There was none of the U.S. presidency's muscular, national security-focused approach on display as Jill Biden, in flowery dresses and pin-thin heels, hugged and smiled her way through Namibia and Kenya on her debut trip to the continent as first lady, which concluded Sunday.
Biden used hopeful words to address tough social issues.
"We face many of the same challenges, from climate change to economic inequality to strengthening democracy, which is why the U.S. African Leaders Summit was held in Washington, D.C., in December because it was so important to him," she said, referring to her husband, President Joe Biden, in a speech to a room full of dignitaries and diplomats who gathered to hear her at Namibia's State House on Thursday.
"And it's why I'm proud to be standing here, standing with a strong democracy. … As Joe said at the summit, African voices, African leadership and African innovation are all critical to addressing the most pressing global challenges and realizing the vision. We all share a world that is free."
She brought along one of her seven grandchildren to spotlight how girls and women can be powerful engines of change.
Jill Biden is up against major hurdles, say analysts who focus on gender and development issues.
"Every country has a woman problem, I would say," said Caren Grown, a senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. "There's no country around the world in which women are absolutely equal to men across all domains.
"We've made a lot of progress globally, and many countries have made progress over the last many years, especially in terms of education. But we still have really big gaps between men and women in employment, labor force participation, earnings. There's no country around the world where women make more or earn more than men, although the gaps have closed. We're still not at parity."
And as young people, women and activists showed Biden on her five-day trip, Africa, too, has a woman problem.
In an informal settlement outside of Windhoek, Namibia's capital, Biden met a teen who told her how her pregnancy forced her out of 11th grade.
In Nairobi, Kenya's capital, she met with youths at a screening of a South African MTV series that shows that for South Africa's young women, transactional sex is the norm, not the exception. South Africa's president has described gender-based violence as "a second pandemic."
And in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, she and Kenya's first lady met with women who, because of their lack of access to conventional finance, set up an informal lending network. Systems like these lack the protections or guarantees of banks, and often traffic in much smaller sums.
President Joe Biden — who often refers to himself as "Jill Biden's husband" — said after her return on Monday that her effort showed his administration's strong commitment to Africa.
"She met with the presidents and first ladies of both countries," he said. "She spoke to more than a thousand young people — the first generation born out of apartheid in Namibia. … In Kenya, she met families affected by devastating drought and food insecurity … made worse by Putin's brutal assault on Ukraine. And made it clear that America's commitment to Africa is real."
And by choosing to hold all of her high-profile substantive events with female leaders, America's first lady conveyed a clear message of her own and made a not-so-subtle nod to Namibia's first lady Monica Geingos, whose husband's second and final term ends next year.
"It's always time to have a female president, no matter what country you're in," Jill Biden said as she toured a local charitable organization with Geingos on Thursday. "So I'm very supportive of women running for office."
Analysts say it's unclear whether the trip will result in new initiatives or policy changes for the continent.
But, Grown says, Biden's efforts challenge a belief that pervades to this day, and not just on the mother continent: that being born a girl means you lose in life.
"Dr. Biden has been a role model, not only in the education field but with everything that she's done in her capacity as first lady," she said. "That gives hope to girls who can grow up knowing that there's many roles that they can take on as adults, and they can move into fields that might have been denied to them; they might be able to get education."
Source: Voice of America