|July 2, 2007|
July 2, 2007
Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for Women's Empowerment
Sean McCormack, Department Spokesman
QUESTION: Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, welcome, senior -- you're the senior advisor to the Secretary of State for women's empowerment. Thanks very much for --
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thanks for joining us.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Delighted to be here.
QUESTION: First of all, why don't we start off by talking a little bit about your job. What is your mandate? What is it exactly that you do for the Secretary?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: That's a wonderful question. Thank you for asking that. Actually, we are the Secretary's flag on an issue that she considers to be of importance and that is the empowerment of women for the reasons that she's talked about, that it's 50 percent of the world's population. And you cannot have security, stability, and development, all of which the United States spends time and energy on, without including the women.
QUESTION: Now this is designed to be overseas or inward-looking? This is --
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: It's overseas and it basically reaches out across all of the regional areas. But it also involves partnerships with audiences, with concerned citizens, with nongovernmental organizations, and institutions within the United States. Because we find that in working together, particularly on projects with women on empowerment issues, there's a very strong support system within the United States.
For example, just recently, with the help of four women presidents of business organizations, we did an entrepreneurship training program at Dar Al-Hekma College in Saudi Arabia which exposed the business -- presidents to the Muslim -- some of the Muslim world and the issues relating to women. But it also provided for women in this very good college in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia their first exposure to how do you start a business, what are some of the issues, what do you need to do, what do you need to study. So we draw on the assets of the United States in this partnership which makes it, I think, a much more productive and an exciting one.
QUESTION: Right. Well, that's a pretty broad mandate that you have. Talk a little bit about the recent events that the Secretary has participated in. I know there was one in Vienna, there was a women's empowerment conference, and then prior to that, just this past fall, there was one up in New York at the General Assembly.
What are the things that you talked about? Because we weren't inside the room; put us inside the room. What's the discussion like around the table?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: The --
QUESTION: And start -- also, tell us who was -- give us a feel for who was around the table.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Let me start with the New York meeting of last September, because it led to the Vienna meeting. So as a backdrop, the Secretary chaired a meeting of foreign ministers and at least one head of state, Ellen -- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia in New York. The foreign ministers of -- they're not -- some 25 women foreign ministers, which is not a huge number compared to the 191 members of the United Nations, but only a few years ago, there were only five. So we take great pride in this sort of forward movement and there are five heads of state.
And the Secretary invited 18 of them and President Johnson Sirleaf to a working group meeting which looked at partnerships within the international community, particularly where women leaders are in positions of responsibility along four general themes. One, political participation, which obviously is very important. As the Secretary says, half a democracy is not a democracy, a quote that a Kuwaiti woman cited to her.
Secondly, the economic empowerment, because statistics show universally that the empowerment of women economically changes all other equations for them within their family, within their community, and within society. And it also makes sense because if you want to get ahead, every state has to have some possibilities for 50 percent of their population.
And the third issue is education, without which nothing else can happen. And finally, what we sort of put together in -- for that group as the women in justice issues, honor killings -- so-called honor killings, human rights issues, trafficking issues. Trafficking is now a $7 billion a year enterprise. It's an issue that President Bush took to the UN in 2004 and found great resonance amongst other leaders. And I think that that effort has really moved forward even though there's a lot to do yet, so those kinds of issues.
And they looked at how might they specifically work together along these four themes. The Vienna meeting which was offered at the September venue included some of the same players, the Secretary's steering group, because this is an effort that Secretary Rice has launched, which has six foreign ministers and it has the current president of the UN General Assembly who is from Bahrain, and the minister of women and development for Pakistan, a key country in terms of put -- the need for change and at least a commitment on part of a leadership for change.
The Vienna meeting focused on networking for peace and security in the Middle East, so the Austrian host invited, for the roundtable that followed the Syrian group meeting, some of the luminaries of the Middle East. You had participants from Jordan, from Egypt. You had the foreign minister of Israel who, for the first time that anybody can remember, sat around the table with a group of countries from the Muslim world that do not have official relations with Israel.
QUESTION: I think she was sitting next to the wife of the President of Iraq, wasn't she?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Yes. She was sitting next to the President of Iraq on one side and she had Hanan Ashrawi there, the minister from Pakistan, ministers from Morocco, Tunisia. It was quite extraordinary. And as she said at the end, you know, we have now got -- she said she's leaving the meeting with eleven new friends she's made and the conversation was very productive.
It focused, in addition to the Middle East, on the need for the appointment of senior women in positions as special representatives of the Secretary General of the UN because the Secretary General's special representatives are the primary officials who work on his behalf in areas of conflict. And as you know, from Darfur to Cote d'Ivoire to the Congo to Haiti, women are the most vulnerable of the population. And the fact that there are zero women representatives out of a total 54 is not, as the group said, acceptable.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: So there's going to be some follow-on action with the Secretary General. We hope that he will correct this huge imbalance. The next meeting which we hope will occur is chaired by Secretary Rice in New York again, the UN General Assembly will focus on a couple of the other parts of that four strand that I mentioned earlier.
QUESTION: Right. Let me ask you about one issue in particular that has been in the news recently, meaning the springtime in 2007. That is the issue of honor killings. How does that conversation go with women from the Middle East, women from predominantly Islamic countries where either socially or culturally or in some other way, this is the norm, that it is an accepted practice? And it is so foreign to us in the West that this could be tolerated. How do you start that conversation? What is -- what's the response?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: It's -- as you can imagine, Sean, it's a painful conversation because the women who sit around that table are aware that this is a practice that is very injurious to the state, not to mention the individuals involved, and it also gives their countries a very bad name. So at the top, if possible, some of the countries have already focused on how they might change it. It's a complicated issue because this is considered by the perpetrators to be "a private issue", but we know it is not.
