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Interview by Nihal Saad on NILE TV

Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Cairo, Egypt
June 8, 2004

Q: Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the State Department, we thank you very much for taking some of your time to talk to us.

Ms. Ponticelli: Thank you.

Q: Thank you so much. You spoke today, addressed the International Arab Women Forum that was held at the Arab League, and you gave a wonderful speech in which you outlined several issues pertinent to women affairs in America, in the Arab world, and at the international level. You have also been to the Middle East several times. You've come across a lot of women here in the Arab world. What is your "take" on the progress that women have so far achieved in the Arab world?

Charlotte Ponticelli, at left, and Nihal Saad during interviewMs. Ponticelli: I think women in the Arab world have made tremendous progress and really are an inspiration to women in other regions of the world.

We've been very impressed with the involvement of women in the Alexandria Library, for example, but I hesitate to single out any one project because I would leave out a success story. I am very struck also that in Lebanon a woman is running for president. This is a huge milestone.

Q: There is the Alexandria document, the one that you have mentioned.

There is also the final communique of the Arab Summit in Tunis last month, and they all centered - sort of - on empowering women, the need to empower women, for women to be more involved in the political decision-making process in development projects in the respective countries.

And there is also the initiative for reform or the Greater Middle East Initiative that is coming from the U.S. How would you relate what is in that document, the Alexandria document, the communique of the Arab League, and what has been mentioned in the Greater Middle East project?

Ms. Ponticelli: I think that's an excellent question, Nihal.

I would really look at it as a continuum of effort. These things are not thought up overnight. Discussions take, sometimes, a long time to evolve.
I think that there was a very interesting discussion that started a few weeks ago in Tunis. The women there...played a tremendous role in forging that statement of intent. The statement of intent that mentions also the need for an integrated strategy underscores the role of women in the political sphere, in the economic life of their country, in the educational, social, and cultural sphere. Women's issues, neither here nor in the United States, are no longer a separate thing that can be put in a little box on a shelf. They're part of the broader efforts for reform, for democratic change, for economic prosperity, and for peace and stability.

It's my expectation, I would hope, insha'Allah, that the leaders at the G-8 Summit will have a chance to build on that discussion. I think it's a very positive evolution of the discussion.

Q: Right. You're speaking about the G-8 Summit and, again, the Greater Middle East Initiative. Initiatives for reform for the Middle East is going to be high on the agenda of these leaders when they discuss this.

Now part of the speech - in your speech - you said that we can not impose reform - that any attempt to do that is going to be doomed to failure. That was part of the criticism that was directed to the Greater Middle East Initiative because it did not consult with Arab leaders, or it did not consult with Arab governments, and it was sort of imposed instead being negotiated with them.

Ms. Ponticelli: I know that Secretary Powell and Dr. Condoleezza Rice have already - I know - addressed this question a lot better than I ever could.

I will tell you as someone who works on women's issues at the State Department - and when so much of our effort, of course, involves this region of the world and our efforts to form partnerships - that it's very much a two-way street. We know we can't impose reform - you're absolutely right - that was a key point in my speech. We know that reform has to come from within, and just as we would like to express support and willingness to help the process of change here in the Middle East, we know that we can learn from suggestions that come from this region to us, and, again, a need to listen to Arab voices. I think that our officials have made it clear that that's going to be a key motivation for the G-8 Summit - to listen to these other voices.

Q: Our First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, addressed the forum, and Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak has championed a movement, the Suzanne Mubarak International Peace Movement, or Women for Peace Movement, and that has been gaining a lot of international support. I don't know if you have had a chance to talk about that with Egyptian women here, or with other women in the region.

Ms. Ponticelli: Oh, I have. Yes.

Q: What is your "take" about it?

Ms. Ponticelli: My "take" is that it is fabulous, and that Mrs. Mubarak is a champion for the universal values that we all share: peace, cooperation, positive democratic change, and making sure that women have a place at the table working on those issues. So we very much support the thrust of her initiative. She made some excellent remarks, very stirring remarks, at the opening of the conference yesterday, which, I think, set the pace and set a good tone for the discussions. And I think that her message of working together for peace and cooperation in order to forge, as she said, "true partnerships" should be applauded. She's fabulous.

