My Commitment, Her Empowerment, Our Shared Progress

By Ambassador Alfonso Lenhardt, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development

Photo by Bobby Neptune for USAID

Over the course of my life and career, I have met many women who succeed and measure up. And I am the proud father of three of them.

My daughters, and all the women I have met while serving our government for more than forty years, have taught me that silently supporting gender equality is not enough. In a world where gender stereotypes are all too common and women’s prospects are blighted by discrimination, oppression and violence, we have a responsibility to speak up for their rights. As men and fathers, we must be outspoken advocates for equality and fairness.

I remember when my wife Jackie gave birth to our first daughter. Of course, I had seen examples of how differently women were treated and socialized throughout my life and career as a young military officer. I had seen the disparities and the unfairness. But until that moment, I did not truly understand what I could do about it. That changed with Robin.

As a 23 year-old father holding my daughter for the very first time, I knew I would give her my all to help her be anything she wanted to be. And, I was prepared to help her take a hammer to break any glass ceiling that got in her way. At the same time, I could not help thinking about the other little girls around the world whose dreams hung in the balance.

Ambassador Al Lenhardt and his wife, center, and their three daughters.

Unlike too many girls living in developing countries, my daughters always had their parents’ support to achieve their dreams. Today, Robin and Tracey are both lawyers, and Kimberly is a doctor. All three know just how important it is to make a positive contribution to the world. They are all compassionate, caring and strong humanitarian women, and I could not be prouder of everything they do.

As fathers, we serve as guides, mentors and role models.

Our most sacred job is to continually impress upon our daughters the idea that they can, and should, will their vision into something real.

This responsibility is not ours alone; we share it with mothers, and with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and loved ones. But most and foremost, this is our daughters’ responsibility: they are the carvers of their own destinies, we as fathers can only ensure they have the right tools to whittle. And it is our responsibility to embrace the women in our lives as equals; our shared progress depends on it.

Last year, Aporna Shikder, a 23-year-old married mother of one, invited me into her home in southwestern Bangladesh. Through a USAID Feed the Future program, she had recently learned new techniques for raising chickens and growing nutritious vegetables to feed her family. Because of the extra produce she sold at the nearby market, her family’s income increased and her daughter’s health improved.

Fathers play an important role in empowering women and girls. / Karen Kasmauski, MCSP

Aporna took what she learned to transform not only her life, but also the lives of those around her. She became a leader in her village, teaching other women the skills she has mastered. Her husband saw for himself just how transformative an empowered woman can be. And, while her daughter is still too young to fully understand it, I know seeing her mother as a leader — and seeing her mother and father work together as a supportive team — will have a lasting positive impact on her. Aporna’s remarkable success story illustrates just how important it is to ensure women and girls can seize opportunities and learn the skills they need to reach their full potential.

At USAID we work to empower women, not as recipients of aid, but as agents of change. From Morocco to Haiti we are committed to making sure women fully participate in the economic, social and political lives of their countries. This commitment is at the core of everything we do, because we know women and girls are the fulcrum of development. We know supporting women and girls is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

It is indeed no secret that when women and girls are empowered, their families succeed; when their families succeed, communities thrive; when communities thrive, countries prosper; and when countries prosper, the world is better off.

And we know our failure to improve women’s prospects will not just cast a shadow over our personal integrity, but over the world we leave behind for our sons and daughters.

About the Author

Ambassador Alfonso Lenhardt is the Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ambassador Lenhardt also served for more than 30 years in the U.S. Army.