The people around the table where these conversations take place know that the United States has solidly spoken for human rights. It has spoken for doing right by the women and for dealing with these issues. And sometimes when the leaders -- when it's raised to that level, it can begin to make an impact. For example, this is an issue that has been part of our conversation with the Government of Pakistan where one hears, you know, the Muqtada (inaudible) case and some of the other cases, it's not the only country where it happens, but it is one of the major Muslim countries.
And only last November, the process of trying to deal with the legislative end of it began to happen. The protection of women's bill, which was brought in by the government, passed through parliament and it began to make the shift away from the tradition where cases that dealt with honor -- so-called honor killings, but even where the men were the brothers or the fathers, whoever, were caught, they were referred to the sharia courts, to the Islamic courts, which then said, well, it's part of Islamic culture and -- you know, these people have done something terribly wrong, but you know, it was sort of -- just sort of response.
The bill begins to do at least one thing, that it moves such issues out of the sharia courts and refers them back to the regular civil courts and criminal courts, which alone won't change everything. But at least it will make -- cause some to pause to say, well, you know, there'll be some responsibility, there'll be some punishment. And in addition to that, a huge educational sort of mindset changing effort is starting, but there's a long way to go and it's a painful conversation.
But the good thing is unlike previous times, now we don't sweep it under the carpet. Even in relationships which are important, where we realize state-to-state bilateral relations are key, the United States Government raises these issues all the way to the top.
QUESTION: Let me ask you quickly about another issue dealing with girls' education. How are we doing at promoting girls' education around the world, not just in the Middle East but around the world because I know this is something the Secretary believes in very strongly --
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Right.
QUESTION: -- about giving every person an opportunity to have an education and to realize their full potential. So how do you see where we are now and what needs to be done?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: You know, the Secretary's leadership on education, and as she talks about her own experiences and, you know, people she's seen whose lives have been changed through opportunity and access to education, I think resonates incredibly and we, of course, draw on it. We draw on it in a number of ways, firstly in lobbying within our own system for more funding because at the end of the day, everybody wants education. All governments say, of course we want to have education, but we don't have the capacity to do it.
So through various scholarship programs, but also through making it a very important part of our economic funding for countries, it has become a priority. It's such a huge problem that the United States obviously cannot change this overnight, but we've done it in two ways. One, to get governments themselves to say, okay, declining revenues within their own budgets for girls' education is not the way to go and secondly, and by making educational funding part of our overall funding. And I think that that has helped also draw in the private/public partnerships.
I saw a figure last week that said 60 percent of money spent overseas from the United States, including the U.S. Government, 40 percent comes from the government, 60 percent from private sources. If that's the case, then there are two areas it seems that that has the most impact and I think it's beginning to happen. One, of course, is in the health issues and the second, with again a huge potential for improvement, is education.
There are countries all over the world where girls' education has really been declining not just in the Muslim world. In fact, we've been focused on the Muslim world, we've got them to do a little bit more in terms of education. But for example, the Pacific Island states you find have really not nurtured women -- girls' education at all and some of our efforts to you know, the Bureau for -- the Asian Affairs Bureau has been now looking at the small Pacific Island states where it doesn't take much proportionately in terms of resources, but the payoff can be large and it's a global cry, actually.
And it's interesting -- the small island states or the large countries of the Arab world, they all look to the U.S. for leadership on this issue. And you know, the First Lady's efforts and highlighting the needs, she had a summit in New York last September that talked about the imperatives of education, brought in leaders from essentially all of the key countries to make a pledge that they will continue in their own discussions and debate to put in resources and political clout behind it.
So it's a small series of steps, but I think they are making institutional changes.
QUESTION: Okay, one quick last question for you. We've been outward looking. Let me turn inward looking a little bit. The State Department is an institution that has a reputation of being very conservative -- conservative in the sense that it doesn't like change and it has a reputation also of being male dominated. What is it like for you to come into the State Department and work so closely with the Secretary, be up there on the 7th floor in meetings with her? How do you find the environment and the culture here?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: It's a question that every now and again I think about, so it's sort of -- ways to sort of think it through with you. Actually, you know, I think the first time -- I was in the State Department briefly in '82 as a member of the policy planning staff and now I came back in 2005 and the change is huge.
But for me, the change with this Secretary of State, who embodies sort of opportunity and grace and, of course, is sort of the flag bearer for women's empowerment, is wonderful. Diplomacy is by and large still a male-dominated world. The world is basically a male-dominated world and, you know, it doesn't mean that we are still not -- somewhat unique in being in the senior positions at the State Department. But what's wonderful is that in many ways, I think what my experience with Secretary Rice has been that we basically crossed that barrier. And we make the inputs basically in terms of what we do and how we do it. So it's been, I think, a very, very positive experience.
The important thing to remember is that we are also responsible for those who come after us. And I think the Secretary's efforts on mentorship, on nurturing the talents and the very, very smart people who are in this building and who are female so they continue to make these kinds of inputs, that this not be the one-time phenomena is a responsibility that we all share, both the males and the females in this Department.
QUESTION: Great. Ambassador Tahir-Kheli, thank you very much for joining us.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Thank you.
QUESTION: It was a great conversation.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.