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Democracy Assist. Dialogue on Women's Empowerment

Remarks to Democracy Assistance Dialogue Intergovernmental Conference on Women's Empowerment

Ambassador Steven Steiner, Acting Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues

Ankara, Turkey
May 23, 2006

Good Morning. It is a pleasure to be here with you all. Thank you to our Turkish hosts for bringing us together and for welcoming us with such warm hospitality.

At this year's commemoration of International Women's Day, Secretary of State Rice noted that "Around the globe, women are making impressive political gains. In countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and throughout the broader Middle East, women are contributing to and leading democratic change that cannot be stopped. Many have put their lives at risk to forge free and democratic societies for future generations. Today more women than ever before have the right to vote" ..But she also cautioned that "Even as we celebrate the fact that more women have taken their rightful place in society, we must also recognize that there is still much to be done. In too many parts of the world women still struggle for basic liberties under governments that tolerate discrimination, systematic abuse, exploitation, and violence against women . We are resolved to remove the barriers to political, economic, and social empowerment so that women everywhere may freely chart their own way."

This conference on the topic of strengthening women's empowerment in the BMENA region is important on many levels. On a fundamental level, this reinforces the notion that for freedom and democracy to flourish, it must be available to all citizens. Women's empowerment -- political, economic, social, and cultural -- is a central prerequisite for democracy. Countries that deny half their population fundamental rights, and that fail to capitalize on the talents and contributions of their women, cannot prosper.

Our gathering today also reinforces the indigenous reform efforts from the BMENA region and strengthens the dialogue and decision-making that can happen between governments and civil society. Indeed, the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD) has become a critical forum for such institutionalized dialogue, bringing together governments and their civil society counterparts in the region. This specific conference builds on two previous DAD symposia on women's empowerment, in which many of you participated, as well as other important DAD activities that took place in the last year.

The work of the DAD and in the ongoing civil society efforts in the region is having a positive impact. This could not have been achieved without strong public/private sector partnership. We applaud the work of NGOs, which, through their numerous activities, trainings, awareness campaigns, lobbying efforts, and grassroots networks, have done a remarkable job in ensuring that the issue of women's empowerment political, economic, social and cultural is a priority for every country in the region. Now it is time for the governments to listen, and to seriously engage in a long-term reform process in partnership with civil society.

Governments should embrace the potential of women. As a recent article in the independent weekly Economist highlighting the role of women as engines of economic growth pointed out: "Women complain rightly of centuries of exploitation. Yet to an economist, women are not exploited enough; they are the world's most under-utilized resource; getting more of them into work is part of the solution to many economic woes, including shrinking populations and poverty."

Women's empowerment also means increased access to education and knowledge. Educated women are more likely to raise healthier and educated children, and all members of society -- men and women -- reap the benefits. This type of formal conference that brings governments and civil society leaders together, combined with the growing reform activities taking place throughout the region, presents a unique moment for us all, governments and civil society alike. We note the important, recent breakthroughs regarding women's empowerment. In many of these cases, the reforms were a result of the efforts of governments and civil society, working together to advance reform and progress in their home countries.

Kuwaiti women have gained full political rights enabling them to vote and to run for office. Morocco is on the leading edge of many promising reforms that advance women's rights. Bahraini women voted and ran for office in 2002 elections, and two women are government ministers. In Saudi Arabia, two women were elected to the leadership of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry -- the country's first female elected officials. Oman and Qatar are slated for parliamentary elections next year, and, in both, women are expected to play roles as voters and candidates. We also take special note of the 67 women elected to the new Iraqi parliament, brave women from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds representing the diversity of Iraq who are insisting that their voices be heard as their country charts a new, democratic course. Moreover, Iraq now has a flourishing and diverse civil society, with many independent NGOs led by women.

However, as we all know, women's empowerment is more than the right to cast a vote. Under the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the U.S. Department of State is working with non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and other U.S. government agencies to give women the tools they need to realize their potential to contribute to meaningful democratic change in their countries.

This includes developing an Arab Women's Legal Network to provide training, mentoring, and a resource directory; building the capacity of grassroots women's NGOs through advocacy and outreach skills; providing campaign and communications training to over 300 aspiring women political leaders; organizing an annual Business Internship program for young professional Arab women with Fortune 500 companies across the United States; and training judges and legal professionals on issues central to women's advancement, such as family code.

Through networks, training, mentoring, and leadership development, we are supporting indigenous calls for reform. We see women building on their political successes in places like Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan. We see the new reality of empowered women in Afghanistan, where women who were imprisoned in their own homes under the Taliban less than five years ago are now running their own businesses and serving in government. We see the vital role women are playing in Iraq, where they are on the frontlines of building a democracy, leading with resilience throughout the challenges their nation faces.

Then there is the story of Mukhtar Mai, whose bravery and courage bring us pause. Following her brutal and public gang-rape by members of her village in revenge for an alleged honor crime of her brother, she withstood tremendous societal odds to punish her perpetrators in the court of law. She used the money from her victory to open a school in her village so that young children can use the power of education to combat these ongoing crimes.

These successes have given hope to women throughout the Broader Middle East who share the universal vision that women deserve an equal voice at the political table, in government, in the economic sphere, and in civil society.

The United States will continue to devote energy and resources to the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the Forum for the Future, the Foundation for the Future, and other outlets to support calls for democracy, free trade, investment, literacy and education, legal reform, free media, civil society, and women's political and economic empowerment.

With all of these initiatives, our goal is to support ideas for reform that come directly from the region. Our aim is not to impose our own way of life or system of governance, but to work in partnership with others, as President Bush stated: "To help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, and to make their own way." There are many of us outside the region who wish to support and amplify your work. However, we recognize and appreciate that the calls for reform in the BMENA region are longstanding and are home-grown, and must be driven and shaped by local contexts and priorities.

There is clearly much more that needs to be done by governments, civil society leaders and citizens alike to ensure the full empowerment and participation of women throughout the BMENA region. However, we can build on the important accomplishments and progress that has resulted from your efforts, and continue to strengthen efforts such as the Democracy Assistance Dialogue, which can help to ensure that the theme of women's empowerment remains high on everyone's agenda and is supported through concrete means. I hope that our meeting here will help to produce some clear and tangible next steps that we can all support.

Thank you for this opportunity. Our delegation looks forward to meeting all of you and to engaging in concrete and productive discussions together.

Released on May 26, 2006


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