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Women as Agents of Change - Karen Hughes

Empowering Women as Agents of Change Around the World

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Remarks at the Hawaii Goverenor's Conference
Honolulu, Hawaii
August 29, 2006

Mahalo, Gov. Linda Lingle, for that generous introduction. The Governor is too modest. I just read a July survey showing that she has a 73% approval rating. She's a great role model for women in Hawaii and around the world. I am delighted to be here in this magical place with its Aloha spirit and especially to be with so many inspiring women.

I have been in my new role at the State Department just about a year, but I have to admit, I am still getting used to the title: ambassador. You don't have to worry about it going to my head –I'll hear someone calling "Ambassador!" in an airport or as I'm walking down a hall and I still look around to see which foreign dignitary is being referred to. Not too long ago, I was getting on a small commuter plane in California –one of those so small that if you'd realized how little it was when you made the reservation, you probably wouldn't have booked it –and the pilot, who looked way too young to be flying even this small airplane, seem to recognize me and got very excited. He came back to my seat and he said, "I never dreamed I would have Madeleine Albright on my airplane!"

But my all-time favorite of what my husband affectionately calls "Karen sightings" was on a crowded elevator with my husband and son. The doors kept opening and more and more people kept getting on. At the very end, two elderly women pushed into the elevator. One of them looked right at me and then she looked away and then she looked again and stared. Finally, she poked her friend in the ribs and said in a loud stage whisper: "Condi Rice is on this elevator!"

Now you all know that I am not Condi Rice, but I do bring greetings from America's Secretary of State. She asked me to say hello and thank you for all your efforts on behalf of women throughout the world.

I believe one of the most overlooked contributions of President Bush's Administration has been the advancement of women in government. President Bush leads by example, paying us equally, treating us equally, empowering and entrusting us with huge responsibilities. A record number of women are now key players in his senior staff and Cabinet, making decisions that resonate across the world. When I worked at the White House, 8 out of 18 participants at our most senior morning staff meetings were women. They included the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, responsible for foreign policy and Margaret Spellings, our domestic policy advisor. So I always said women were in charge of everything abroad and everything at home and that sounds just about right to me.

Currently, the Secretaries of State, Education, and Labor are women as well as the White ouseHoHouse counsel and the president's adviser on Homeland Security. So women are definitely in positions of influence, led by our gracious First Lady Laura Bush who has traveled from Afghanistan to Nigeria to support literacy, AIDS prevention and girls' education.

I view my role as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy as reaching out to the world in a spirit of friendship, partnership and respect. While I am speaking here today, I spend a great deal of my time listening because public diplomacy is a conversation –a dialogue, not a monologue. I've traveled more than 130,000 international miles in the last year to almost 30 countries and I'm more and more convinced that as we work to advance freedom, opportunity, education, health and thus hope for boys and girls and as we work to isolate violent extremists and undermine their ideology of hate and terror –the mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, the women of the world are absolutely vital to our success.

All the studies show when you give women the tools to succeed –such as access to education, capital, and healthcare – they not only improve the well-being of their own families, but the stability of their communities. When you educate a woman, she teaches her family. Give a woman a micro-grant so she can start a small business in her home and she will buy shoes, milk, and books for her children with the profits.

One of the best investments in the world is sending girls to school –every extra year a girl attends school reduces the mortality rate of her children by 8%. Educated women are also three times more able to protect themselves against HIV /AIDS. Three times! Think about how many lives that could save. And literate women can read about their government, faith, and political issues and decide for themselves, rather than have someone else try to dictate what they should believe.

As I have traveled around the world, I have seen that women are increasingly agents of change, arbiters of peace and reconciliation, and advocates of education and health. In Malaysia, I recently had the pleasure of meeting two very distinguished women leaders, the influential Minister of International Trade and Industry and the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development who is working to improve health and life for families in Malaysia.

In Morocco, a new Family Code promotes equality between men and women. Under the former code, men could verbally divorce their wives at any time and throw them out of the home. Today, husbands have to go before a court and women now have equal right to divorce. The legal age for marriage for girls has been raised from 15 to 18.

In other parts of the world, a new generation of women leaders is being voted into office. Earlier this year, Secretary Rice and I attended the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet, the new President of Chile. 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 also imprisoned. "Violence entered my life," she said, "destroying what I loved. Because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turning that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, into love."

Her example –one women's ability to overcome hate and violence with hope and love is exactly what the world needs more of right now as terrorists seek to exploit political differences and grievances sometimes centuries old to their violent purposes, to the detriment of all of us who want a more peaceful and hopeful future for our children.

Other women around the world are bringing new kinds of portfolios to government: Angela Merkel, the first woman to serve as chancellor of the reunited Germany is a former physicist. In Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, an economist and banker, was inaugurated this year as president. 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 ten children was recruited into militias. Today, the children in Liberia 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 a woman dedicated to healing her troubled country.

