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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2003 Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary

Respect for Women: The Global Imperative

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

Thank you for that kind introduction. I’d like to recognize Pat Ellis of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group and Congresswomen Juanita Millender-MacDonald and Judy Biggert of the Women’s Congressional Caucus. Secretary Albright, Members of Congress, Ambassadors and distinguished guests, thank you for participating. 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.

The title of my talk is “Respect for Women: The Global Imperative”. Respect for women, President Bush has said in several major addresses over the past two years, is both a non-negotiable demand of human dignity, and a foreign policy imperative of the United States.

This afternoon my focus is how we can best empower women to succeed, in other countries around the world. I will address four areas, where our emphasis is less on solving problems and more on creating opportunities for women and then discuss some examples of what we are doing and their impact. These four areas are: education, particularly literacy and computer literacy; economic development and entrepreneurship, particularly through microfinance; political participation; and the promotion of women’s roles in civil society, including NGOs, associations, advocacy groups, and plain old-fashioned but effective networking.

Let’s begin with basic education. The need is clearly great. Not quite a year ago, Secretary Powell noted that one-sixth of the world -— a billion people -– are still illiterate. Two-thirds of that group are women and girls. “Dramatically increasing literacy among women and girls,” he said, “must be a major global priority, and placed way at the top of national development agendas.” 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 not insignificant 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.

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 training manuals and other programs for teachers, principals, and parents of school-age children –- and food rations for kids who stay in school. In addition through a grant to Johns Hopkins University, we will soon support the establishment of several hundred “Sarah Clubs” throughout Ghana. Sarah is a fictional character developed by UNICEF to provide girls with a role model.

Let me turn to the Pacific Rim – and the issue of 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.

Note that in these programs 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.

The U.S. cannot, and actually should not, do this work alone. We must -- and we do -- work with other donors, and especially with host governments and local women and men in each country where we can get involved. 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 for women’s agricultural cooperatives, to Department of Commerce international conferences and websites. 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 fifty dollars, microfinance is good business because repayment rates have consistently exceeded 90 percent during two decades of operation. Over the last several years, our annual 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 sidewalk food stall in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Without savings or collateral, her only option was to borrow working capital from a local moneylender, who charged 10 percent interest per day. As a result, Isabel’s daily income never exceeded subsistence level. Then she learned about the Foundation for International Community Assistance, or FINCA, one of several leading microfinance NGOs that work with USAID and other donors around the world. Since joining a FINCA Village Bank, Isabel’s daily sales have tripled, while her capital costs have sharply declined. She now earns double the minimum 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. The new Middle East Partnership Initiative promises to create additional microenterprise programs, and to review existing aid programs across the board to ensure the widest possible outreach, with special emphasis on women and girls.

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. This simple tool can give millions the means to better their own lives, the lives of their families, and ultimately their countries. The key is the level playing field that microfinance helps provide.

Let us turn to politics. The U.S. is committed to the goal of broadening women’s political participation around the globe. Toward that objective, we support initiatives that:

  • Expand women’s political skills, including education, leadership training, and exchange programs;
  • Increase women’s access to resources enabling them to lobby governments, organize political parties, run for public office, serve as elected and appointed officials, and establish non-governmental organizations;
  • Encourage the development of a global network of emerging women leaders; and
  • Draw on the help of NGOs and multilateral institutions to increase women’s involvement in the political process.

Many of our programs in this field are managed by USAID, through its democracy and good governance offices. Others are run by government-funded but independent organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, and by my own Department, such as International Visitors programs which target rising women leaders and key political events.

A good recent example of such programs is the delegation of 50 Arab women political leaders we brought to the U.S. to observe the midterm elections last November, and to receive leadership and advocacy training. These women met with Secretary Powell, who afterward recalled that they talked about how they want control over their own lives and their own destinies. And, they asked to know more about American democracy, and how to make their own voices more effective.

Some of the results of our efforts to support grass-roots democratic initiatives have been quite significant. In Afghanistan, we supported women participating in large numbers in the Loya Jirga, serving as Cabinet ministers and other government officials, and even running for president. It’s an important beginning, but more needs to be done.

In other cases, positive change may well come more subtly and slowly. We recognize that democracy is often a work in progress, and that no one model fits all. 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, advocacy groups, associations and the like that are another hallmark of a free society. We have a whole host of training, exchanges, and other programs that are specifically directed to increasing women’s participation in such crucial activities. But more than that, our entire approach to everything we do in all these areas is geared toward partnership with the women who are active in civil society, from philanthropy to research institutions to the business sector and beyond. I will conclude my remarks with just three brief illustrative examples.

First is the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. This is a public-private, binational partnership created by President Bush and President Karzai at their first meeting in January 2002, which aims to mobilize resources and expertise to aid Afghan women in practical ways that might be missed by other organizations. For example, some companies, along with several leading state colleges, have made generous donations of web design, computer equipment, 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 brainstorming and 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 planned for Marrakesh and Cairo later this year.

My last example of partnership is the Women in Post Conflict Societies or rather 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. We intend to start with Afghanistan, and then move on to the Balkans, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia

In sum, these are four key areas where we are intensifying our efforts to empower women -– educationally, economically, politically, and socially -- around the world. The results can be most rewarding. 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. “For a Resolute Girl,” The Times headline read, “the Traditions of India Imposed No Limits.” That is precisely 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 spirit animates all of us here today. Thank you.

Released on February 20, 2003

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