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Empowering Women To Change Their Lives and Their World

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Remarks at Women's Conference Sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch
Salt Lake City, Utah
October 12, 2007

Thank you, Senator Hatch, for that kind introduction. I’m a long-time admirer of your service, your integrity and leadership on the judiciary committee

I’m honored to be part of this gathering of impressive women.

Senator Hatch asked me to share some personal perspective of what it’s like to be a woman working at the highest levels of our government. In my view, one of the most overlooked contributions of President Bush’s Administration has been the advancement of women at senior levels of government.

When I worked at the White House, 8 out of 18 participants at our most senior morning staff meetings were women. They included Condi Rice, overseeing America’s foreign policy, and the person responsible for domestic policy during my time at the White House was Margaret Spellings, so I always said that in the Bush White House, women were in charge of everything abroad and everything at home–and that sounds just about right to me.

Currently, Condi is now the Secretary of State, Margaret Spellings is the Secretary of Education. The Secretaries of Labor and Transportation are women and so are the president’s adviser on Homeland Security and the U.S. Trade Representative. So women are in positions of great influence, led by our gracious First Lady, Laura Bush, who has traveled from Afghanistan to Nigeria to support literacy, AIDS prevention, and girls’ education. She has been an outspoken champion for bringing democracy and freedom to the long-suffering people of Burma–and this month she is traveling to the Middle East to support our breast cancer initiative there.

As I have traveled to more than 40 countries to listen to concerns and reach out to people, I have witnessed first-hand that it is increasingly the women of the world who are agents of change, arbiters of peace and reconciliation, and advocates of education and health. Today I’d like to talk a little about the challenges these women–and all of us–face to juggle our work and family lives.

I’ll start by telling you a little of my own story–growing up, I never dreamed that I would one day work at the White House or now the State Department, representing our country around the world. My dad was a career Army officer, so my mom had a full-time job staying home and taking care of us.

When I went to college, knew I was good at two things–arguing and asking a lot of questions, so my mom thought sure I was going to be a lawyer. I always loved to read and write, so in college I majored in English, then on a whim took a journalism class and found a great outlet for my curiosity. Then I took a radio/TV news writing class and fell in love with the art of marrying pictures and words in a way that communicated more effectively together than either could alone. I convinced the teacher to let me do an internship at the TV station where he was news director–I spent all my time there and before graduating he hired me. So I started my career as a reporter and I found myself gravitating toward political stories because I realized what a difference the decisions being made in the political process had on people’s lives–everything from the taxes they paid to the hours parks were open to what was taught in their children’s schools. Many journalists become cynical over time, but I had the opposite experience

The first thing you’ll notice about those 30 years is I’ve had a checkered career–I’ve moved around a lot. The best way to sum it up: I have never yet vested in a retirement plan at any place I have ever worked–your financial advisor would probably not recommend that, but I wouldn’t trade it.

I’ve always done what I’m passionate about at the time. When people ask my advice I’d say, follow your passions in keeping with your priorities. I hope my own career says that you can have a career and a family and meet your responsibilities to both–you’ll have to make choices along the way, but you don’t have to choose one or the other. That doesn’t mean it’s easy–it’s frequently not–or that I’m especially good at it; I remember being at church one Sunday morning–I’d been gone most of the week on a trip–and my granddaughter saw me. She said, "KK, where have you been?" I told her, "In California, traveling with president." "Oh," she said, "If you love your family how come you leave us so much?"

We’ve all been there haven’t we? If you love your family, why are you working so late, why did you miss the recital or ball game?

Those we love never think we spend enough time with them. I once headlined a charity event and they sent out an invitation called it "An Evening with Karen Hughes," and my husband looked at it, and said, "I’d like an evening with Karen Hughes."

We all face a tug of war to be faithful in our different roles–as spouse, parent, daughter, sister…Life is a series of conflicting demands and we make choices–biggest challenge is to make sure those choices are based on our real priorities.

We all have to decide what is true and lasting and important to us and use that to ground our decisions. St. Augustine used a beautiful phrase, ordo amorum, the order of the loves–the most important thing we all do in life is choose our loves and order them very, very carefully.

We frequently act–and work–as if fame or power or money and all the stuff we collect are our true loves–yet most of us, if we drag ourselves away from long lists of what keep us busy rather than what’s most important, would say what matters most are faith and family, the people that we love.

That’s what led me to leave the White House in 2002 and move home to Texas. As you might imagine it was a difficult, gut-wrenching decision. I had seen first-hand the difficulty of the President’s job, I didn’t want to do anything to make it even one iota harder, yet I was finding working in the White House conflicted in some basic ways with having time to be a good wife and mother, with having my son spend his high school years in the place where I thought he would best succeed and thrive.

I ultimately concluded I could do a better job advising the President from Texas than I could serving my family in Washington. I am glad to report going home was the absolutely right decision. I remember spending long hours with my son, teaching him how to drive, realizing I would have never had the opportunity to do that had I stayed in Washington.

