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Remarks to the Women's Entrepreneur Association of Greece and the Hellenic National Commission for UNESCO

Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State on Issues of Women's Empowerment
Athens, Greece
June 5, 2008

Good afternoon. Thank you all very much for taking time from your busy schedules to be here for this lunch. I first of all want to thank our host, the Head of the Greek Commission for UNESCO, and want to mention that we have a couple of things in common. First of all, we each have a last name with a hyphen in it that most people probably find difficult to pronounce: mine is Tahir-Kheli, which could be a Greek name - I don’t know - because Tahir-Kheli is a Patan tribal name from the area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is an area to which Alexander traveled.

Secondly, in more recent history, I am delighted to be here with someone who is looking after issues related to UNESCO, in which I’ve been somewhat involved for the United States, including the American re-entry into UNESCO and some of the other issues that we’ve been involved in. So, thank you all and it is wonderful to see you. I also want to thank the Deputy Foreign Minister for being here, for his remarks. Having come from a two day meeting chaired by Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis, I have to say that, in Greece, women can be both strong and beautiful, and it seems to work.

I want to take a few minutes of your time talking about the importance of women in the economic development of any given country, and I want to preface this by saying that the economic empowerment of women and the importance of economic entrepreneurship is one of the four areas that is very much the focus of the Women Leaders Working Group, which Secretary Rice launched in September of 2006, and of which your Foreign Minister is one of the founding members. In addition to economic entrepreneurship and empowerment, the group of women leaders has three other issues that are part of this focus: political leadership, education, and women and justice issues. The meeting that the Foreign Minister held in Greece over the last two days was focused on economic entrepreneurship and on the Middle East and post-conflict societies and the role that women can play in bringing stability, development and progress, not to mention security and stability. It was a conference that was very helpful in promoting the agenda and increasing the dialogue between the leaders and, of course, between the political leadership, which that group of leaders represents themselves, and the many civil society leaders who really are the foundation of the work that has to be done.

So, some of the outcomes of the conference I understand have been in the press. I don’t want to take time here, but I do want to note that this group of women leaders - which now is almost 40 Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers, and Ministers from key countries that do not yet have a woman Foreign Minister, or President or Prime Minister - is a very practical group.  It is a group that believes in partnership, and it is a group that wants to use the political and other clout that they themselves have to empower women to help others. The economic empowerment and the importance within that, of course, of women’s entrepreneurship, is an issue that is of great importance but is not necessarily recognized as being important around the world, including in some of the societies where you would think that they have allowed women to be participants over a much longer timeframe, but it is still difficult for women to go beyond a certain level in some societies and in others to even gain an entry point.

In my work for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, we try to work on these issues from both perspectives. The Secretary has been focused along with some of her colleagues from the Women Leaders’ Working Group, to expand the possibilities for women at the top levels -- in other words, that there should be opportunity, which is what empowerment actually does imply, for women to move to the highest level that exists, not just the highest level possible at the present.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the issues that deal with either the marginalization of women or, even if they have an entry point, a very limited role that comes because they don’t have the capacity or the possibility of being bread winners, of being part of the economic system, although in the case of many of these women, they are the support structure for the family.  They are the ones who are doing a bulk of the work that doesn’t get counted as part of the economic well-being, and in some regions of the world women are the producers of 80% of the food -- and that’s not just the cooking of the food, it’s the production of the food. So, despite all of that, they are not part of the equation, and some of our work has to involve ways of bringing them into the system.

Now, Greece has just been listed by OECD as being one of the most dynamic places where women’s economic entrepreneurship is in fact ranked, if not the highest, the second highest. It is [the highest]…I was remembering it number two after South Korea as hardest working. I believe that this is in large part because of the hard work and the impact that women entrepreneurs and others like you make in Greece, with all due respect to the Minister and the gentlemen of the group.

In a sense, the importance of the economic empowerment includes, among other things of course, opening up the lower reaches and trying to bring in economic empowerment in countries were there are no great possibilities. Yet, we have found in these difficult times some enormous openings, and I want to take a few minutes to talk about microfinance as one of the vehicles at the lower end that has made it possible for women to become participants. Most of you, I’m sure have heard of the Grameen Bank and the work that was done by Muhammad Yunus, who established one of the most successful models in providing microfinance possibilities. And this effort took Bangladesh from being referred to as one of the basket cases of the world to one of the most dynamic economies within the developing world.

The empowerment of women that comes through the capacity of the opportunity for them to make some input has resulted, as study after study shows from the UNDP through the World Bank and through the Davos studies, that women, when they become economically viable citizens, help in a much greater way than simply the issue of one woman being able to earn money.  Some of this is because the money that they make, first of all, goes into improving the nutrition of their children, the schooling of their children, the health of the family, and these are the kinds of things which over time can make a difference between political stability, economic viability or insecurity.

So the Secretary’s Women Leaders’ Working Group, which includes of course the Greek Foreign Minister, has looked at various initiatives. There was a fund that was launched two days ago, but also on the twelfth of May, the Secretary of State announced the initiation of a fund for women that looks at three main areas: justice, opportunity and leadership. And some of these areas that this 100-million-dollar fund, the five-year fund, will focus on are some of the areas that UNESCO has highlighted: the education for all initiative, the gender poverty issues, and we also focus on the rule of law, access to justice, violence against women issues.  But, all of these issues are ones that require partnerships between countries. They require partnerships between civil societies, and I think this is a time when we can come together on all of those levels, and I thank you for this opportunity to meet with some of you.

I would love to hear about what you are doing because I am in Greece for the first time.  I also know that -- and I’m spending my day in Athens in a wonderfully busy program arranged by my embassy that is exposing me to women entrepreneurs, to people who are from the justice side, to others in the diplomatic field -- I will go back just a little bit better informed, but by no means wise, and I would be delighted to hear from any of you in the course of this afternoon and thank you for this occasion.  I thank you for coming, and I’m sorry I’m making it hard for you to translate [into Greek].


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