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Women as Agents of Change Around the World

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Remarks to Women Leaders
Georgetown University, Washington, DC
May 24, 2007

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Good morning. Thank you so much, President DeGioia. Thanks to Georgetown University for hosting us here. What a fabulous setting. We did a pretty -- as they say in Texas, a pretty high cotton in the last couple days -- (laughter). This is just spectacular.

So welcome again to each one of you who have traveled so far to be here and thank you to all of our American businesswomen who--for your time and contributing your talent to this great program. I want to thank Georgetown for being such a wonderful partner to the State Department. Whenever we need a host for an event like this, Georgetown is always more than willing to step up and help and we really, really appreciate your partnership. I was here last year for the peace conference and it was a wonderful conference.

And I did visit your beautiful campus in Doha and I'm very excited about that because what we were--I was just talking with the dean about furthering educational linkages between America and the Middle East and the great potential and opportunity that we have to do that and I think the campus in Doha will be a wonderful platform for exactly that type of engagement.

I want to thank Bonnie and her team. They're terrific. They're, once again, a wonderful partner in hosting this great conference. You know, we've had the opportunity--I was thinking yesterday at the White House, as the First Lady so generously gave us all her time to stand there and take pictures with each of the women that--

She had the opportunity to have lunch with Queen Rania and then afternoon tea with First Lady Laura Bush and two women whose inner beauty is truly as radiant as their outer beauty and what a privilege we've had to have an opportunity to meet with both of them.

You know, I had mentioned yesterday that when we met in Jordan, we had that wonderful evening of dancing by the Dead Sea. And I have to tell you I thought about each one of you a couple of weeks ago as we welcomed a group of Iranian artists here. And we have just reinstituted, for the first time since 1979, our people-to-people exchange programs with Iran. And we think that's very, very significant. We had a couple of programs and we brought young artists and they were so, so just incredibly enriched to have an opportunity to meet these artists and to view their work. They brought -- they're currently, I think, in Los Angeles. They've been on a tour. They started in Washington, they went to Santa Fe, I think they're in Los Angeles right now.

And we had the opportunity to talk with them. The show was entitled "Wishes And Dreams, Iran's New Generation Emerges." And I remember talking with one of the young women who had this very interesting canvas and this is what makes me think of you all. She specializes in paintings with Arabic calligraphy and so she had these sort of free-flowing letters and she says that for her, these letters are a dance of the alphabet. And I thought of that, that they tell a story on canvas in a very new and different way.

And I like to think that that's the spirit of this gathering, that as you all go back to your families and your jobs and your businesses, that you'll be like those letters in motion, letters with a new and different story to tell that can truly help change the way we all view each other and hopefully expand the way--and we view each other in a new way to celebrate the many things that we have in common and also to understand that I think that meetings like this would help us understand that our differences are something that enrich us. They should not divide us; they should enrich us. There's something to celebrate and to learn from each other and that's certainly the spirit of this gathering and I know what we've had an opportunity to do.

Each one of us, as I said to you yesterday, can be an agent of change, an advocate for health and education and economic opportunity, and an arbiter of peace and reconciliation. And I know that's what each of you are committed to in your own communities. Every woman in this room is a doer. You're all very successful in your own careers or you wouldn't be here. But the sessions that we started in Jordan and are continuing here are not just for you. They're intended to be shared, to grow and to expand and to touch many other lives.

And one of the things that struck me when I started this job and I talked to President and Mrs. Bush, they talked to me about the need to work to empower women around the world. Because all of the United Nations, all of the World Bank studies show that when you educate and empower women, you improve every single other aspect of a society. Women share. And when you educate a woman, she's going to do what she--about health or nutrition, she shares that information with her children to improve her family's health. As the great Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim said, "When you educate a woman, you create a nation." That's such a beautiful thought. I love that: "When you educate a woman, you create a nation."

When you give a woman a microloan, many of you probably--may have started that way, you'll--she'll start earning money and she'll spend the income to improve her children's lives and then as her business grows, she hires her neighbors. And so women share and this conference is an opportunity for us to share. We're looking forward to hearing many of your stories. The last time we met, Melody told us about her job selling wigs at Sears. (Laughter.) I remember thinking, you know, she didn't seem real thrilled about the prospect until she realized she wasn't really selling wigs; she was selling a dream. You know, "You, too, can be a redhead for dinner tonight." (Laughter.)

And each of the women here has had a dream and you've pursued it, you've become--whether a graphic designer or a corporate communicator or a printer or a cosmetic company owner or a doctor. And one of the real beauties of this meeting is--of these meetings is learning your different stories. I saw in a profile Randa Abdou, how she became an entrepreneur. Her business skills were actually acquired at a very young age because she loved to read and she wanted to read two books a day. So she would buy one in the morning and she would read it and then she sold it so she could buy another one in the afternoon. Now that's a young entrepreneur. That was the beginning of her founding of the Marketing Mix consultancy in Egypt.

The other story that struck me was one summer, she asked her parents for a motorcycle as transportation around a place where they were vacationing and her parents thought, well, they wanted to teach her a lesson that nothing comes easy. So they bought her a far different means of transportation; not a motorcycle, but a donkey. (Laughter.) Not quite as glamorous, but Randa's entrepreneurial spirit showed up again because she used the donkey, but when she wasn't using it, she rented it out to earn income and then started a business at a very young age. So each of you have similar stories to that. That's the kind of spirit that brought you here, making the most of every opportunity, even if it's a donkey, and that's the kind of spirit that will inspire and encourage other women. Your examples will have a ripple effect that you may not anticipate.

