U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video
 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2005 Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary

Business Women as Reform Leaders

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Global Affairs
Keynote Address at Arab Businesswomen Summit
Tunis, Tunisia
May 24, 2005

Mr. Smilor, Ambassador and Mrs. Hudson, distinguished conference participants:

The Middle East and North Africa have long been known for the production of energy resources, but as I stand here today and look out over this audience, I am struck by another form of energy that the region clearly produces. Call it "woman power" or "new energy" -- I sense its presence in abundance here. I am truly pleased to be with you today to talk about what that new energy can accomplish.

I see some familiar faces in the audience from my meetings last year with the graduates of the MEPI Business Internship Program. That program brought young Arab business women to the United States for a mini-MBA program and internships at Fortune 500 companies across the country. I am thrilled to see them here together again. The women told us they really appreciated the chance to meet colleagues from their own region, and to begin to build an Arab women’s network. I hope those connections have been sustained, and I look forward to hearing how you have been able to apply the skills from your internships – both professionally and within your communities.

We are at the beginning of a carefully crafted program that reflects the subjects that you told us would be most useful to you. They include marketing your own enterprise, exercising leadership, and motivating employees.

We hope to give you the practical skills you need to advance your business careers, but we also hope to use this conference to encourage your leadership as agents for change. Change not only in modernizing economic structures to help compete in the global marketplace, but also change in breaking down barriers to women’s full participation in economic decision-making.

Women’s rights are not a "women’s issue." They are a fundamental building block for democracy, prosperity, and stability. No society can be truly democratic when half its population is disenfranchised. And no country can realize its full economic potential when half its population is marginalized.

The United States recognizes this, and is committed to supporting you in ensuring that women are full and equal partners in your societies.

Growing numbers of women in the Arab world are becoming ministers, elected officials, and leaders in politics and civil society. Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia have increased the number of women in their parliaments. Iraq and Afghanistan have women ministers in their new governments, and women will be well represented in their new national assemblies. Kuwait celebrated an important milestone last week when the National Assembly approved full political rights for women, beginning in 2007.

However, we know that challenges remain. Arab women make up less than 30 percent of the labor force. Women’s unemployment regionally is almost double that of men, and women still face difficulties in accessing the tools they need to succeed, such as capital, financial services, and land. Literacy rates are only about 50 percent.

The 2003 Arab Human Development Report identified a "serious" deficit in women’s empowerment as one of the key areas for reform across the Arab world. The 2004 Report notes some important advances, including the reform of family law in Morocco, and the participation of women voters and candidates in legislative elections in Oman, but finds that women continue to suffer from inequality and vulnerability to discrimination, both in law and in practice. And the newly-released Freedom House Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa finds that "women are at a profound disadvantage in practically every institution of society: the criminal justice system, the economy, education, health care, and the media."

At the same time, it is noteworthy that the Freedom House report cites Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria as being the most progressive in the region in advancing women’s rights.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, our First Lady, Laura Bush, together with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and I, hosted at the State Department a group of women leaders from 15 Muslim countries. These women came together, at our invitation, for an open and frank discussion on the challenges and opportunities women face in strengthening democracy in their countries, and how the United States can help.

The women represented government, civil society, business, academia, and the legal profession. They came from countries as diverse as Algeria, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They were all pioneers in their fields, and had all overcome discrimination and barriers to success.

We asked them to tell us how we can most effectively promote women in the political process, in business, and in civil society. How women can help strengthen the ties and the dialogue between governments and NGOs. How women can work together across the Muslim world to build partnerships and foster reform.

What they asked for was leadership training, training on legal and constitutional reforms, assistance for health and educational services, communications and media courses, skills training to increase economic opportunity, and exchange programs to partner women in the Middle East with their American counterparts. They also asked for our help in developing effective outreach strategies to specific groups: women in rural areas, to educate them about their rights; conservative Islamists and men, to persuade them of the need for women’s full participation in business and governance.

This Business Women’s Summit ties together many of these themes, with an emphasis on training, communications, networking, exchange and outreach. We are delighted to have with us a dozen American business women — experts from America’s private sector who have come to Tunis to work with you, to offer their experience and skills, to share with you their assessment of the obstacles, and how best to overcome them. We thank them for traveling here at their own expense and on their own time to help advance our collective efforts. And I know that they are looking forward to learning from you, and to hearing your perspectives, your suggestions, and your experiences.

