Building Opportunities Through PartnershipsCharlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Womens Issues
Remarks at Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue on Migrations, Microfinance, and Education: The Role of the Euro-Arab Woman Conference
September 13, 2004
Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: The subject of our panel, achieving greater opportunity and equality for men and women through the rule of law, is an ideal that my country -- and I personally -- have been striving to attain throughout my lifetime. It is both morally right, and also practically beneficial for everyone, when women, as well as men, enjoy the legal right to own property, get an education, work for a fair wage, make choices about their own families, and participate as voters and candidates in free elections. Perhaps this sounds simple; but we all know how much work we still have to do to make it a reality. It is therefore an honor for me to be here and to represent the United States for this very timely dialogue on women’s human rights with our brothers and sisters in Europe and the Mediterranean. So I thank our most gracious Spanish hosts, and I thank the organizers, for this opportunity.
A Personal Commitment
Promising Trends in the Region
We have made such partnerships 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.
A core element of U.S. policy in this region is the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). 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. Alongside the original three MEPI pillars of political, economic, and educational reform, all of which fully include women, my office has championed the establishment this year of a fourth pillar: women’s empowerment programs. These are targeted specifically to overcome what the UN Arab Human Development Reports have correctly identified as a tragic regional deficit in this area.
In the specific area of women’s legal rights, MEPI has sponsored projects this year ranging from NGO training programs in Morocco, to a high-level "Women and the Law" workshop in Amman. That workshop brought together 90 women in the legal profession to brainstorm about key issues and plan future cooperation - and we intend to follow it up with further support along these lines. It is worth noting that the overall MEPI budget has already tripled - from $45 million to $129 million - in just the first two years of its existence.
A second crucial, complementary strand in our reform strategy is the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, now being discussed by the G8 and other leaders from this region. We are gratified that the common program announced at the Sea Island Summit in June included a strong endorsement of women’s empowerment as a crucial ingredient in forging a better future for the region. And personally I was very pleased to participate, shortly before the Summit, in a stimulating exchange with EU officials - arranged through the technological magic of digital video conferencing - who are currently directly involved with Euro-Med women’s empowerment projects.
Research data confirm that 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, nor will the millions of brave women working to better themselves and their societies in all of our countries. Let me quote my country’s First Lady Laura Bush, who a year ago told the National Association of Women Judges, "There can be no justice in the world unless every woman has equal rights."
I have had the privilege to travel several times to this region, and to meet and work with my sisters in Europe and in the Arab World. Two years ago, I was very pleased to participate in the Global Women’s Business Summit in Helsinki, the first in a series of successful efforts to bring American and European businesswomen together. Last year, we helped add more Arab women to this equation. I was honored to speak at the Global Summit for Women in Marrakech in June 2003, the first time this event was ever held in an Arab country, and then at the First Arab Businesswomen’s Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi last October. I also spoke at the French Senate’s Conference on Afghan Women in March, and at the Arab International Women’s Forum in Cairo as recently as this past June. 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. One example that comes to mind is The Honorable 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 the secret of her success, she said, simply but powerfully, "Two things: democracy and hard work!"
At the same time, legal reforms are helping to consolidate progress on human rights for women in Morocco. A key case in point is the new Mudawwanah, or family code, promulgated by King Muhammad VI after intensive consultation with women, Islamic scholars, and other experts. The question posed by the King was exactly the right one: "How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice and violence and marginalization, notwithstanding the dignity and the justice granted to them by our glorious religion?" To which my own leader, President Bush, has responded: "He’s right. America stands with His Majesty and others who share that basic belief. The future of Muslim nations will be better off for all with the full participation of women."
We also greatly respect the role played in this process by such leading women legal activists and parliamentarians as Nouzha Skalli. Her role was recently hailed in one of my country’s top newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, as emblematic of the "new breed of Muslim activists striving to improve their societies working with religious traditions."
And we are pleased to see other signs of such political and legal progress elsewhere in the region, in countries large and small. Women are working hard to effect positive change. I look forward to hearing from my colleagues about other success stories, and other opportunities to work together to overcome any obstacles. And when we do face obstacles, I recall the stirring words of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, who earlier this year traveled as far as Bahrain to consult about reform with Arab women lawyers and constitutional experts: "Freedom and equality are not achieved overnight…. The very problems that democratic change brings - social tension, heightened expectations, political unrest - are also strengths. Discord is a sign that progress is afoot; unease is an indication that a society has let go of what it knows and is working out something better and new."
Elsewhere in the Arab region, Iraq today is a special case in point. 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 our diplomatic corps 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. 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, Baghdad, and Cairo this past year, and the women here in this conference today are vivid proof of this.
The U.S. as Partner
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.
But by the same token, we must never fall into the terrible trap of imagining that aspirations for freedom, equality and the rule of law are somehow exclusive to Western culture, and foreign to the peoples of the Middle East. On the contrary; the U.S. believes, as President Bush has stated on numerous occasions, that these aspirations are the common lot of all humanity. Nor is this inclusive approach a new American idea. More than two decades ago, the late President Ronald Reagan, in an address to the British Parliament, affirmed that, "Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy."
In this connection, I would also like to mention some of the special initiatives we have been undertaking in support of Palestinian women and of 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. We will maintain these commitments to help Palestinian women and we will continue to work in cooperation with American and local NGOs, to support people-to-people contacts between Palestinian and Israeli women - lawyers, teachers, and others - to keep alive their hopes for coexistence and cooperation in the search for peace and justice.
In Iraq, despite the obvious security problems, there is a momentum for democracy that cannot be stopped. Above and beyond the billions we have pledged for security and economic reconstruction, the U.S. right now is contributing another half a billion dollars for to build a functioning democracy in Iraq. We welcome your support and your advice about how to do a better job. Already, we 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. Approximately one quarter of the new Iraqi National Council is also made of up women representatives. 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 the legal, political and economic life of their country. For example, we have just selected the winners of an open competition for $10 million in grants for Iraqi women’s democracy projects, looking toward the national election early next year. These projects will extend to Iraqi women the kind of support we are trying to provide to women all across the region: training in how to increase understanding of their new legal rights, put together a political campaign, deliver an effective message, advocate and lobby for equal rights, use the media effectively, and develop the leadership, organizational, and entrepreneurial skills and experience to become full participants in their country’s reconstruction. Some of this activity is now taking place inside Iraq, in cooperation with our international coalition partners and with local NGOs. Some Iraqi women are traveling to the U.S. for internships and advanced professional workshops -- and also for meetings with President Bush and other very senior officials and NGO leaders. And some programs, inshallah, will take place in other countries of the region, as a way of helping to reintegrate Iraq’s brave women into the mainstream of Arab and international public life. These projects, along with larger, longer-term ones funded by USAID and other donors, both public and private, will go a long way over time toward improving the situation of both men and women in Iraq. They will help restore the self-confidence, the knowledge, and thus the enormous contributions that Iraq’s millions of talented and courageous women can make to their newly liberated society - whether in the legal, political, economic, or social fields.
Another initiative, just as important, is our 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 European and Arab countries will join this vital effort, as a few already have.
Indeed, the magnitude of the challenges facing this region requires that the United States, Europe, our Middle Eastern friends others work together as partners. 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 enhanced opportunities for women through the rule of law. That is why I am delighted that so many of our Ministers and civil society leaders will soon be discussing this challenge together in New York, on the margins of the upcoming UN General Assembly session. And, 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 sisters realize their vast potential.
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. I thank you for your attention today -- but more importantly, I look forward to keeping in touch in the future.
Released on September 14, 2004