Today in Rwanda after the horrific genocide of the 1990s, when more than 800,000 people were killed, 39 percent of the members of Parliament are women and women make up 40 percent of the cabinet. They are promoting reconciliation and healing in Rwanda and actively supporting improved literacy and financial credit for women.

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. This spring, women took part and voted in their first election. None of the women candidates won, but they learned how to run a campaign and they'll be organized and ready next time.

So, we have much progress to celebrate as women around the world advance opportunities for themselves, their families, their communities and their countries.

Yet the headlines also remind us that we have much more work to do.

* Rapes occur in some countries at a rate of one every two hours, and in too many societies women, rather than their attackers, carry the burden of shame. * Sex trafficking, reinforced by globalization, is on the increase. The U.N. estimates that one million children are held in conditions of sexual slavery in Asia alone. I think of my own children and I shudder. We cannot allow this to stand. * In too many countries, including America, domestic violence is an awful fact of life for too many women and their children. * In some nations, girls as young as 11 are married to much older men to settle debts. * And there are big disparities in educational opportunity in many countries where enrollment of boys far exceeds that of girls in school. * And in some countries, the rate of AIDS infection for women is twice that for men.

So we have a lot of work to do. President Bush and America are trying to do our part by partnering with countries around the world to improve the status of women and children.

We are helping nearly 2 million women in Africa protect their babies from HIV. We are providing basic health services to nearly 4 million women and children in Afghanistan, focusing especially on improving that country's terrible rates of maternal and child mortality.

In the broader Middle East, of the estimated 70 million people who are illiterate, two-thirds of them are female. Through our education programs for women, we teach both literacy and practical skills such as better nutrition for children. I'll never forget meeting with women at a literacy program in Morocco – as they told me of their pride in being able to go to the market and post office, read for themselves, and for the first time, be able to help their children with homework. We are also helping young men too through our English language programs. I recently asked a young man in Morocco, "Tell me what difference participating in this English program has made in your life." And he said, "I have a job and my friends don't." That's the kind of difference that education can make.

President Bush has made education in Africa a key priority. His Africa Education Initiative provides scholarships for school uniforms so more children can attend school and teacher training for 920,000 teachers in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the major goals is to enroll more girls in school. Through the Ambassadors Girls' Scholarship Program, the U.S. will provide 550,000 scholarships to girls at the primary and secondary level. So far, 180,000 scholarships for tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and other essential supplies have been given in 40 countries – and that's 180,000 more reasons to be hopeful about the future of Africa.

American support is also making it possible for more than five million children –more than at anytime in history –to attend school in Afghanistan. More than a third of them –girls. By the end of 2006, across 17 provinces, almost 100,000 girls who were denied education under the Taliban will achieve sixth grade equivalency under America's Accelerated Learning Program. Although extremists make it an on-going challenge to keep girls' schools open in Afghanistan, terrific progress is being made.

And while you don't always read about successes in Iraq either, enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Back in 2000, only 33% of high school-aged Iraqis were in school, compared to 75% in neighboring Jordan. By 2004, about 50% of school-aged boys and 35% of school-aged girls were enrolled and those numbers have continued to increase.

Throughout the developing world, the U.S. supports micro-finance projects, because they have been shown to alleviate poverty in a 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 more than 60% of the world's 70 million micro-borrowers. And studies show women with micro-financing are more involved in family decision-making, more mobile, more politically and legally aware, and more knowledgeable about health for themselves and their families.

Among the 28,000 loans that America has provided to support small business in Afghanistan, 75% have gone to women. I remember meeting a woman there who had started her own sewing business with a micro-loan. With her ability to earn money had come new status in her family and her community. She was planning to expand, hire other women, and share the skills she had gained with others. We are proud to partner with these women. And in recent months, we have announced a series of new outreach programs for women:

* The Fortune Women's Mentorship Initiative brings women entrepreneurs from around the world to the U.S. to work with women at Fortune 500 companies. * We are partnering with Microsoft and the International Institute for Education to train 1,000 women in the United Arab Emirates in information technology. This will serve as model for similar programs in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and Iraq. * Just this summer we announced a new U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research, bringing the top medical institutions in the U.S. together with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This is the first major regional women's health campaign in the Middle East, and the United States is proud to be a part of it.

We are also proud to be partners as the men and women of Afghanistan and Iraq struggle to build free nations from the trauma of tyranny. We hear a lot about the forces who are fomenting violence –but in my view, not nearly enough about the bravery of those taking incredible risks for the freedom and future of their countries.

This spring, I talked with a group of women from Iraq who want to be a part of bridging sectarian divisions. One woman told me, "Iraq is not a simple country and it never has been, but we like it that way. Our differences make us unique and interesting. Democracy is new – it will take time." All these women told me that they want a unified Iraq to succeed and emerge a peaceful and free country and all these women are working at great personal risk to help make it so.

