Remarks by First Lady Laura Bush at the World Economic ForumWEF Conference Center
The Dead Center, Jordan
May 21, 2005
Released by the White House
Thank you, and thank you very much, Professor Schwab, for your very kind introduction. And thanks to you for putting this great team together for the World Economic Forum. I want to express my very deep thanks to His Majesty King Abdullah II and to Her Majesty Queen Rania Abdullah for welcoming me here to Jordan.
Your country is one of rich history and culture. Since ancient times, people have marveled at the Dead Sea, and we're privileged to experience it today. This region is the birthplace of three of the world's great religions. In the United States, we respect the traditions of all faiths. On this trip, I will visit Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holy sites. And most of all, I'm eager to meet some of the people who call the Middle East their home.
Tomorrow I'll visit a Discovery School with Queen Rania and talk with the young people who are the future of Jordan. A hopeful and peaceful future for all children is a priority of the King and Queen -- and for President Bush and me. Queen Rania has spoken eloquently about the "hope gap." Too many children in my own country experience it. I'm working on an initiative to prevent young boys and girls from joining gangs or choosing a life of crime and drugs.
Almost everywhere I go, people who work with children tell me they've identified three crucial things that all children need to achieve their full potential: They need caring adults to love and support them and help them make good decisions, they need a good education, and they need to gain the skills required in today's workplace so that they can find jobs. The prospect of finding a good job is vital to self-confidence, pride, and hope for a better future.
President Bush and I want a future of peace and opportunity for our own daughters and for all the world's children. Mothers and fathers the world over are united in the desire for a hopeful and bright future for their children.
Today we are meeting at a historic moment, a time of unprecedented opportunity. Throughout the world and here in the Middle East, we're witnessing the advance of freedom.
President Bush and I recently visited Eastern Europe, where nations set free after the fall of communism are embracing democracy. They are an example to citizens in other nations who are taking responsibility for their own futures.
Now we're seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East. Brave men and women are writing a new chapter in the story of self-government. They're going to the polls in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the Palestinian Territories.
In Lebanon, men and women raised their voices in Martyr's Square. They called for an end to occupation and an opportunity to vote freely. Just this week, we were all delighted to hear that after twenty years of courageous advocacy, and at the urging of the Amir, Kuwait's parliament granted full political rights to the women of Kuwait. (Applause.)
Earlier this week, the wife of Kuwait's Foreign Minister spoke at a luncheon at the Kuwaiti Ambassador's residence in Washington. She looks forward to the day when men stand with their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters to cast votes and serve in parliament.
Women who have not yet won these rights are watching. They are calling on the conscience of their countrymen, making it clear that if the right to vote is to have any meaning, it cannot be limited only to men.
In my country, women didn't secure the right to vote until more than a century after our nation's founding. But now we know that a nation can only achieve its best future and its brightest potential when all of its citizens, men and women, participate in the government and in decision-making.
I'm reminded of what Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, once told me. Vaclav Havel -- playwright, intellectual, freedom fighter, political prisoner, then President of the Czech Republic -- said to me, "Laura, you know, democracy is hard because it requires the participation of all the people."
All people -- men and women -- want to contribute to the success of their country. And all people -- men and women -- must have the opportunity to do so. The question that faces emerging democracies is how to foster participation by all citizens. This morning, I'll discuss two key ways.
First, education helps freedom thrive. Citizens who are educated can choose for themselves, make up their own minds, and assume their responsibilities as citizens. And second, we must ensure that women acquire the political and economic access to become full participants in society. I'm inspired by the words of Farahnaz Nazir, founder of the Afghanistan Women's Association. She said, "Society is like a bird. It has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken." Let me begin with education. As the information technology revolution sweeps around the world, education is becoming even more important to building free and prosperous societies. But the impact of education reaches much deeper.
Education can help children see beyond a world of hate and hopelessness to one of unlimited opportunity. Education helps free the mind from ignorance and bigotry. Education unleashes the creative contributions of every citizen, to improve their own lives and to build the common good. Education benefits all, and education should be available to all.
In the United States, we make schools a national priority. We educate boys and girls, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of all different faiths, children of different races and cultures -- all children, whether their families are wealthy or poor. Yet in many parts of the world, school is a luxury, unavailable to many children or only offered to a select few. And too often, girls are kept from school by custom, lack of resources and oppression.
The result is that far too many people cannot read and cannot seize the opportunities that come with education. According to UNESCO -- the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- 800 million people worldwide cannot read or write. Two-thirds of them are women, and, of course, many are mothers. Across the broader Middle East and North Africa, more than 75 million women and more than 45 million men are illiterate.
These collective numbers are staggering, but we must remember that there is a human life behind each one -- a person whose opportunity and options are limited because he or she doesn't have basic skills. Each of these lives matter greatly to us, and each matters.
As the Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Decade of Literacy, I'm asking all nations to help people acquire literacy skills. A mother's ability to read and write is especially important. Our mothers are our first teachers, and children's success is linked closely to theirs. Children who are read to from a very early age are more likely to begin reading early themselves. They're more likely to excel in school, to graduate from secondary school, and to go to a university. They're more likely to love learning and to value education.
President Bush and I believe that education is vital to every mother and every child. The United States is working with our G8 partners and with regional ministers to broaden literacy, to expand education -- especially for women and girls -- and to promote training that will prepare people for the 21st century workplace. Ministers have set a goal of helping 20 million people gain literacy skills by 2015. In a few days, they'll meet here in Jordan to discuss their progress and to see how we can move closer to achieving the goal.