I did travel with the President during the final months of his re-election campaign in 2004, as I had promised him I would do, and after he was re-elected, he and Secretary Rice noticed that my son was going off to college... Some arm-twisting led me back to Washington. Again, accepting this job was an intersection of passion and priorities.

A number of people told me pretty frankly this job was "Mission Impossible" –to take on America’s public diplomacy at a time of war and rising anti-Americanism, with misinformation, propaganda, and vitriolic criticism being directed against us on everything from the internet to satellite television. We are in the early years of what will be a long ideological struggle against violent extremists who are willing to murder innocents and engage in horrific acts of terror to pursue their political agenda.

I remember talking with my family and my son said, "You have to do it, Mom." I was surprised–why? He said, "First, you really care about it. Second, it’s really important for my generation."

I believe it is vitally important for the next generation that America reach out in a spirit of friendship and respect to people of different countries, cultures and faiths.

We face a big challenge. I started tackling it the only way I know how–assembled a strong team and set some clear goals. We are guided by three strategic imperatives.

First, America must offer the world a positive vision of hope and opportunity that is rooted in our values – our belief in freedom and justice, in the dignity and worth of every single person. I saw an interview with a young man in Morocco who said, "For me, America represents the hope of a better life." I believe we should always offer that hope.

Second, we must work to isolate and marginalize the extremists, make it clear that they do not represent any faith, but pervert all faiths with the acts of murderous terror.

Third, we must work to foster a sense of common interests and common values –between Americans and people of different countries, cultures and faiths – sounds simple, but came from a beloved former Ambassador, Frank Wisner, who told me that especially at a time of war and threat, we must actively work to nurture common interests, emphasize what we have in common as human beings, not what divides us.

In my 2 years at State, I have traveled to more than 40 countries, from Egypt to the Philippines, from China to Chile. I’m more and more convinced that as we work to advance freedom, opportunity, education, health for people across the world, and as we work to undermine an ideology of hate and terror, the women of the world–mothers, sisters, wives, daughters–are absolutely vital to our success.

All the statistics show when you educate and empower women, you improve and strengthen almost every other aspect of a society women share. When you educate a woman, she teaches her family. Give a woman a micro-grant so she can start a small business, and she will buy shoes, milk, and books for her children and hire her neighbors as her business grows.

One of the best investments in the world is sending girls to school. Giving a 13-year-old girl 5 more years of school can reduce the mortality rate of her children by 40%. Educated women are also three times more able to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS. And literate women can read about their government, faith, and political issues and decide for themselves, rather than have someone else try to dictate what they should believe.

I’m inspired by women I’ve met. Last year, Secretary Rice and I attended the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet, the new President of Chile. She is the daughter of a Chilean general who was imprisoned after a coup overthrew the government he served. He was tortured and died in prison; she and her mother were also imprisoned. "Violence entered my life," she said, "destroying what I loved. Because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turning that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, into love."

Her example–one woman’s ability to overcome hate and violence with hope and love–is exactly what the world needs more of right now: women arbiters of peace and reconciliation. I’ll never forget looking up into the balcony after she took the oath of office and seeing so many little girls whose parents had brought them to witness important day in history of country.

In Kuwait, a brave woman named Roula al-Dashti spoke out to the men leading her country with a compelling message: "Half a democracy is not a democracy." She challenged the status quo, recruited student leaders from Kuwait University to join her cause, and helped women gain the right to vote and run for office in Kuwait. Today, she is leading an even larger effort to train women to run for office in the 2010 elections.

In Liberia, once known as "among the worst places to be a woman on earth" –a place where a quarter of a million people lost their lives in years of civil war, as torture and rape took place on a massive scale, a remarkable woman, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is now the President --- and she and other courageous women have begun the task of healing their troubled country. The United Nations now has its first all-female peacekeeping force in Liberia, made up of 105 Indian policewomen. So yes, women truly are the peacemakers the world needs.

I recently attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York and was glad to see they needed a bigger room this year to assemble the international women leaders, including the president of the Philippines, foreign ministers, cabinet members, ambassadors. Today women serve as foreign ministers in 27 countries. The conversation at breakfast was how to improve education and health, how to crack down on sex trafficking, and improve representation of women in parliaments and at the UN. As the foreign minister of Hungary remarked to me, women may have equal rights in many countries, but we are still working on equal opportunities.

As you know, there is no shortage of challenges for women around the world. But as I looked around at that group of women leaders at the UN–and at this group of women gathered here in Salt Lake City–I am confident that women working together–and working with men–will help create a more hopeful, helpful world.

We have progress to celebrate, yet the headlines also remind us that we have much more work to do. Rapes occur in some countries at a rate of one every 2 hours, and in too many societies women, rather than their attackers, still carry the burden of shame.