Through the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative and the Middle East Partnership Initiative, we are committed to working with business leaders like yourselves, because we know that the economic sphere is closely connected with the political and the social order. Through your success as business women, you will also have an impact in these other sectors.

A vibrant market economy does not operate in vacuum. It has to be supported by access to education, equality of opportunity, legal protections, and effective enforcement of laws.

These are the crucial success factors that helped transform the former communist markets of Central and Eastern Europe into vibrant marketplaces that now attract investments, create jobs, and fuel economic growth. As these reforms sparked commercial energy, they also worked to promote greater freedom and equal opportunity. We believe that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa can and should also initiate reforms to create an environment that enables growth and opportunity. And we believe that you, as economic leaders, can play an important role in pointing them in the right direction.
Business leaders, through effective business decisions and insistence on transparent and fair rules of the economic game, give people the chance to shape their lives, their society, and their future. Business leaders like you can be vigorous agents for change in many positive ways. As work forces gain new skills, and as students and families become more educated, opportunities for women are ensured and expanded. Political, economic, educational and societal reforms begin to reinforce each other.

As women increase their participation in business, economies grow and democracies are strengthened. The World Bank estimates that countries can increase their GDP growth by one percent just by increasing women in the workforce, and that GDP can increase by up to 19 percent when more women own their own businesses.

Over the past five years, the United States has given more than $150 million annually for microenterprise loans and development worldwide. Seventy percent of those loans have gone to approximately three million women, for the creation of grassroots businesses. Repayment rates consistently exceed 90 percent.

Through MEPI, we have the Middle East Entrepreneur Training in the U.S. Program (MEET US). Many of you have participated in this program, which focuses on managerial and entrepreneurial skills training. MEPI also has programs to promote women in the legal profession, to provide literacy training, and to provide scholarships for girls. Earlier today, I visited a MEPI project here in Tunisia, the Center for Applied Training, which works with aspiring women business owners to help develop business plans and learn how to market their products.

The MEPI mandate is to:
-- Strengthen democracy and civil society
-- Revitalize local entrepreneurship and expand the private sector,
-- Enhance access to a quality education for all citizens, and
-- Empower women to overcome social or cultural barriers to their full participation in society.

MEPI is a Partnership Initiative. We cannot, nor should we, attempt to advance these changes by ourselves. This partnership is possible because there is already underway in the region a vibrant conversation on the need for reform. We saw this in the Forum for the Future, in Morocco last year. We saw it in the elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and in Iraq. We saw it just the other day in Kuwait. And we see it in the example of women leaders such as yourselves.

As our First Lady, Mrs. Bush, noted, "American women stand in solidarity with women around the world" in facing up to challenges to full participation by women. "Our work to encourage democracy is part of a larger effort to support women across the broader Middle East and North Africa, from girls’ literacy programs in Yemen, to micro-credit initiatives for women entrepreneurs in Jordan, to legal workshops in Bahrain." She has encouraged women to network, as you will be doing over the next three days, and she foresees as a result of the leadership that you are poised to exert "the start of a new era of expanding liberty and growing opportunity for women worldwide."

We understand that reform means difficult changes that will not take place overnight and in fact will almost certainly require sustained commitment over generations. We want you to know that we will be there with you on the road to achievement.

Democracy, economic reform and women’s empowerment – for which you are now the standard bearers – will help to make the region free, more prosperous, more stable and stronger. As new opportunities and personal freedoms grow for people across the region, we believe the appeal of causes based on hatred and extremist behavior will wane. We believe that supporting freedom and promoting reform will ensure a better standard of living and a more secure future for both the people of the Middle East and North Africa and of the international community. Our policy dialogue with the region will continue to be shaped by the conversation with you that begins here this week at this Summit.

I close by wishing you every success in the work of this Summit, in developing your business skills, in establishing a network with your Arab and American colleagues, and in fulfilling your drive to advance the position of women in business in the Arab world. I wish you success in all of your undertakings as you utilize the power of this amazing assembly of women here, to the benefit of yourselves, your home country, and your region.

Released on June 6, 2005

  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.