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Susan Madsen: Elevating women elevates all of us

Events in Afghanistan another example of how the dreams of women and girls are dashed.

(Holly Pickett | The New York Times) High school girls in class in Farghamanch, Afghanistan, Oct. 24, 2009.

As part of my work promoting women and girls in leadership, I often take to the global stage and work with international women. My mission is to unleash their influence in business, education, government, politics and communities, whether in Lehi or Lithuania.

For years I’ve worked with the East-West Center on its women’s leadership program, where they bring together 16 women from various countries in the Asia-Pacific region for a 10-day entrepreneurship program. I facilitate women’s leadership training for two of the days each summer and have worked with women from 40-plus countries from that region through the years.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an Afghan woman who was one of the highest-ranking women in her government at that time. One of her assignments was to rebuild the women’s college dormitories so that more young women could attend college again. The dorms had been destroyed by the Taliban, so it was no small task.

The ability to live on campus would remove many of the obstacles that kept Afghani women from seeking higher education. I remember that she was passionate about helping girls and women in her country, and she believed that access to education was the key to strengthening their lives and rebuilding her country more generally. Yet, she also talked about getting death threats even then.

Given the events of the past week, my thoughts return to this gifted woman. I want to know where she is, if she is safe, and if the college dreams of her female compatriots have now been dashed — yet again. And, as I have learned from my friend and colleague Valerie Hudson, how a country treats women is at the core of foreign policy and democracy, “because what happens to half the population is obviously going to affect the health, the wealth and the security of a nation.”

It’s not possible to repress women and truly function and prosper, whether on a national or a domestic level.

As I begin teaching this semester, I look at the young women signed up for my classes and wonder if they know how transformative a college education is and how fortunate they are to live in a country that doesn’t bomb dorms in an attempt to deny women an education. At the same time, I wonder if our society understands how vital it is to promote women and girls, that in elevating women we elevate society as a whole. Study after study shows that when women play meaningful roles in business, politics, education, religion, everyone benefits. Whatever the venue, diversity leads to growth. The complicated truth is I can feel grateful for the privileges I enjoy in our great country, while knowing we still have much ground to cover.

As means to that end I am honored to work with Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson on their “One Utah Roadmap,” focusing on equality and opportunity. One of the express goals is to expand opportunity and improve life outcomes for people with historically and systemically less access to opportunity, including Utah women. They understand that progress for Utah girls and women is important for our state to continue thriving.

As the collapse of Afghanistan unfolds, my heart breaks for the women and men who will suffer under the Taliban’s oppressive regime. It makes me thankful for the advantages I have as an American and want to redouble my efforts to improve the lives of women and girls in our state, thus lifting society as a whole.

As our lieutenant governor so eloquently put it, “In order to live up to our remarkable heritage we need a strong economy, and equal, abundant opportunity for all Utahns.” In elevating women, we really do elevate all Utahns.

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