While African women have made considerable gains in the political, economic and social development of the continent, some say they are still widely marginalized within government.

The African Union has declared 2015 the year of women's empowerment and development toward Africa's Agenda 2063, and many women say it's time to put public declarations into practice.

Women are empowered throughout the fabric of Rwandan society — and even make up 64 percent of the parliament.

“Primary and secondary schools are free" in Rwanda, said Mathilde Mukantabana, her country's ambassador to the U.S. "That means once you give them that strong beginning, then the other programs at the highest level of university and professional education, women are competing as men. Women are now flying the high skies in my country.”

But Mukantabana said that in other parts of Africa, women remain excluded from social, economic and political power by a lack of education and the inability to own and inherit property.

Mukantabana said that for her, women's rights are human rights. "That’s the bottom line."

Empowering women benefits an entire nation, said Amelia Matos Sumbana, Mozambique's ambassador to the U.S., who also stresses it cannot be accomplished without men's help.

“Why? Because in our societies in Africa, you know that the society is male-dominated, and if we don’t have men working along with us, we can have much more difficulties than what we are having now," she said. "It’s fortunate that men are becoming much more sensitive to the gender issues.”

For that reason, laws alone will not bring enough change, said Kamissa Camara of the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. nonprofit that promotes democracy abroad.

“The structural barriers that affect women on the African continent elsewhere, also, are mostly tradition, religion, patriarchy, et cetera — barriers that can only be addressed through a change in mentality," Camara said.

That change is key, the ambassadors said, because full development cannot happen if half the people of Africa are not fully recognized as equal partners in society.