Partnerships ExtendedCharlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Remarks to the Arab International Women's Forum
June 8, 2004
Released by the Office of International Women's Issues
Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honor for me to be here and to represent the United States for this very timely dialogue with our sisters in the Arab World and elsewhere about the critical importance of partnerships in our international efforts. I thank our hosts, and I thank the organizers, particularly Haifa al Kaylani, for this opportunity.
It is also particularly fitting that this conference should now take place at the Headquarters of the Arab League. Just a few weeks ago, its leaders expressed their determination to help forge a better future for their peoples by widening women’s participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and educational fields, and by reinforcing their rights and status in society.
A Personal Progress Report on Women’s Issues
The U.S. has made promotion of women’s rights a centerpiece of our foreign policy. And we have made partnership with others -- not just governments, but also businesses, NGO’s, and others in the private sector -- the key strategy for achieving our common goals. One thing that has become increasingly clear is that we all have something to learn from each other, and none of us has the one magic solution for all the problems we face! What is certain is that, working together, there is so much that we can achieve.
Strong communities, strong economies, and progress towards true democracy depend on the full participation of women. Indeed, a country cannot become a true democracy if half of its population is purposefully silenced. But we will not be silenced. Let me quote my country’s First Lady Laura Bush, who just a few months ago told a group of Iraqi, Afghan, and American women leaders: "The struggle for women’s rights is a story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things."
Fortunately, I have had the privilege to travel several times to the region, and to meet and work with my sisters in the Arab World. I was honored to speak at the Global Summit for Women in Marrakech last June and at the First Arab Businesswomen’s Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi in October. I know that some of you here also benefited from those stimulating gatherings and others like them. I will never forget some of the wonderful women I met there, including Yasmine Badou, a Member of Parliament in Morocco. Yasmine told me how proud she was to have won a seat on her own, beating 26 male candidates in an open election in her district of Casablanca. When I asked her how she did it, she said, simply but powerfully, "Two things: democracy and hard work!"
We are pleased to see other signs of such political progress in the region, in countries large and small. Women are gaining the right to vote and they are working hard to effect positive change. Yesterday Jordanian Senator Al Maaitah talked about the gains made by women in Jordon and we know that a woman is even running for president in Lebanon!
As Mrs. Mubarak pointed out yesterday: We live "in an age characterized by contradiction and conflict" and the struggle for peace needs "the active involvement of women." Iraq is a special case in this respect. I know that all of us here were very moved yesterday by Dr. Rajaa Khazai’s very impressive presentation. For the past year and more, I have worked intensively on Iraqi women’s issues, from Washington, in the region, and inside Iraq itself. I have come to appreciate the tremendous efforts they are making to rebuild their lives and their country, despite all the obstacles, and to overcome the ravages of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I do not need to go into the details for this expert audience. Iraqi women were once among the best educated and most professionally accomplished in the region. That is why it was shocking to hear from UN experts that, by the end of Saddam’s rule, more than two-thirds of all Iraqi women were actually illiterate, and each year at least 400 of them were murdered in so-called "honor killings" he had legalized.
There are other challenges faced by women all over the world, including in my own country. It was not so long ago in the US that women were not allowed to vote, run for office, apply for a credit card, attend the best schools, or (as an example in my own lifetime) stay employed in the foreign service after marriage. And even when such legal restrictions were removed, lack of awareness of their rights or inadequate enforcement mechanisms meant that American women still lagged behind men well into the 1970s and 80s. Women still on average earn less than men in the workforce, even though they comprise the majority of small business owners. Likewise, some women still feel the challenge of breaking through the glass ceiling, despite what we heard yesterday about how the corporate partners in this conference — Shell, IBM, and Proctor and Gamble —are making great strides to diversify the work place. And we acknowledge that regardless of the place or time American women still struggle to reconcile family and professional life.
It is important to recognize that Arab women are not alone in facing similar challenges. And just as women elsewhere have managed to overcome the obstacles facing them, so it is possible for women in the Arab world. The women I met in Marrakech, Abu Dhabi, and Iraq this past year, and the women here in this conference today are vivid proof of this.
Importance of Partnership in the Middle East
So, returning to the theme of this session, what is it that we in the international community can do to help? And I particularly welcome this conference’s emphasis on partnership, since U.S. efforts in support of women in the Middle East and around the world are conceived in exactly such a spirit of partnership.
As I am sure many of you know, President Bush has embarked on a new policy towards the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In a groundbreaking speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in November last year, he outlined what he described as a "forward strategy of freedom" – a vision to work in partnership with those in the region working for democracy, freedom, and reform.
