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Respect for Women: The Global Imperative

Paula J. Dobriansky
 Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
 Remarks to the Women’s Congressional Caucus
 and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group
Washington, DC
February 12, 2003

Thank you for that kind introduction and thank you all for coming. I’d like to recognize Pat Ellis of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group and Congresswomen Millender-MacDonald and Biggert of the Women’s Congressional Caucus. Holding this lunch is a terrific idea and just another indication of your strong commitment to women’s issues.

I particularly appreciate the opportunity to discuss a foreign policy subject that is actually not a front-page headline these days -- because it’s too big. It’s not Iraq, or North Korea; it’s half the population of the world.

Let me acknowledge at the outset something that may surprise you. I didn’t come up with the title for this talk -- “Respect for Women: The Global Imperative” -- President Bush did. Respect for women, he has said again and again in several major addresses over the past 2 years, is both a non-negotiable demand of human dignity, and a foreign policy imperative of the United States.

Of course, there are parts of this ideal that we still need to work on at home. But you have invited me to talk about how we can best empower women to succeed in other countries around the world.

There are many parts to this story: from our outspoken worldwide advocacy of human rights for all people, male and female, to our intensive efforts to combat the evils that particularly afflict women, including domestic violence or abuse and trafficking in persons. Also, as you may know, on February 5, the President submitted to Congress a legislative proposal to create the Millennium Challenge Account, which we hope with Congressional approval, will make more assistance available to free societies that invest wisely in their own people. Consistent with the President’s commitment to advancing women’s political and economic equality, we will be very sensitive to the status of women as we implement MCA.

Today I would like to focus with you on four specific important areas: education; economic development and entrepreneurship; political participation; and the promotion of women’s roles in civil society, including plain old-fashioned but effective networking -- just not exactly the “old boys” kind.

Let’s begin with basic education. The need is clearly great. As Secretary Powell said last year, “Dramatically increasing literacy among women and girls must be a major global priority.” How do you do that? My short answer is, one country at a time -- in the sense that each one requires a tailor-made rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

In Egypt, for example, USAID operates its largest program in the world. Throughout the entire past decade, a significant part of that effort has gone into supporting a local version of the children’s TV show Sesame Street, which has achieved an astonishing 80+ percent national audience share. That program is teaching a whole new generation of Egyptian girls and boys basic literacy, while providing a model of opportunity for both genders. More broadly, the Department of State’s new Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI, will feature programs focused on improving the lives of women and girls throughout the region by means of literacy training and scholarships to stay in school. 

In Ghana, to take another example, nearly two-thirds of the 100 Peace Corps volunteers are teachers in community schools. The Peace Corps is also funding over 200 scholarships for Ghanaian girls to complete senior secondary school. USAID is very active, too, funding gender-sensitive programs for teachers, principals, and parents of school-age children -- and food rations for kids who stay in school.

Let me shift my geographic focus to the Pacific Rim -- and my educational focus to cyberspace. The Department of Education is training teachers in information technology and hosting a web portal to link them together online. When teachers, for example, want to know why students in Singapore have achieved the best math scores in the world, they can access the curriculum materials and lesson plans of Singapore’s teachers via the Internet.

Three quick concluding points on education.

First, some may say “Yeah, but many of these programs help boys and girls (or men and women) equally.” To which I respond, “Yeah, that’s exactly the point!” They have equal access.

Second, note that it’s decidedly not just the State Department that is involved. USAID, other government departments, NGOs and private sector enterprises are all working together. These are public-private partnerships that have had an impact.

Third, the U.S. cannot, and actually should not, do this work alone. We must -- and we do -- work with host governments and local women and men in each country. Otherwise, all our efforts may come to naught, or even backfire. The involvement and commitment of indigenous players is crucial to the advancement of these goals.

I recently returned from Afghanistan, where I saw firsthand both the remarkable results that we have helped achieve for Afghan women, and the daunting obstacles that remain. And I can tell you that one of the keys to our success, so far, is that we have encouraged the Afghans themselves to take the lead in our common goal of restoring women to their rightful roles in their own society.

Now, there are many ways in which we are promoting women’s economic empowerment abroad, from USAID grants to Department of Commerce international conferences and websites. The Department of State spotlights outstanding individual firms, and also features International Visitors study tours for women entrepreneurs. Right now, I would like to single out one other such program that, while not a panacea, enjoys a terrific track record and considerable additional potential: microfinance.

