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Commemoration of the Passage of the 19th Amendment

Commemoration of the Passage of the 19th Amendment

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks to the Sewall-Belmont House to Commemorate Passage of the 19th Amendment and Victory for Women's Suffrage
Washington, DC
August 24, 2006

Thank you, Amy, for that thoughtful introduction. I want to thank the Sewall Belmont house for holding the "Taste of Equality" in celebration of a great milestone in the history of our country: the passage of the 19th Amendment, on August 18, 1920, granting women's suffrage.

Just as we can never forget the contributions of the courageous pioneers who fought for women's right to participate in the democratic life of our own country, we should also use this occasion to remember the women around the world today who are deprived of their fundamental human rights and live under oppressive regimes.

As Americans, we can appreciate the role of women in extending the benefits of liberty, justice, education, and freedom to others, because of the courage and determination of women activists and suffragists who came before us.

Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who mobilized and inspired others who fought peacefully but effectively for women's equality. American women of the 21st century continue to reap the benefits of their long struggle.

There were also strong women behind the scenes, whose voices were not heard publicly, but who had a powerful impact. They were a force in our nation's history right from its founding -- women like Abigail Adams, who implored her husband to "Remember the ladies," and warned: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

It would take 130 years from Abigail Adams' time to reach the tipping point that would break down barriers to women's suffrage and grant women the right to a full voice in our democracy. But that day did come, and today women are leaders in all aspects of our society -- from Secretary of State, to CEO, to Senator.

Sadly, this is not true for all women. The denial of women's voices and basic rights remain the norm in way too many places. The promotion of democracy is the focal point of American foreign policy, and the advancement of women's human rights is integral to this mission. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice often says when talking about the importance of women in democratic transformation: "Half a democracy is not a democracy."

No nation can achieve its full economic, cultural, and political potential by neglecting 50% of its human capital. By investing in women, we are investing in a brighter, more hopeful and more peaceful world.

As President Bush said on International Women's Day in March 2006, "Across the world, the increasing participation of women in civic and political life has strengthened democracies. A democracy is strong when women participate in the society."

As was the case with our own founding mothers, women who are denied their rights are refusing to accept this second-class status. They are standing on the frontlines demanding progress and change -- in many cases, for their fellow men as well as for themselves, in parts of the world where both women and men, are denied democracy and liberty.

More women are daring to break down barriers, leading the way to prosperity, freedom, and justice. They are overcoming obstacles of culture, history, and even law to run their own businesses, schools, and non-governmental organizations, and to serve in Parliaments and governments.

We admire the women of Afghanistan for their courage, resilience, and entrepreneurship. They are taking their rightful place in society and writing a new chapter in their nation's history. They are transforming the economic, political, and cultural landscape and engaging in a newly emerging democracy.

In this connection, I am privileged to co-chair the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, a public-private partnership dedicated to this vital goal, along with the Afghan Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Women's Affairs. This group brings together government, corporate, academic, and NGO leaders to mobilize talent and resources for concrete projects benefiting Afghan women that might otherwise be missed.

Since its creation by President Bush and Afghan President Karzai at their very first meeting, in January 2002, the Council's programs have helped hundreds of Afghan women and girls obtain literacy and vocational courses, teacher training, better health care, micro credits for start-up small businesses, and other necessities of modern life that we tend to take so much for granted. These are the building blocks that translate guarantees of equal civil and political rights for women from paper into practice. In just a few weeks, in October, I look forward to another of my annual trips to Kabul to lead the Council's delegation. If you care to check out the Council's website -- or even better, become involved in its work -- I am confident that you will be as inspired as I am by these talented and courageous Afghan women.

On another front, we are humbled by the women of Iraq, who remain fiercely committed to democratic freedom, and who defy the daily threat of terrorism to fight for a peaceful, stable, and prosperous future. They are ministers, parliamentarians, journalists, business leaders, teachers, doctors, and NGO leaders who want to build a better life for their families, and who emphatically reject the oppression of the past. Iraqi women may be our best hope for forming networks and finding common ground across the bitter sectarian lines that threaten to divide the country.