Sex trafficking, reinforced by globalization, is on the increase. In too many countries, including America, domestic violence is an awful fact of life for many women and children. In some nations, girls as young as 11 are married to much older men to settle debts. And there continue to be big disparities in educational opportunity in many countries where enrollment of boys far exceeds that of girls in school.

President Bush and America are trying to do our part by partnering with countries around the world to improve the status of women and children–through education, people-to-people exchanges and improved health care. We are helping nearly 2 million women in Africa protect their babies from HIV. We are providing basic health services to nearly 4 million women and children in Afghanistan, focusing especially on improving that country’s terrible rates of maternal and child mortality.

I’ll never forget meeting with women at a literacy program in Morocco–as they told me of their pride in being able to go to the market and post office, read for themselves, and for the first time, to be able to help their children with homework. In the broader Middle East, of the estimated 70 million people who are illiterate, two-thirds of them are female. Reading for those women is key to human development, peace, and progress in that part of the world.

We also are dramatically expanding our English language programs. I recently met with a group of young people in one of our English programs in Morocco and asked what difference learning English had made in their lives. One young man said, "I have a job and my friends don't." That young man came from the same neighborhood as the Casablanca suicide bombers, but he now has a job and hope–a reason to live rather than to kill himself and others in a suicide bombing. This summer we provided English training to 6,000 young people in a new summer youth enrichment program for 8-to-14-year-olds. Many of them met an American for the first time and it changed their view of our country.

President Bush has made education a key priority. In Africa we are providing teacher training for 920,000 teachers in 20 countries, and we are providing scholarships for more than a half million girls to enroll in school.

In Afghanistan, American support is making it possible for more than 5 million children–more than at anytime in history–to attend school. More than a third of them are girls.

I have visited Afghanistan several times, first not long after the fall of the Taliban when desperation gripped the country. A year later, when I returned, the biggest difference I noticed was the light in the eyes of the women. I couldn’t help but think how far they have come. One told me about campaigning for Parliament, walking from village to village, going places that a woman would usually never go alone and going to meetings women had never before attended. I was awed by her bravery and the power of her example. I’ve also met brave women in Iraq who are determined to overcome the violence and create a better future for their country.

We are living in an incredible time. It has been called a "hinge moment" in history, one of those rare moments in time where events can tip forward or backward and change the course of human events. Together, we must confront an ideology of hate that advocates the indiscriminate murder of all those who disagree, we must address the conditions that extremists can exploit, from poverty to illiteracy, from the lack of political freedom to religious intolerance. We must work for greater understanding and respect for different faiths, different countries and cultures. Here again, women–and what they teach their children–can be a powerful prescription for peace.

We have seen the tragic consequences when the voices of women are silenced. We’ve seen the type of society the extremists envision. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, little girls were not allowed to go to school and women weren’t allowed to work to support themselves, even if their husbands had been killed. Music was banned, books were burned, cultural icons were destroyed, and an entire society was being suffocated from the inside out. I’ll never forget visiting a reading program in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and meeting a young girl who said she hoped to write a book someday. I told her I would put something on her behalf in mine. She told me, "Women should be free to go to school and work and chose their own husbands." She was 13 years old. As I was leaving, the translator came after me. "She wants to tell you something else. Please don’t forget them. Please help them live in freedom."

The eyes of that young girl followed me home and still follow me today. A large part of my work is to help her and others like her live in freedom. As I have talked to women around the world about their hopes and dreams, I’m convinced that most of us essentially want the same things: to be respected for what we think and do, to lead meaningful lives and use our gifts. We want our children to receive a good education and have a chance at a better life. We want to worship as our conscience dictates. We want to do our part to make our communities better and our countries safer. We must build on these common values, so that the next generation will inherit a safer, stronger and better world, not a more divided and dangerous one.

I challenge each of you here today to ask yourself what you might do to help. How can you make these matters your matters? Across the world, I’ve met women caring for those with AIDS, teaching English, helping plant crops, mentoring women in good business practices, building schools.

This month, the State Department is hosting our third mentoring partnership with Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, which links top American executives like Anne Mulcahy at Xerox and Andrea Jung at Avon, with women from around the world in a 3-week mentoring program. One of the participants, a small businesswoman from Kenya, said, "I came myself, but I brought my village with me."

That’s the kind of ripple effect that you can havewhen you help one woman, you can reach a village. Each of you,  every time you travel abroad or welcome a foreign visitor into your home, can be an ambassador for America. All our research shows bringing young people hereletting them experience America for themselvesimproves understanding, forging lifelong bonds and more positive views of our country. We are working as hard as we can to increase such exchange programs, but we need more host families. If you are interested, Senator Hatch’s office can get in touch with us.

Each of you here today has the power to make a difference. Together we have the opportunity to imagine a different and better world, a safer world for the next generationand I hope you will not only see this potential, but seize it and help bring it about.


Released on October 16, 2007

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