I have visited Afghanistan several times –first, not long after the fall of the Taliban when desperation gripped the country. A year later, the biggest difference I noticed was the light in the eyes of the women. I couldn't help by think how far they have come. I listened this spring as one talked about not having much money to campaign for Parliament, so she walked from village to village, going places that a woman would usually never go alone and going to meetings women had never attended before. I was awed by her bravery and the power of her example. Another woman told me, "We have been deprived of our rights. Now we must help gain them on behalf of all the women of Afghanistan."

We are living in an incredible time. I saw it called a hinge moment in history, one of those rare moments in time where events can tip forward or backward and change the course of human events. Together, we must confront an ideology of hate and terror that advocates the indiscriminate murder of all those who disagree, we must address the conditions that extremists can exploit, from poverty to illiteracy, disenfranchisement, to lack of political freedom and religious intolerance. We must work for greater understanding and respect for one another. Here again, women –and what they teach their children –can be a powerful prescription for peace. We are much more likely to have hopeful, peaceful communities and countries if we give the female half of the population the ability to improve their lives and the lives of their families through education, humane laws, and access to the political system.

We have seen the tragic consequences when the voices of women are silenced. We've seen the type of society the extremists envision. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, little girls were not allowed to go to school and women weren't allowed to work to support themselves, even if their husbands had been killed. Any buildings where women lived had to have their windows blacked out, so women were even denied the light. International relief agencies found Afghan girls as young as 10 being sold for as little as a hundred-kilogram sack of flour. Music was banned, books were burned, cultural icons were destroyed, an entire society was being suffocated from the inside out. I'll never forget visiting a reading program in Afghanistan and meeting a young girl who said she hoped to write a book someday. I told her I would put something on her behalf in mine. She told me, "Women should be free to go to school and work and chose their own husbands." She was 13 years old. 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 followed me home and still follow me today. A large part of my work is to help her and others like her live in freedom. As I have talked to women around the world about their hopes and dreams, I'm convinced that most of us essentially want the same things: to be respected for what we think and do, to lead meaningful lives and use our gifts. We want our children to receive a good education and have a chance at a better life. We want to worship as our conscience dictates. We want to do our part to make our communities better and our countries safer. These are the common human longings that bind us all together. I believe we must build on these common values, so that the next generation will inherit a safer, stronger, and better world, not a more divided and dangerous world.

A fellow Texan and former First Lady that I admire very much, Lady Bird Johnson, once said that "while the spirit of neighborliness was important on the frontier because neighbors were so few, it is even more important now because our neighbors are so many."

And she's right, isn't she? In today's increasingly interconnected world, we must think of the other women of the world as our neighbors. It is both our privilege and our duty to help those women as a good neighbor would, to see that they have access to health care and schooling and a chance to participate in their governments.

I challenge each of you here today to ask yourself what you might do to help. How can you make these matters your matters? Across the world, I've met women caring for those with AIDS, teaching English, helping plant crops, mentoring women in good business practices, building schools.

What can you picture yourself doing? Perhaps providing books or soccer balls for youth groups? Business mentoring? Scholarships for girls? Even just one scholarship is light through the window for some young woman. The women of each nation must walk their own path to the future, but I know women in America want to stand beside them in a spirit of respect and partnership.

We are approaching the 5th anniversary of September 11th, a shocking and terrible day in our country. Don't let anyone tell you it was because of a conflict between the West and Islam because the innocent victims were Muslim, Christian, Jewish – people of many faiths and from more than 90 countries, including many Islamic countries. I read many of these stories and almost all of their families talked about the great joy they brought to their lives. We must come together as a civilized world – people of all faiths, countries and cultures – to celebrate life and shame those who would pervert any religion to glorify death of innocents.

I'll never forget the first time I visited New York after the attacks. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. I emailed a friend that night with three reactions. First, horror –I could not imagine the mindset of the people who turned these buildings into rubble. Second, sorrow at so many lives lost and literally this feeling of a hole in the heart of Manhattan. Third, inspiration. As we left the city that night –I get goosebumps thinking about it –thousands of people of every race and nationality lined the streets to say thank you to volunteers and God Bless America.

Five years later, I still have the same reaction. I feel horror seeing the hate and destruction the extremists advocate in contrast with what we as civilized people strive to be. I feel sadness because we know the worth, value, and the precious nature of every human life. We are fundamentally different as we value every life. The extremists value none, not even the innocent, not even their own. I feel inspired –all of us are reminded we are part of a still unfolding human story so much bigger than our individual lives. We've seen evil and been reminded that it is very real. We can overcome it with good – through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of kindness to change the world. One scholarship, one helping hand, one life at a time.

Thank you for having me. May God bless you –use your gifts to make the world a better, more compassionate place.

Released on September 8, 2006


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