My own office oversees the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, which over the past two years has provided nearly ten million dollars in grants to NGOs for the specific purpose of empowering these brave women to participate fully in their nascent democracy. Successful projects have included voter education, leadership training, professional workshops for women candidates, delegations to major UN and other international meetings, and management courses for aspiring women civil society organizers and entrepreneurs. Through these programs, we have helped literally thousands of Iraqi women gain the skills, the contacts, and the confidence they need to play their proper part in politics, community associations, and public life as a whole.

Many of the women in Iraq's Parliament -- who by law amount to almost a third of all its Members have benefited from these efforts. The same is true for Iraq's Cabinet Ministers who are women, with portfolios that have included the Ministries of Public Works, of Human Rights, and of the Environment, as well as of Women's Affairs.

Despite the very difficult security environment in Iraq, we and they remain determined to persevere in the cause of democracy and equal rights. Our projects are continuing, with another 4.5 million dollars slated for this Initiative this year -- above and beyond all the other U.S. assistance for Iraqi men, women, and children. In addition, we have established a Gift Fund to encourage public-private partnerships for projects serving the special needs of Iraqi women.

We see women of Iran on the frontlines of protest, demanding an end to oppression and tyranny, and calling for democracy, justice, and dignity -- at tremendous personal risk. This year, the U.S. Government announced a significant expansion of funding -- rising to approximately 87 million dollars -- for programs supporting democracy and civil society in Iran. We believe that Iran's women can be a powerful force for positive change in this regard. Sadly, the Iranian regime continues to resist this tide, recently even going so far as to close down the human rights NGO led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi -- the first Muslim woman ever to achieve this great honor. Yet Iran's own history suggests that its peoples' desire for freedom will rise again and again, and that no level of repression can ever extinguish it.

We are proud to see the women of Kuwait participating in their first parliamentary election after having won the right to vote and run for office a year ago. While they did not win parliamentary seats this time around, they are having a real impact on the political and democratic process in Kuwait. Their commitment and passion are serving as a model and beacon of hope throughout the Arab Gulf region. The State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, which has funded approximately 300 million dollars in projects promoting reform in the region over the past three years, is proud to have assisted this progress.

We have done this by working with local groups on civic education, electoral reform, and candidate training -- and also on such basic needs as literacy programs and small business loans for women and girls. There is progress we can be proud of -- and also, of course, much more work to be done.

The people of Chile, Germany, and Liberia freely elected women for the highest office this past year, and Jamaicans chose their first female prime minister. In Rwanda, nearly half of the members of parliament are women. And women are now holding more parliamentary seats in nations like Morocco and Jordan and Tunisia.

In El Salvador -- a country with its first female vice president -- women are challenging the status quo in the workplace, making up most of the labor force in a key sector of the garment industry. They are using their earnings to invest in their children, spending on education and healthcare.

Throughout the developing world, women are proving successful recipients of micro credit and microfinance, and making tremendous gains on the economic front. The sound financial decisions they make benefit society at large, underscoring the need to work in partnership with the private sector to help more women, particularly in developing and transitional countries, gain access to resources and opportunities to gain economic strength. And the payback rate on these loans to women is almost always much higher than it is for men: typically around 90%, or even higher.

We mark the occasion of women's suffrage and political freedom at a time when turmoil in the Middle East is causing some to question the conviction that democracy and freedom are universal aspirations, including for Muslim societies. It is easy to feel discouraged amid the daily reports of violence and conflict, and there is clearly much work to be done. Yet, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Liberia, when women are empowered, they bring a tremendous resilience in emerging from conflict and devastation to building peace and democracy and countering extremism. Now more than ever, we need to harness the untapped, collective power of women in our efforts to promote democratic transformation.

We must encourage and empower women to become forces for change, by working in partnership, building networks, and finding common ground to achieve universal aspirations for peace, freedom, justice, and equality. Women are not victims, they are untapped leaders. They are the best hope to ending undemocratic regimes from Burma to Belarus, Cuba to North Korea, Iran to Zimbabwe.

On this occasion of the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we are reminded of America's strong commitment to freedom, democracy and women's rights.

Released on September 6, 2006


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