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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

Respect for Women: The Bush Administration's Firm Commitment

Charlotte M. Ponticelli, Deputy Senior Coordinator for International Womens Issues
Remarks to NGO Monthly Briefing Series
Washington, DC
March 27, 2003

Thank you for that kind introduction. I’m very pleased to have this chance to meet with all of you today, thanks to Annette Aulton of the Public Affairs Bureau, who invited me. Before I begin, I want to recognize some of the other members of our team who are with me today – Dave Pollock, our resident expert in outreach to Muslim-majority countries, and Susan Hovanec, who’s in charge of the public diplomacy initiatives in our office. The three of us and our other colleagues in the office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues work closely together under the able leadership of the Under Secretary for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky.

I just want to say what an honor it is for me to be serving the President in the office of the Senior Coordinator. As President Bush said in his State of the Union Address last year: “ America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.”

Now, think about the significance of placing respect for women in this list. So often, a subset of issues are arbitrarily labeled as “women’s issues”, when at root, all issues are women’s issues – from the fight against terrorism that threatens women – and men – and their families, to health and education and economic and trade issues. Ensuring women’s rights benefits not only individuals and their families, it also strengthens democracy, bolsters prosperity, enhances stability, encourages tolerance and builds a more peaceful and stable world. Respect for women is central to building a law abiding, civil society, which in turn is an indispensable prerequisite for functioning democracies.

That leads me directly to a very brief preliminary comment about Iraq -- about which I’ll have a bit more to say later, though it is not the main topic of our meeting. Clearly, we meet today in a troubled time. We are, as President Bush said a few days ago, “in the early stages of the war to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictator” – and that includes Iraqi women and children as well as men. We’re all very aware of what is at stake right now, in the President’s words, “”the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people.” We are committed to help the Iraqi people transition rapidly to a representative form of government that respects human rights, rejects terrorism, and maintains Iraq’s territorial integrity without threatening its neighbors. We are determined to achieve our objectives.

One other point about Iraq: This is obviously a huge effort, but it should not obscure, and will not obstruct, the work we are doing in other places. When it comes to women’s rights, in particular, I must point to all the work we’re doing in Afghanistan; and in the case of my portfolio, assisting the women of Afghanistan. Our commitment to that cause, and to broad humanitarian and reconstruction assistance there, will not change, regardless of other events around the world. As President Bush has said, we are committed to Afghanistan for the long haul. In fact, in January, when my office organized a high-level delegation to Kabul, the President sent a personal message to President Karzai and to the Afghan people reaffirming that commitment.

Now, in the next hour, I’d like to speak briefly about the function of the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues and give some specific examples of our major areas of endeavor. Following these remarks, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

First, a little bit about our office: The fact that the State Department has an office like ours that is dedicated to international women’s issues is, in itself, a clear sign of the USG’s commitment to promoting women’s human rights worldwide. In Secretary Powell’s words, this office serves as the “focal point within the Bush Administration for the development and implementation of our pro-women foreign policy agenda.”

The Office focuses on three overall areas of policy: broadening the political participation of women, increasing the economic participation of women, and enhancing our outreach efforts to women around the globe. Because we’re a coordinating office, we work very closely with just about every bureau and office here at State to assist in a broad range of projects that especially affect women and families, such as trafficking in persons, domestic violence, disease, refugee concerns and problems created by conflict in cooperation with the diverse bureaus of the State Department, and other U.S. Government agencies. The Office also works to establish partnerships and alliances with other governments, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. I’d like to give a few examples of how our office works with various organizations to achieve our goals of increasing women’s political participation, economic empowerment, and U.S. Government outreach to women.

As many of you know, last December, Secretary Powell announced the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The initiative will provide a framework and funding for the U.S. to work together with governments and people in the Arab world to expand economic, political and educational opportunities for all. An important focus of the initiative is the empowerment of women. Our office has worked closely with the State Department offices responsible for MEPI to develop proposals and programs focused on improving the lives of girls and women through literacy training and political and economic capacity-building throughout the Middle East.

Let me give you another example of the types of partnerships our office actively promotes. Last fall, our office participated in a U.S.-Finland public-private outreach program to promote women’s private enterprise efforts. The Helsinki Women Business Leaders Summit partnered 50 American women CEOs with their Baltic counterparts to share best practices and create partnerships for mutual prosperity. Participants from Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Northwest Russia, and the U.S. discussed methods of accessing capital, secrets for success, surviving mistakes, and moving from “success to significance.” These types of partnership between women business leaders and entrepreneurs benefit not just the women involved, but also their wider societies and surrounding economies – with additional benefits for regional stability and global prosperity. Based on the success of the Helsinki Summit, our office is exploring opportunities to replicate this type of partnership elsewhere in the world.