One of the women here, May Mamarbachi--is May here? Where's May? There's May right there in the back of the room. She has helped spark a revitalization of the hotel business in Damascus. She became a trendsetter. She restored a 17th century home and transformed it into a luxury boutique hotel with a beautiful fountain courtyard and orange trees and marble mosaics. May started out by studying Islamic art in preparation for a second career and she renovated a house as part of her Ph.D. program at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.

And she saw a need and she met it; she realized there were already a lot of restaurants in that area, but she saw a need for a hotel. And so she put in eight guest rooms with modern air conditioning and plumbing and she had to overcome a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of paperwork, but she kept at it because she said she "was determined to leave something in Syria for the generation to come". And as a result, she is leaving not only her own hotel, but her example has prompted a host of others to step in and to restore some of the beautiful historic homes in the old city, preserving history and creating new jobs. So May, that's a wonderful, wonderful example of how -- the ripple effect that all of our actions can have.

We made a wonderful beginning in Jordan and now, we have to take it to a new level. I shared with you yesterday at the White House how President Bush has really taken a lead in empowering women at senior levels of government. We have more women in senior levels of government than we ever had in the history of our country. And women are making gains in the business world as well. Women are now CEOs of global companies like PepsiCo and Ebay, Sara Lee, Xerox, Time Incorporated. In England, a woman is CEO of the London Stock Exchange. In Spain, a woman is head of one of the world's top 10 banks. We've had a woman serve as commander of the space shuttle and just last September, Anousheh Ansari became the first female private space explorer.

So those are great successes that we have the opportunity to celebrate, but as you know, we also have a great deal of work to do to provide more opportunities for women. Of the 781 million adults in the world who cannot read even a simple books, more than two-thirds are women. Literacy rates for women in the Arab world are only about 50 percent and educational opportunities for girls are not equal to those of boys in many, many countries in the world. As a result, women's unemployment in the Arab world, as you all know, as our guests here know, is nearly double that of men.

And women, many of you still face hurdles getting access to capital, financial services, and land. I was talking yesterday with one of you who shared that she was trying to do a business deal with a company and she ended up not being able to do it because there was not a man to sign the contract, that she decided she just wouldn't be a part of that because she was the owner of the company and she was the one to sign the contract. And since there wasn't a man, she just wouldn't do the business deal. So we have a lot of work to do.

Women are essential in addressing these problems and I believe women are also essential in establishing a climate for peace and for leading the way to reconciliation and healing where it is needed. One of the truly inspiring things that I have been able to do in my service as Under Secretary, I traveled with Secretary Condoleezza Rice to Chile for the inaugural of Michelle Bachelet, the new woman president there. And she is a woman who has overcome a lot in her life. Her father was imprisoned after a coup. He was a military general who was imprisoned after a coup overthrew the government he served. And he was tortured and later died in prison. And she and her mother were imprisoned for a brief period of time.

But instead of reacting with hate, she said--what she said was so beautiful. She said, "Violence entered my life, but as a result, I became determined to overcoming that with peace and with hope and with love". And so her example--I mean, one woman's effort to overcome the bad that she had seen in her own life with hope and healing is, I think, a great inspiration for what all of us can do. I mean, women are empowered, families benefit, communities benefit, and countries and the world can change.

Last week, I had the privilege of meeting with Muhammad Yunus, the founder of microfinance in Bangladesh, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who has helped lift millions of women out of poverty with his microloans. He talked about how women's empowerment is truly changing the culture of his country and he was so passionate about it. In fact, he's--girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools there, he--they're forming new kinds of businesses, what he calls social businesses that are created not for a profit, but to address a need. For example, they have a new business, a partnership that provides yogurt to schoolchildren. And so there are a lot of ways that you can use your business skills to help improve your societies, to do good; not just make money, but to help solve problems.

A day later, I met with representatives of the Microsoft Foundation, which is doing so much good work around the world, and I talked with them as I try to talk with everybody about how can we offer the young people growing up in our countries a vision of hope; how can we offer them a positive vision that teaches them to choose to live rather than to choose to die, to choose to live and become productive citizens and to make a difference in the world rather than to engage in suicide bombing.

And the Microsoft gentleman told me that they're thinking about a program called "Learn, Yearn, Earn," that as young people learn, they begin to yearn; they have aspirations and then they want to go out and achieve those aspirations and they begin to earn. And as they begin to earn, the cycle starts again because they realize they want to learn. And so I think that's a very beautiful concept and I'm looking forward to exploring that, I hope that--with Microsoft further.

I hope that you'll leave this meeting with a few good ideas that will help grow your business, but I also, most of all, hope that you will leave with a passion and a personal commitment to try to go out and help other women in some way as you go back to your countries, maybe through providing scholarships for young women or internships in your company or serving as a mentor yourself to other emerging women business leaders in your country. You might join with friends to create a venture capital fund to help other women became entrepreneurs. The beauty is you get to decide and I'm confident that each of you will decide to make a difference because you've already done that by agreeing to be here and to take your time and to join us here today.

I'm confident that as you go back to your homes, as we conclude this conference, that you will indeed go out and make a huge difference in your country and in our world and that you, like those letters on that canvas that I saw, will continue to dance across the world. So thank you all so much.



Released on June 8, 2007

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