an inspiration by her mere presence in Botswana. They described her as "ordinary," because she blended seamlessly into the self-assured crowd. They identified with her "modest" upbringing as one of the first in her family to attend college, and as a young woman who doubted her capabilities, but defied expectations.
Yet Michelle Obama's Botswana speech lacked the import of the impassioned remarks she delivered days earlier in South Africa. In a Soweto church active in the anti-apartheid struggle, she encouraged young women leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa to be the generation that ensures women are no longer "second-class citizens," fights the "stigma" of HIV/AIDS and "stands up and says violence against women" is a "human-rights violation." In Botswana, beyond praising fathers who ask, "Why should my son go to school, and not my daughter?" there was little mention given to the culture of patriarchy that challenged every woman in the crowd.
"Exchanging ideas, having a conversation works two ways, and I think, unfortunately, she didn't have the time," said Dr. Nomsa Mbere, vice chair of the Botswana National Sports Council. "I don't think us leaders got much value out of it, but maybe it wasn't for us."
Botswana needs a stronger dialogue around gender equity, broader education on why it matters, and our support in challenging the thinking that keeps male supremacy alive. The global attention drawn to the First Lady's visit, and her meeting with Botswana's exceptional women leaders, was a missed opportunity to collectively advance women's rights.
April Simpson, a former Seattletimes.com Web Producer, is a 2010-2011 U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar in Gaborone, Botswana.