One of the most popular myths about this policy is that we are trying to impose reform on the region, or worse, insist on our model without taking into account local traditions and cultures. If this were our approach, we would be doomed to failure. The simple truth is that we cannot impose reform on the Middle East, even if we wanted to do so. The initiative cannot succeed unless the very people we are trying to help support it. Reform must come from within and the best ideas will come from the region. We can only support and encourage them.
Finally, I would like to mention some of the special initiatives we have been undertaking in support of Palestinian women and women in Iraq. Nobody would deny that women in both places face serious obstacles as a result of the wider political and security context. I do not underestimate the magnitude of the challenges facing us in Iraq and in reinvigorating the Middle East peace process. But, I do believe that even in these difficult times, some remarkable steps are being taken. Palestinian and Iraqi women may indeed hold the long-term key to a brighter future in both their countries. We may have differences about the best political course to follow on these issues, but I am convinced that we can find common ground on practical measures to support the very talented and dynamic women who are actually working for peace and stability in their countries.
The United States has long been the largest contributor to Palestinian refugee and other humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, including numerous schools, hospitals, job training programs, and other projects that directly benefit Palestinian women and girls. I was very interested to learn more yesterday about Mrs. Mubarak’s peace initiative working with women. We will maintain these commitments to help Palestinian women and we will continue to search for a longer- term path to peace.
In Iraq there is a momentum that cannot be stopped. We now see qualified women proudly taking their places in the country’s new Cabinet – where six out of 33 Ministers are women, with portfolios including such non-traditional jobs for women as Minister of Agriculture or of Public Works. We see how Iraqi women organized successfully to defeat an attempt to impose more restrictive and discriminatory family laws upon them – while preserving an honored place for Islam in Iraq’s emerging new legal and constitutional framework. And my own office is helping Iraq’s women learn how to be more effective participants in both the political and the economic life of their country. For example, the day after I return from this conference, I will review proposals we have received in an open competition for $10 million in grants for Iraqi women’s democracy projects.
Another initiative, just as important, is our latest plans for a new U.S.-Iraq Women’s Network, which is linking American and Iraqi women and women’s organizations to share their resources, their dedication, and their expertise. I hope more women from other Arab countries will join this vital effort, as a few already have.
A core element of this policy is the Middle East Partnership Initiative. Its main objective is to bring together the collective talents, energy and commitments of our governments, the private sector and members of civil society to expand economic, political and educational opportunities, and to promote the full participation of women in the Middle East. My colleague Alex Hall Hall will describe programs in support of women under the Middle East Partnership Initiative in more detail later this afternoon, so I will not go into more detail here on this aspect.
A second crucial strand in this reform strategy is the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, being discussed by G8 leaders as we meet here today. The magnitude of the challenges facing this region requires that the United States, Europe, and others work together in partnership with each other, as well as with the region. Only by bringing together the combined resources and experiences of the region with those of the international community can we hope to make an impact in support of reform across the Middle East. We therefore hope that the three summits taking place this month – the G-8 Summit, U.S.-EU Summit, and the Istanbul Summit – will identify ways in which we can respond to the ideas for reform coming from the region.
Women entrepreneurs and women in business are a vital part of our "Shabaka" (Arabic for "network"). In fact, let me give you just one example from my own personal "shabaka". When I was in Abu Dhabi last fall, I was inspired to hear, from her own lips, the life story of Mrs. Selwa Al-Shaibani, who overcame a number of difficulties in her own life to becoming one of her country’s leading businesswomen. And I was equally inspired to meet her daughter Mawahib, a financial consultant who took leave from her job at Merrill Lynch to lead an international humanitarian effort to help women in crisis in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Just today, I sat next to Selwa at lunch and she reminded me that she was the first expert in the Gulf to develop an environmental friendly medical waste treatment system for hospitals in Abu Dhabi. She told me she has already offered to lend her expertise to women in Iraq, perhaps through a DVC approach. From this podium right now, I invite all of you to think of practical ways, however big or small, in which we can partner to help our Iraqi sisters realize their vast potential.
I would like to conclude by reiterating that until we have addressed the lack of empowerment for women, both politically and economically, in the Middle East, the region as a whole will never achieve its full potential. Experience has shown that full empowerment of women can only come about with the active involvement and efforts of courageous individuals and groups on the ground, like those represented here today. This conference presents us with a unique and valuable opportunity to identify concrete ways for working together to build partnerships necessary for a better future. The US is committed to helping, and we very much want to continue to work with you, to build what Mrs. Mubarak has called the "bridges of peace and cooperation" that are needed to ensure true partnerships. I thank you for your attention today -- but more importantly, I look forward to keeping in touch fil mustaqbal, inshallah, wa shukran [in the future, God willing – thanks again].
Released on July 22, 2004