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 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > From the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Remarks by the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (2006)

Commemorating International Women's Day

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
United States Agency for International Development Reception
Washington, DC
March 8, 2006

Thank you, Ambassador Jordan, for that kind introduction and for your distinguished service to our country. Thank all of you who work for USAID. You are the people who deliver the heart and hope of America’s compassion. President Bush in his State of the Union address said, "For people everywhere, America is a partner for a better life" and we are grateful for your work in establishing and building these partnerships. I am honored to be here today – to be in the presence of so many inspiring women, to commemorate International Women’s Day and to recognize the many contributions women are making in government, civil society, business, education, journalism, the armed forces and in homes across our country and the world.

I am convinced that one of the sometimes overlooked, yet historically most enduring legacies of the Bush Administration will be the advancement and empowerment of women. President Bush has made empowering women a priority– through example, with record numbers of women on his own senior staff and Cabinet, and through his decisions and America’s actions across the world. When I worked at the White House, 8 of 18 participants at our morning senior staff meetings were women–in fact, during my time at the White House, both the National Security Advisor, overseeing all foreign policy, and the head of all domestic policy were both women, so I always said in the Bush Administration, women were in charge of everything abroad and everything at home and that seemed just about right to me. Now, of course, our Secretaries of State, Education, Labor, and the Interior are women–you might say women are still in charge of everything abroad and most things at home.

America is a leader in promoting women’s rights because we know that by investing in women, we are investing in a better, more hopeful and more peaceful world. When you educate women, they share that knowledge with their children, families and communities, so when you invest in women, almost every other statistic in a society improves. When women are educated and involved in the decisions that shape their lives, their children are better educated, their health and nutrition improves, family income rises, civil society is more likely to flourish.

Throughout the world today, women are increasingly agents of change, arbiters of peace advocates of education and health and women are advancing opportunity for themselves and their families.

America is proud to partner with women who are advancing opportunity. Throughout the developing world, we support microfinance projects, because they’ve been shown to alleviate poverty in a financially sustainable way. Yet their greatest long-term benefit may be more than financial – the greatest impact may be in improving the social status of women. Women now account for 80 percent of the world’s 70 million micro-borrowers–and studies show women with micro-financing get more involved in family decision-making, are more mobile, and more politically and legally aware.

Among the 28,000 loans that America has provided to support small businesses in Afghanistan, 75 percent have gone to women. I remember meeting a woman there who had started her own sewing business with a micro-loan – at the time we talked, she was planning to expand, hire other women, share the knowledge and skills she had gained with others – and I couldn’t help but think what a great example she was setting for her own children and for women throughout her community.

And America is proud to partner with these women to expand opportunity. Recently, I was in Dubai to announce two initiatives to increase the participation of women in Middle Eastern societies. The first will train women entrepreneurs; the second is a partnership between Microsoft and the International Institute of Education to train up to 1000 UAE women in computer and Information Technology skills - - this will serve as a model for similar programs in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and Iraq.

Throughout the world today, women are arbiters of peace. In Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, America is proud to partner with women who are traveling to contested grazing areas -- reaching out to youth with a message of stopping violence and spreading peace --- a message they deliver through dance, speech and song.

Liberia was once known as among the "worst places to be a woman on earth." Years of civil war cost 250,000 people their lives –abductions, torture and rape took place on a massive scale. An estimated one in every ten children was recruited into militias; today, children are back in school, with books instead of guns in their hands. Courageous women have begun the task of nurturing society back to health – and leading the way is Liberia’s first ever woman President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Later this week, Secretary Rice and I will attend the inaugural of Michelle Bachelet, the new President of Chile. I was inspired as I read the story of her life, and the wonderful choice she made to use it as an example of the power of hope to overcome hate. 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 later imprisoned and tortured. "Violence entered my life," she said, "destroying what I loved. Because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turn that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, into love."

Michelle Bachelet’s example is a powerful one and I shared it this morning with women leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan, women who also have witnessed hate and violence and now have the opportunity to transform their countries into places of freedom and peace.

Women are advocates of education and health, and America is proud to partner with and support them. My fellow Americans can be proud of helping nearly 2 million women protect their babies from HIV in Africa; rehabilitating more than 60 primary health care clinics in Iraq and providing basic health services to nearly 4 million women and children in Afghanistan, focusing especially on reducing maternal and child mortality.

Through education programs for women, we are promoting healthier babies and better child nutrition – and as mothers learn the value of education, it also leads to earlier and longer schooling for children.

With substantial American support, more than five million children -- more than at any time in history-- are attending school in Afghanistan. More than a third of these are girls. By the end of 2006, across 17 provinces, almost 100,000 girls who missed out on education under the Taliban will achieve 6th grade equivalency under USAID’s Accelerated Learning program.

In Africa, one of the primary goals of the President’s Education Initiative is to enroll more girls in school. We’re meeting that goal through a program that will provide 550,000 scholarships to girls in 40 nations at the primary and secondary level.

In Angola, America has helped support a new community center to train local women who’ve had no access to formal education in basic literacy skills. Currently about 1,200 women are enrolled; ultimately 2,500 will be. And the women learn more than literacy – they learn about human rights and political participation.

Across our world, women are also agents of change. These are historic times as growing numbers of women are actively engaging in the political process and assuming positions of leadership in government.

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.

Throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, women are making their voices heard in their new governments. I listened yesterday as one of them talked about not having much money to campaign for Parliament, so she walked from village to village, going places a woman would usually never go alone and going to meetings women had never gone to before. I was awed by her bravery and the power of her example. "We have been deprived of our rights," said another Afghan woman at our breakfast this morning. "Now we must help gain them on behalf of all the women of Afghanistan." I also talked with brave women from Iraq who want to be a part of bridging sectarian divisions. "Iraq is not a simple country and it never has been; we like it that way; our differences make us unique and interesting. Democracy is new, it will take time, the solution is a unity government," a woman Minister told me.

This is a time of great hope and great progress. Yet as we celebrate the many achievements of women worldwide, we also must recognize that we still have much to do. In too many places, women still struggle for basic rights and liberties, and face the threat of discrimination, exploitation and sex trafficking.

Often societies’ mistreatment of women tells us a great deal about those societies.
We saw the type of society the violent extremists want to impose on the rest of us in the Taliban’s mistreatment of women in Afghanistan – little girls weren’t allowed to go to school, women weren’t allowed to go to work to support themselves even if their husbands had been killed. Music was banned, culture destroyed and an entire society was brutally repressed. I’ll never forget visiting a reading program in Afghanistan and meeting a young girl. She told me she hoped to write a book someday – I told her I was working on a book, and wanted to say something on her behalf in mine. "Women should be free to go to school and work and choose their husbands," she told me. She was thirteen. 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 still follow me today and part of my work, is to help her and others like her live in freedom.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued that nothing is more important for development today than the economic, political and social participation of women. I agree and I’m proud that America is standing at the side of women throughout the world, ready to support and partner with them as they make their own choices, raise their own voices and find their own way to a brighter more hopeful future for themselves and their families.

Thank you.

Released on March 9, 2006

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