His Majesty the King has demonstrated his commitment to education. His nation's literacy rate has reached 90 percent. Jordan is working to reach gender parity in the schools. Through innovative partnerships with Jordanian and American technology firms, Jordan is ensuring that all children will have the skills they need to be part of the IT revolution and to find jobs in the marketplace.
The United States is pleased to support Jordan's effort to expand early education by making kindergarten programs available to all children in public school. Together, we're working to rehabilitate more than 120 classrooms so that children in some of the most remote and poorest parts of Jordan can attend kindergarten. And we're helping to train teachers with the most effective methods.
Through President Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative, we're working with partners in Jordan, Lebanon, and Bahrain to distribute translated children's books to elementary schools. This year, we'll be providing more than two million books to children across the region. The goal of this program, called "My Arabic Library," is to put books in the classrooms, and to encourage school principals, teachers, parents and community leaders to emphasize the importance of early read! ing.
Books designed to help children read can also help mothers improve their own reading skills. When we work with children and mothers in literacy programs, we can help two generations at once.
We also recognize that young people who have English-language skills, in addition to Arabic, have more opportunities to find work and to improve their lives. This year, the United States will greatly expand its English language scholarship program to reach more than 13,000 young people.
Jordanian publisher Dina Zorba understands the benefits of literacy. Dina has started four magazines highlighting issues important to youth and women. One of her magazines, "Sharqiyat," was one of Jordan's first publications to tackle difficult issues, such as violence against women.
As freedom becomes a fact of life for rising generations in the Middle East, young people need to grow up with a full understanding of freedom's rights and responsibilities: The right to discuss any issue in the public sphere, and the responsibility to respect other people and their opinions. People who can read a magazine or a newspaper or a textbook can gain the knowledge and skills to help shape their countries, and their own futures.
Every person should have the ability to read -- and even more than that, the freedom to read what they wish, to form their own opinions, and to speak their minds without fear.
Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women. And human rights are empty promises without human liberty.
In the last few years, women have made extraordinary progress in the broader Middle East, especially in Afghanistan. We must never forget -- and we must always repudiate -- the cruel and inhumane treatment of women by the Taliban that left Afghan women suffering in silence. By refusing to allow girls to go to school and by forbidding women to work and support themselves and their families, the Taliban were trying to prevent women from participation in life. That is a terrible injustice, and it's unacceptable in any society.
Today, Afghan women are relishing their new freedom. More than two million little girls are back in school. Women are heading back to the classrooms themselves, and as teachers. And with new business training, Afghan women are turning ancient crafts like rug-making into income-producing ventures.
Afghan women are also participating in political life. Eight million people voted in Afghanistan in the October elections, and forty percent of them were women.
The new Afghan constitution is one of the most progressive documents on women's rights in the Muslim world. Women now serve as government ministers. And for the first time ever, a woman was appointed a provincial governor.
People in other countries are also exercising their rights. In January, Iraqi citizens overcame intimidation and hardship to cast their votes. A recent college graduate from Baghdad described the debates about voting in her household.
The young woman had four sisters and their father wanted them to stay home because he thought it was too dangerous. But all five sisters insisted on going to the polls, and they took their father with them.
In Morocco, courageous women called for changes to the century-old Family Code, the Moudawana, to ensure that women have equal legal rights in marriage and other family matters. More than one million Moroccans petitioned their government to reform the Family Code.
Today, through the leadership of King Mohammed VI, the new law is in place. And it demonstrates to the world that Islamic values are consistent with the universal rights -- principles of human rights.
Americans are inspired by the courage and the determination of women throughout the Middle East, and we want to be partners in helping them move forward. Next week, more than 200 women from 17 Middle Eastern and North African countries will come together in Tunis for a Business Women's Summit. The Summit will provide leadership training and give women a global business network that can help them start and expand businesses.
We hope this will result in many more women becoming successful entrepreneurs, women like Muna Hamdan.
Fifteen years ago, Muna started her business by selling homemade pickles and jams at a vegetable market. Now she's expanded into real estate, and she helped her sons start their own business. Muna was helped by loans from the Jordan Micro Credit Company, which is funded by the USAID. But she did the hard work herself.
Muna was given the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2002. She is a wonderful example of how the partnership between America and Jordan can directly benefit people's lives, not only by extending credit, but also by spreading the spirit of entrepreneurship that allows people to build better lives for themselves and for their families.
Our challenge is to help more women gain the confidence and the credit to start their own businesses. When women have the resources to participate in the markets, they can make wise decisions for themselves and their families, and they can contribute to civil society.
Many of you are actively involved in these and other partnerships and I appreciate your leadership. The United States will continue to support education and freedom for all people in all countries. As President Bush said in his inaugural address in January, "Our goal is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedoms, and make their own way."
We believe that the world is witnessing a new era of expanding liberty and growing opportunity for women and men worldwide. And they are discovering a great truth: Life is improved by liberty. The spread of democracy encourages the values of democracy: respect for human life, love of peace, the freedom to worship as you choose, and tolerance for others.
The pace of this improvement will vary from country to country. But we see hopeful signs in many places. And we believe that one day, every family will know the dignity of freedom.
Thank you very much for your commitment to improving lives in the Middle East and around the world. And thank you for inviting me here today.
Released on May 21, 2005