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Why I'm Optimistic About West Africa

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As I read reports of upheaval in North Africa and watch with apprehension as tensions reach their boiling point in Côte d'Ivoire, it may seem hard to be optimistic about the state of the world -- but I am. I remain hopeful because I know that for every world leader who makes choices that hurt their country, there are millions of women and girls who, every day, and often without acknowledgment, are laying the foundation for progress within their communities.

I believe in a simple, bold idea: Women and girls have the power to lead their countries away from war to peace and prosperity. As I walked around the pock-marked, uneven roads of Monrovia, Liberia recently, I spoke with one powerful woman who reaffirmed my faith in this vision. Marian Rogers is a social worker with the International Rescue Committee who has dedicated her life to unlocking the potential of Liberia's most vulnerable girls and women.

Marian is an example of the determination, resilience and strength that she seeks to inspire in others. After the tragic death of her parents when she was just 21, she single-handedly raised her five siblings while putting herself through school. Having overcome enormous odds, Marian is now working to tip the scales in favor of girls across her country. When she looks at a girl, she sees endless possibilities. As she told me recently, "that girl's hands increase the growth of every community. If we all try to protect the rights of women and girls...the world will be a better place, free from violence."

Marian mentors a dynamic group of 10-14-year-olds who call themselves the Caring Sisters. They live in Darquee Town, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Monrovia. I met with these girls in their local community center on a hot, sunny day last January and they spoke of the future. The girls were audacious and driven. They believe in a Liberia where they can contribute their skills as doctors, lawyers, and government leaders. With the support of foundations like my own -- and the hard work of women like Marian -- that future is within their reach.

Since 2007, NoVo Foundation and the IRC have been collaborating on Women & Girls Rebuilding Nations, a five-year $17 million initiative aiming to help West Africa recover from years of civil conflict by empowering women and ending the physical and sexual violence that prevents them from participating in -- and leading -- their countries' reconstruction. We know that if we can help build a community where women and girls are safe and free to reach their full potential, then we can change the course of events in West Africa.

As I sat down with the girls from Darquee Town, it was hard to imagine talking about violence with a group so young. But sadly, I know that this is exactly the age to have this conversation because violence is already entering their lives. As Marian explains to me, "reaching them when they are still young is very important. It will help this girl to free herself from teenage pregnancy. It will help that girl to understand that she has a value." She went on, "What we do within Caring Sisters is teach a lot of life skills. We want the girls to understand their own self-value. We want them to know that they are as important as boys. We want them to understand that no one has the right to take advantage of them because of their sex."

Marian told me that when these girls grow up, they will bring a new style of leadership that is desperately needed in her country. Speaking about Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Marian emphasized the importance of women taking on positions of power. "Yes! It makes a lot of difference," she said. "Before there were issues that were affecting women and girls that men's leadership did not take into consideration. Let's look at rape. Rape is one issue that was not considered important, when it happened before this woman's government. They never had laws to ensure that perpetrators were punished. But then we rebuilt, and we established a special court to try rape cases. And then, most importantly, [the president] is really highlighting girls' education. You see that from the number of girls that we have in school now, not only in elementary school anymore. We even see girls in colleges, in universities."

In the next year, across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire, 400,000 young girls will turn 12, a critical age that too often closes the door to opportunity for girls in this part of the world. I think back to my own childhood and how the struggle for women's equality that was occurring as I grew up changed not only my own path, but the path of my entire country. Over the past 20 years, women have been one of the most important drivers of economic growth in countries like the United States.

I know that if these girls are given a chance they can be that great generation that revitalizes Liberia. No region needs girls more than West Africa. In Sierra Leone, women have a one in eight chance of dying during childbirth; in Liberia, the unemployment rate is 80 percent; and in Côte d'Ivoire, women and girls are being raped and attacked by armed men in their own homes as the country returns to the edge of war. All of these countries are amongst the poorest in the world. Girls are the secret to reversing this tide.

Marian says that "every right goes with responsibility." Looking across West Africa, I only wish that such a belief could guide the actions of every individual in a position of power. As Liberians take to the polls this year, and the people of Sierra Leone in 2012, I grow concerned about the future. But then I remember all those girls I met in Liberia who want to be president and my optimism returns. If one of them can succeed, I know she will bring her whole country with her.

Act Now: NoVo knows that girls are the key to a better future, yet rarely do they make it onto the radar of donors' agendas. Less than half a cent of every international development dollar goes toward programs targeting girls. Tell the U.S. government that girls deserve more than 1 percent of our attention. The International Rescue Committee is leading a campaign, Wake Up, calling for our government to do more. Send a Wake Up call to your member of Congress today at Wakeup.Rescue.org and let them know that you want more U.S. support for foreign assistance that will give opportunities to girls across the world.