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Remarks at Senior Roundtable for Women's Justice

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Loy Henderson Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 12, 2008

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. Thank you, Shirin, for that really kind introduction. As all of you know, Shirin is my senior advisor for Women's Empowerment, and I cannot tell you what a terrific job she is doing in that post. She is literally traveling the world to bring the issues of women's empowerment to our colleagues around the world. We were just together in Brussels just last week. And without her and without the effort of Shirin and those who work with us, this symposium would not have been possible. But more importantly, the very important focus that we have on women's empowerment would not be possible. So thank you very much.

It's a pleasure to have you all join us this afternoon and I'm very pleased for the opportunity to welcome you here to the State Department. And for some of you, to welcome you to the United States as well. I understand that you've had a fascinating and spirited discussion already, and I know you want to get back to that as quickly as possible so I'm going to keep my remarks brief because you know how academics are, we'll go on in 50-minute segments if you allow us to do that. (Laughter.) So I'm not going to. This is an opportunity for an exchange of views not for long speeches.

As you know, March is International Women's Month. It's a time to reflect on the progress that women are making worldwide to achieve lives of justice and dignity. But it's also a time to shine a light on obstacles, be it intimidation or repression, poverty or disease. Those are obstacles that too often prevent women from reaching their full potential. We focus on issues that affect women, but the stakes are much higher. When we talk about the empowerment of women, what we're really talking about is the empowerment of societies. For in today's modern world, no country can expect to succeed with half its population sitting on the sidelines, unable to participate politically and economically.

As we discussed what we wanted to focus on in our conversation today, we considered a lot of pressing issues that are essential to the empowerment of women. But ultimately, we settled on a topic of utmost importance: domestic violence and women’s lack of access to justice. This is a persistent problem that plagues all nations, and we in the United States are not immune.

The facts alone are harrowing. In our world today, one out of every three women will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. This violence, and this climate of perpetual fear that it creates, is particularly pervasive in areas of conflict – where the strong too often exploit the weak, where no force of law or justice exists to contain the darker demons of human nature and where it is women who too often suffer the most. One violent crime that stands out above the rest is the trafficking in persons – a modern form of slavery that ruins the lives of roughly 800,000 people worldwide, mostly women and young girls.

That such things as this could happen to anyone in the 21st century seems impossible, I know that it does, but tragically, it's true.

In addressing the challenge of domestic violence and women’s access to justice, we realize that raising our voices for equal rights and equal treatment under the law is essential, but not sufficient, to reach the goals we seek. We realize that passing laws is not enough. Laws must be enforced by effective and responsible governments. After all, there are laws on the books that outlaw rape and domestic violence. But what good are they when a country’s institutions lack the capacity or the will to enforce those laws – when police or prosecutors or courts are under-resourced or, in same cases, just unsympathetic?

That is why the Senior Roundtable for Women’s Justice is so important. Women like you – the judges and the legal practitioners of your countries – are in critical positions not only to influence how laws are made, but to help ensure that they are enforced fairly. All of you have a role to play in moving the cause of equal justice for women beyond rhetoric and into reality. And we at the State Department are honored that you could join us in this common endeavor.

Here today we have guests from 17 countries – including the Attorney General of Malawi and the Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan, the Chief Justices of the High Courts of Bahrain and Benin and Ghana, and Morocco, as well as Justices from the High Courts of Argentina, Bangladesh, Hungary, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Along with state and federal court justices and judges from across the United States, as well as dynamic attorneys and non-governmental organizations, this is a roundtable truly a force for women’s justice and empowerment.

But I am especially honored today by the presence today of Retired Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor – the first woman ever to serve on the highest court in our land. In her retirement, Justice O'Connor has spoken across this country and across the world, inspiring audiences about the critical importance for every society of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Justice O'Connor’s vision is best summed up in her own words: “Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability.” And I just want to say on a personal note, that Justice O’Connor is more than a trailblazer. She an inspiration for each and every one of us, but she's especially an inspiration for me. I've known her for many years, because we share a Stanford background. And I was a young professor when she came early in the 1980s to address the Stanford commencement exercises. I've never been more proud to be a woman than that day, never more proud than to be an American that day. And so, my friend and my inspiration -- thank you so much, Sandra, for being here. (Applause.)

This Senior Roundtable for Women’s Justice is the result of a big vision and a lot of hard work – much of it done by private parties. I'd like to express my appreciation to Andrea Jung, the Chairman and CEO of Avon Products, for rising to the challenges of domestic violence and women’s access to justice, for helping to make today’s Roundtable possible, and for already taking steps to ensure that there are resources available to carry our efforts forward. Andrea, thank you. Violence against women is a problem that no government can tackle alone. It takes the leadership and commitment of both public and private sectors, and I'm really pleased that we a partner in Avon Products. Thank you. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, women’s empowerment should be a policy priority for every country in the world. This is my personal hope as we mark International Women’s Month. But let me be even more ambitious still: I would like there to come a time in the not-too-distant future when there will be no need for any kind of International Women’s Month – when the women and girls of the world will be safe in the knowledge that the path of justice is open to them, and when violence against women is stigmatized and punished in every society.

But until some time -- that time comes, we will continue to support women everywhere, who persevere in their quest to gain the equal rights and equal justice that they deserve. I am truly awed by the talent and the inspiring women who are participating in this event today. This is a forum that has an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of women everywhere. I'm proud to be a part of it. I promise you the support of the United States Government and the State Department and my support as Secretary. And long after I'm Secretary, I hope to continue the dialogue with you.

Thank you. (Applause.)


Released on March 12, 2008

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