I mentioned that another key part of our office’s work is outreach to women from around the world. This outreach effort takes place through a continual process of meetings with women from foreign governments, NGOs, universities, and the private sector. In the past few months alone, we’ve met with women from Nigeria, Canada, Switzerland, South Korea, Uganda, Namibia, Afghanistan and Iraq. U/S Dobriansky has also organized some very interesting meetings with women Ambassadors here in Washington. Through speeches, panel discussions, and NGO briefings such as this one, we seek to gain a better understanding of each other’s concerns and how we can work together effectively to advance women’s economic and political standing worldwide.

Now that I’ve given you a flavor of the type of work our office carries out, I’d like to speak about three specific areas we’ve been focusing on: the continuing U.S. efforts to aid Afghan women, the situation of women in Iraq, and the effect of HIV/AIDS on women.

We’re especially proud of the work we’ve done toward supporting the women in Afghanistan. Well-meaning experts -- both Afghan and international -- told us that we should not highlight women’s issues, since this would be an unnecessary distraction that would alienate anti-Taliban forces and traditional Afghan leaders whose help we needed in the fight against terrorism. Fortunately, under the leadership of President and Mrs. Bush, women’s issues were given a place at the top of the agenda in our political, reconstruction and security efforts in Afghanistan as we pressed for full participation of women at the political conference in Bonn, the reconstruction conferences in Washington and Tokyo, and the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan.

There is still a very long way to go to overcome the tragedy inflicted on Afghan women as a result of the Taliban’s twisted interpretation of Islam, but there has been clear progress: women can work, some are now officials in the government, and most importantly, girls have returned to school. Many, many women have said to us that the lack of education was perhaps the severest punishment by the Taliban against women. And as one Afghan woman told me: “There is no better way to fight terrorism than to educate children.”

Some of the progress can be attributed to the work done by the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which our office directs. Inaugurated by Presidents Bush and Karzai in January 2002, the Council promotes private-public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions. The Council has mobilized the private sector in the U.S. to support Afghan women, including a program of computer education and leadership training for women working in government ministries.

In January 2003, Under Secretary Dobriansky led a high-level delegation of government officials and private sector representatives to Kabul for the second meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, the first to be held in Afghanistan. During the visit, the Under Secretary announced that the U.S. Government (USAID) would contribute $2.5 million in support of the creation of women’s resource centers in 14 provinces of Afghanistan, and that the Council would issues $1 million in grants to support educational programs at these Centers, on topics ranging from small business and NGO management to political participation and human rights education. The Council’s work is just one of the ways that the U.S. Government continues to support the full participation of women in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

That leads me to the next topic that our office is following: the situation of women in Iraq. If you look in your packets, you will see a fact sheet that our office wrote outlining the horrible situation of Iraqi women under Saddam Hussein. As you can see, Saddam’s regime has used beheading, rape, torture, and the indiscriminate murder as a way to punish women and their families, in Iraq and abroad, for speaking out about the horrors of his regime.

Our office has met with free Iraqi women to discuss the situation in Iraq and to develop ideas to insure the full participation of Iraqi women in the reconstruction of Iraq. Under Secretary Dobriansky also hosted a group of free Iraqi women at the Foreign Press Center on March 6, 2003. These women told chilling stories of their experiences in Saddam’s Iraq. But despite the terrors they recounted, they exhibited a resolve and courage to reclaim their country and to build a foundation for a better democratic society, a society based on Iraqi traditions and culture and the universal principles of freedom and respect for basic human rights.

As one of the Iraqi women we met with told us: “We would pay any price to be free.” Clearly, the women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the rebuilding of their society. They bring skills and knowledge that will be vital to restoring Iraq to its rightful place in the region and the world. As events in Iraq unfold, we will continue our efforts to work with Iraqi women to ensure their participation in a free and open Iraq.

Let me conclude with a few remarks about our efforts to address the effect of HIV/AIDS on women. We now know that women and girls represent half of all HIV infections worldwide, and this has added to the sense of urgency to find ways we can combat the pandemic. To that end, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, proposed during his State of the Union address, will direct $15 billion over 5 years to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, where women have been disastrously affected by the disease. Our office will continue to work with the appropriate U.S. Government offices to ensure that the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls continues to be addressed in U.S. initiatives and to highlight the importance of arresting the pandemic.

I hope my remarks have given you a sense of the many and varied issues -our office addresses. I think Secretary Powell summed it up best when he said, “Women’s issues affect not only women; they have profound implications for all humankind.” Thank you for your kind attention and I’ll be happy to take any questions at this time.

Released on April 8, 2003

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