Washington — In her native Benin, says physician Joannie Bewa, many women are now preparing for leadership positions in government and in other fields, but increased mentoring of young girls is needed to help more women claim their rightful place in society.
At 23, Bewa exemplifies the kind of take-charge mindset she hopes to encourage in other young women. A general practitioner whose interests include sexual and reproductive health (especially maternal health), HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and ending female genital mutilation, she's also a social activist focused on youth leadership and civic engagement, education, global health issues and women's empowerment.
In 2010, she co-founded the Young Beninese Leaders Association and has served as the group's social activities director ever since. One of her initiatives is a women's empowerment campaign, funded by the U.S. government through the Young African Women Leaders grant program. "We trained 2,000 young girls in leadership skills and safe reproductive health and 400 young women entrepreneurs in early or mid career," she recalled. "I also initiated the Red Ribbon Campaign against HIV/AIDS that reached 10,000 young people."
In May, Bewa visited Washington under the U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program, which annually brings more than 5,300 young and emerging leaders from around the world to the United States. She and other young African professionals met with U.S. policymakers to offer suggestions for ways the United States can support entrepreneurship, along with health and democracy initiatives, in Africa.
More recently, Bewa attended the Women's Leadership: Public Service and Global Health conference in Paris, a joint venture of leading U.S. women's colleges and the U.S. Department of State. Thirty-four delegates were selected from the global health arena in countries across Francophone Africa and greater Europe.
Held October 17-20, the Paris conference -- organized by Smith College as part of the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) -- was designed to give emerging public-service leaders a deeper understanding of infectious disease, domestic violence, nutrition, hunger, and gender disparities in access to medical treatment and resources, while also helping participants establish broader professional networks. (WPSP, a nonprofit organization launched in December 2011 by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeks to have women occupy 50 percent of public-service positions by 2050.)
The conference's agenda mirrored many of Bewa's concerns at home. "In Benin, HIV/AIDS, malaria, maternal mortality, gender-based violence and access to [medical] treatment are some of our health system challenges," Bewa said. "But we are making progress and need to build on our success."
Throughout the conference's intensive, interactive workshops, "I met amazing women leaders that really inspired me," she said. "I learned many new strategies, especially mentoring and storytelling as innovative ways to empower young [people] and tackle youth issues."
Nearly two months later, "I'm in contact with all of the delegates; we are planning some projects," Bewa added. "I think we are a strong network that can positively change Africa in the coming year."
For the next few years, Bewa said, she wants to further her expertise in gynecology and public health. But after attending a number of international conferences -- including President Obama's Young African Leaders initiative in July 2010, held in Washington, and regional events throughout Africa -- Bewa is hoping to contribute in other ways, as well.
"My wish is to make a change at a national and international level, as a physician or as a public-service leader," she said. Bewa explained that she's interested in running for office or holding an appointed position someday, and her current activities could help prepare her for broader responsibilities in Benin -- which is to say, exactly the sort of leadership role that the recent Paris conference aimed to encourage.
"I'm the secretary-general of the national network of youth organizations fighting against HIV/AIDS, a member of the U.S. Ambassador's Youth Council [in Benin] and a member of the U.S. government's alumni association in Benin," which connects people throughout Benin who have participated in U.S.-sponsored programs, Bewa said.
But her own goals haven't distracted her from trying to help others achieve their dreams. After returning from Paris, Bewa decided to "pay it forward" by putting some of her newly acquired networking skills at the service of the next generation of women leaders in her country.
She started a mentoring program, she said, "the first of its kind in Benin -- to increase girls' leadership, to promote safe sexual health and help the mentees advance in their careers."
To learn more about the Women in Public Service Project, visit the organization's website.