By Ambassador Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir
Everywhere I go these days, Malaysians have only one question for me: What do I think of another Kamala — U.S. Senator Kamala Harris — being selected as a nominee for vice president? As Ambassador Kamala, I am not in a position to weigh in on the U.S. Presidential Election, but seeing women advance in all sectors of society is worthy of celebration.
In fact, today in the United States we are celebrating Women's Equality Day commemorating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which finally enshrined the right to vote for women in the U.S. constitution. It didn't happen overnight and struggles to exercise voting rights continued long after, but Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and countless others fundamentally changed American society through many years of speaking, educating, petitioning, marching and protesting in the fight for "suffrage" — the right to vote. The names of many of these fighters — including that of my own great grandmother — Martha Brewer — have faded into history, but their achievement is celebrated each time women cast their votes.
These brave suffragettes — and many men who supported them – sought a society that recognizes women as citizens with equal rights to contribute to everyone's development and welfare. They understood that a country that denies women equal rights could not adequately represent the interests of all its citizens. Societies that involve women equally in civic and economic life are more prosperous and peaceful. This idea is particularly relevant today as we seek everyone's help to rebuild economies devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malaysia shares this ideal. It has its own history-making women who fought for a more equitable society — for independence, women's rights, and equal pay. Aishah Ghani became Malaysia's first woman representative to the UN General Assembly. She and Shamsiah Fakeh founded and led the country's first women's nationalist organization, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Conscious Women's Front). Khatijah Sidek, was a pioneering woman in UMNO; Irene Fernandez co-founded Tenaganita, which promotes the rights of women migrants and refugees.
Modern day Malaysian women are also making strides toward equality in business, civil society, education. Our U.S. Embassy team is devoting this next year to raising awareness and expanding opportunities for Malaysian women to contribute to the success of their country. These collaborations will provide lessons, too, for Americans to apply at home.
Under a campaign called "Wanita Empowered" (WE), the Embassy and our partners are organizing talks, mentoring and capacity building programs, and cultural activities to support Malaysian women, providing them access to further education and skills, and tools to achieve economic equality. We are working across the federal and state governments, with NGOs and partner agencies.
We are excited to work with Malaysians who share our enthusiasm and vision.
"Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world," says Farah Othman, executive director people and capability development at the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Center (MaGIC). She was a panelist alongside Gigi Wang, an industry fellow at UC Berkeley's Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship, in a virtual forum the Embassy hosted last month titled "Advancing Women's Economic Empowerment for a Better Malaysia."
More speaking engagements with entrepreneurs and startup experts are planned in the coming months. We also support young women leaders in Malaysia and the region through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), which hosted its annual Women's Leadership Academy (WLA) virtually this month.
Our inaugural Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), a Department of State program developed under the White House-led Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative to support the growth of women entrepreneurs around the world, launches next month. In partnership with the Women Entrepreneur Network Association of Malaysia (WENA), AWE will train and equip aspiring women entrepreneurs with tools to grow their own businesses, raise capital, and network.
We are fortunate to collaborate with scores of outstanding Malaysian women, who are developing and inspiring generations of innovative, problem-solving Malaysians committed to creating a more equitable society that reflects the diversity of its citizens. Among them are: Anja Juliah Abu Bakar, who has mentored dozens of Malaysian women to tackle social and community challenges that present barriers to success; Junaida Aziz, who has helped single mothers in Kelantan tap into their skills to sustain their families and train others; and Nina Othman, whose Grow the Goose social enterprise teaches children to be financially literate, and is empowering small cocoa growers in Sabah with sustainable farming skills.
These amazing women are helping each other. We have learned much from them. Like the suffragettes, they know challenges are not overcome alone.
As we celebrate Women's Equality Day, which also recognizes women's continued fight for full equality, let us — the United States and Malaysia – remember that we build prosperous communities through equal participation of everyone. My great-great grandfather A.H. Brewer knew this — that's why he took his three daughters to New York City in 1915 to march for votes for women. I proudly have my great grandmother's Votes for Women sash to remember how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
If Wanita are Empowered, WE are all empowered.
(Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir is the United States Ambassador to Malaysia.)