Q: Your department, the Office of International Women's Issues, is affiliated with the State Department. What is the pro-women foreign policy agenda in the State Department? How is it positioned in the State Department, which, I am sure, has so many things to deal with?

Ms. Ponticelli: That's an excellent question, and one that I deal with. I mean, we all focus on our respective mandate, but as you also know, one of the key components in any job is to convince others that your issue is important, to find ways to widen the net of support, form partnerships, and also to come out with a coordinated approach.

If everybody's going off in different directions, you often can cancel each other out, or work against each other. So we are a coordinating office.

We report directly to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, who has a number of very big portfolios including democracy and human rights, population and migration, the Office of Environment and Science and Technology, the Science Adviser's Office, and I have probably left out a couple. She's the Special Coordinator for Tibet. So our approach towards women's issues is very integrated into everything else.

Secretary Powell made a remarkable statement to the State Department just a year ago in which he made clear that women's issues are integral to U.S. foreign policy. Why? - Because you'll never achieve true democracy - you will never achieve freedom, prosperity, opportunities, peace, and stability - if you exclude one half of your population.

Women are, I think, sometimes portrayed as the victims of the world, and true, they often suffer in a horrendous way from war and from conflict and from poverty and deprivation, but what you find working with women is they are tremendous resources for change.

Q: And particularly, that's truly correct when it comes to places of conflict like Palestine or like in Iraq. You've been to Afghanistan. You mentioned, before we started taping this interview, about the initiatives for women in Iraq and about the initiatives also for Palestinian women. Could you elaborate on these two initiatives?

Ms. Ponticelli: Yes, I will. I will try to briefly.

We very much support the efforts of the Palestinian women to deal with the problems in their society, to deal with the tremendous challenges that they're facing and so, again - our integrated strategy. The U.S. is, I believe, the largest contributor to programs, humanitarian programs, hospitals, clinics, schools, but also in terms of exchange programs, which can be a great bridge for peace and cooperation that Mrs. Mubarak spoke of. So we have very much an integrated approach to help Palestinian women with the tremendous challenges they face.

With respect to Iraq, again, we try very much not to impose but rather to be responsive to the needs that Iraqi women have indicated are priorities. For them right now? They say, look, we've been through a lot, but we're very capable. We just need a little of help, and that means training. So we have a new initiative. It's a ten million dollar Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative that focuses on helping women with leadership skills and concrete capacity building endeavors. Whether it's political participation, entrepreneurship, economic - how do you start and run your own business, for example, how do you write a business plan - also, women journalists, the role of women with the media - so that there's some training programs underway for that. So we're very excited. I'm going to be reviewing those proposals when I go home. The proposals have come in and the deadline has closed for proposals. We have over thirty.

Q: And what is the timeframe for...

Ms. Ponticelli: We hope within the next couple of weeks to announce the proposals that have been selected under this ten million dollar initiative.

We've already used some money from the initiative to fund a group of Iraqi women, a delegation, who recently attended - actually it was just last week - the Global Summit of Women this year which was held in Korea.

There's another delegation of Iraqi women coming over soon - in July - that want to talk about political skills that they feel they need in preparation for their elections, which, insha'Allah, will be January of next year. - So again, skills, but a very integrated approach.

We also have, finally, a new initiative called the U.S.-Iraq Women's Network. It is designed to foster democracy, but it's also about economic empowerment. We're very excited about that. It's a public-private partnership, realizing that governments alone can't do it all. We need the private sector. We have people in the corporate world who want to help.

Q: And the civil society.

Ms. Ponticelli: And civil society, and NGOs. We have had over a hundred groups, organizations, NGOs, individuals, who have signed up, who say, "We want to help be a part of this." From the Society of Women Engineers in the United States to human rights organizations and NGOs, who want to help with training. The "Network" is loosely modeled on another initiative, the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which also endeavors to have that integrated approach.

Q: Charlotte Ponticelli, the Senior Coordinator of International Women's Issues at the State Department, we thank you very much for taking some of your time.

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