Euphrasie N’guessan, left, a member of Ivory Coast's parliament, meets with Brenau University President Anne Skleder on Monday, Aug. 23. (Kelsey Podo/Brenau University)

Ivory Coast parliament member speaks to students, meets with President Skleder on first day of classes

Aug 23, 2021
Kathryne Davis

As Brenau University students returned to the classroom for the start of the new academic year on Monday, Aug. 23, they were greeted by a special guest who traveled more than 4,000 miles to speak about the increasing importance of female leadership and representation.

The visit by Euphrasie N’guessan — a pharmacist, businesswoman and a newly elected member of Ivory Coast’s parliament — came at the request of Brenau’s Gnimbin Ouattara, who in a June letter to National Assembly President Amadou Soumahoro asked that a female member of the West African nation’s parliament address students during the first week of classes.

Ouattara, an Ivory Coast native and professor of history and international studies, pointed out in his request the parallels between his home country and Brenau. He noted that in 2019, Ivory Coast passed a law requiring that political parties meet a female candidate quota of 30% for all elections. That same year, Anne Skleder was named the 10th president of Brenau University and became the first woman to lead the 143-year-old institution.

“Everyone in Ivory Coast was proud of the women elected,” Ouattara said. “I thought a female member of parliament coming to Brenau to meet the first female president was a great way to build a bridge between these two excellent stories of women’s progress in leadership.”

During her speech with one of Ouattara’s classes, N’guessan — speaking French with the professor translating — stressed the importance of female leaders. N’guessan said she noticed throughout her life, especially while attending university, that women didn’t speak up as often as they should.

“When there was a meeting, the women always hesitated to ask questions,” N’guessan said. “Why are we hesitating to ask a question? When you ask a question, it’s you that everybody sees.”

N’guessan said that she reminds young women of the importance of speaking up— which she also credits for helping her reach her current role. She patiently worked her way up and is now trusted in Ivory Coast, especially when the questions are related to helping women. N’guessan has been working on gender equality for more than 35 years, even before she was involved in politics.

When she learned she was going to visit Brenau, N’guessan ordered a special dress to wear. She later noticed that it was woven by men. In Ivory Coast, only men are trained in weaving and making items for the government.

“Why aren’t there any women to weave the dress that I’m going to wear to a (class of women)?” N’guessan said. “This goes to show the work we have to do for gender equality. To bring girls and women to a position of confidence and leadership is a long road.”

Ouattara said his students have in the past studied the role that the National Assembly has played in helping women become more active in government with slow but steady increases in female representation.

Women in Ivory Coast often stop their formal education before reaching high school, making it more difficult for them to run for positions in the government. Even if the girls reach high school, they are outnumbered by their male classmates. Ouattara said that when N’guessan tried to run for a position in high school similar to that of a residential assistant, she found her male classmates to be difficult. They made fun of her for thinking she would win the position, which normally went to a male student.

She proved her classmates wrong and won, realizing she could have a career in politics and that people who would vote for her and her ideas outnumbered those who didn’t want her or any woman to win.

“I wanted the Honorable N’guessan to come at the beginning of the year to inspire my students for the rest of the year,” Ouattara said. “This woman in Africa had humble beginnings, rose to earn her Doctor of Pharmacy degree and became a business owner. Now she’s an elected official who participated in the passing of the 2019 law when she was behind the scenes pushing for it. It is an incredible story.”

N’guessan began the day by joining Ouattara’s U.S. history class at Howard E. Ivester Early College, a dual enrollment campus and Brenau partner institution in Gainesville, Georgia. Ouattara later welcomed N’guessan to the university’s historic main campus, where she spoke to his world history class and met with Brenau President Anne Skleder as the two discussed their shared passion for women’s educational initiatives in their respective countries. Her visit concluded with a dinner that included Skleder, members of the faculty and staff, and selected students.

“We are indeed fortunate to have the Honorable Dr. Euphrasie N’guessan visit us at Brenau and speak to students,” Skleder said. “She’s an empowering woman who has made an impact on so many lives in Ivory Coast. Having such inspirational visitors is an important part of our global education efforts at Brenau, and I commend Dr. Ouattara for providing this wonderful opportunity to impact the entire campus community through this visit.”