Microfinance organizations extend small loans and technical assistance to the poor, usually women, for self-employment projects that generate income, allowing them to care for themselves and their families. Although the loans are sometimes as small as $50, microfinance is good business because repayment rates have consistently exceeded 90% during two decades of operation. Over the last several years, our annual microfinance investment has topped $150 million. I am especially pleased to note that women regularly represent around three-quarters of the clients for USAID’s microfinance programs.

As usual, the numbers do not tell the whole story. Here then is an anecdotal but real, and typical, piece of evidence about the success of these programs. Isabel, a 43-year-old single mother, runs a food stall in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Since joining a Village Bank, Isabel’s capital costs have sharply declined. She now earns double her previous wage, has been able to build a better business, and -- most important for her family’s future -- she has opened a savings account.

We are working to multiply success stories like Isabel’s many times over, with active microfinance projects already underway from Guatemala to Egypt to Indonesia, and others on the drawing boards. Altogether, the beauty of microfinance projects can be captured by an old Mexican proverb: “An ant on the move does more than a sleeping ox.” Though the size of microentrepreneurs may be small, their incremental contribution is great. The key is the level playing field that microfinance helps provide.

Let us turn from economics to politics. The U.S. is committed to the goal of broadening women’s political participation around the globe.

Many of our programs in this field are managed by USAID. Others are run by the National Endowment for Democracy or by own Department, such as International Visitors programs targeted on rising women leaders and key political events.

A good recent example of such programs is the delegation of 55 Arab women political leaders from around the region that we brought to the U.S. to observe our elections last November, and to receive leadership and advocacy training. These brave women met with Secretary Powell, who afterward recalled that “they asked to know more about American democracy, and how to make their own voices more effective.”

Frankly, there is no easy answer to that question. But I can assure you that it will remain high on our agenda as we continue to design and propose new projects. For example, a new project to train another group of Arab women in NGO management and lobbying skills will be underway next month.

In a few cases, to be sure, the results of our efforts have been quite dramatic. In Afghanistan, women, once freed from Taliban shackles, were encouraged to participate in large numbers in the Loya Jirga, to serve as Cabinet ministers and other government officials, and even to run for president. I will not pretend that this is an ideal situation, but neither is it mere tokenism -- and it is, of course, far far better than the tyranny of the Taliban. It’s an important beginning.

In other cases, positive change may well come more subtly and slowly. At the same time, we understand the principle that, as President Bush stated in his West Point address last June, freedom is the right of all men and women, including those in Africa, Latin America, and throughout the Islamic world.

That brings me, for my fourth and final topic today, to the role of women in civil society: in other words, the network of non-government organizations that are another hallmark of a free society. We have a whole host of programs that are specifically directed to increasing women’s participation in such crucial activities. But more than that, our entire approach is geared toward partnership with these women.

Allow me to wrap up my remarks with just three brief illustrative examples.

First is the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. This is a public-private partnership that aims to mobilize resources and expertise to aid Afghan women in practical ways that might otherwise be missed. For example, some companies, along with several leading state colleges, have made generous donations of web design, computers, training programs, brainstorming and mentoring time by top executives, and related support that is literally worth more than money can buy.

A second example is the Global Women Business Leaders initiative. This project paired 50 U.S. women CEOs with 50 of their Nordic and Baltic counterparts for extended networking sessions. These women later traveled to Washington to continue their exchanges, including meetings with President Bush and Secretary Powell. We are hoping to extend this kind of productive pairing and mentoring to the Mideast, with conferences penciled in for Marrakech and Cairo this year.

My last example of partnership is the Women Leading Women in Peace Initiative, which recently was launched in cooperation with the Fortune 500 Most Powerful Women in Business conference. This will be another way, focused more narrowly on business development, to enlist the private sector in our efforts to help women help themselves, and their societies, to recover from devastating civil strife.

In sum, we are intensifying our efforts to empower women around the world. I will just end by saying, this is a challenging but definitely not a thankless task. When I was in Afghanistan last month, I asked a girl in one of the literacy classes we sponsor if she knew what she wanted to do afterward. “Yes,” she said, “I want to decide what to study, where to work, and whom to marry!”

Last week, I was similarly moved by the spirit of Dr. Laurel Clark and of Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the female astronauts among the seven who tragically perished aboard the Space Shuttle. As President Bush remarked about Dr. Chawla, no other astronaut traveled so far, from an age-old Indian village to the uppermost frontiers of modern science. That is the same spirit we strive to instill in all the overseas women’s programs that I have just outlined for you -- whether in education, economics, politics, or civil society. I like to think that something of that spirit animates all of us here today.

Thank you.

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February 20, 2003

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