Remarks With Sudanese Women on Their Role in Social Change

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington, DC
March 10, 2011

Good evening. It is a true pleasure to be with you—even though it is over many, many miles.

You all are in the midst of a historic time of change for your communities, your country, and your region. And as women leaders, I know each of you is intimately aware of the challenges and the opportunities you face. So allow me to saw a few words about how I see the role of women during this extraordinary moment in history: in civil society and government, in the drafting of your new constitution and in peace-building.

Around the world, women are entering the field of politics and government in growing numbers, yet their gains have been uneven and their leadership often goes unrecognized. Women represent half the population of the world—but they hold fewer than one-fifth of positions in national governments. At the same time, the World Bank says that higher rates of female participation in government lead to lower levels of corruption. So, we have a lot of work to do in order to get more women elected and their voices heard.

But I know there are many of you (on the screen!) who are already organizing and working with government officials, opposition leaders and civil society to promote an agenda that includes equality and full participation by Sudanese women. And I commend you for blazing this path.

There’s no question that the role of women and civil society must be elevated in the national conversation about the future of Sudan, and the United States will support Sudan’s achievement of key milestones to this end.

One of those milestones will be the involvement of women in the constitutional drafting process. As the leaders of your country in this historic time, you must also be the architects of Sudan’s future stability and prosperity. Decisions made in the coming weeks and months will determine Sudan’s political space, the rights of women, religious tolerance, and laws concerning women and families.

Though the details of how this process will unfold are still unclear, I encourage you to find your place at the table. As we have seen in Egypt, your seat is by no means a guarantee. Just last week, a group of Egyptian women wrote to the Constitutional Committee asking why none of Egypt’s distinguished women legal experts had been invited to join in drafting constitutional amendments for the transition to democracy. They recognized the process as unacceptable, and so they stood up to demand their chair. As women, we must demand our seats at the table.

Now, I must admit that I am humbled by speaking with you, because I know you are not novices in this work. Throughout the history of Sudan, women have played a key role in making and maintaining peace. Your voices have guided the Darfur and Eastern peace processes; and women from both the North and the South continue to engage in CPA processes. But we must find additional ways to incorporate women into Darfur and CPA-related negotiations.

In order to develop a sustainable peace between north and south, let the women of both regions be the models of cooperation and collaboration. Because those who have given birth to a nation can also be the drivers of peace, reconciliation, democratization, economic growth and stability.

Let me share with you the story of one woman who we honored at the State Department this week: Ghulam Sughra of Pakistan, faced particular hardship. Born in rural Sindh Province, she was forced to marry at the age of 12. Six years later, Ms. Sughra became the first woman in her village to divorce, and consequently, became a social outcast. Severely beaten by her brothers when she tried to attend school, she pursued her studies at home. She later succeeded in becoming her village’s first female high school graduate, and the first teacher at the first school for girls. Her sheer determination and strength to overcome poverty and gender discrimination, and to help other rural women in your village and far beyond, have provided the opportunity for other women to be educated and to educate their children.

Now, Ghulam’s story may sound familiar to some of you. I know I have met women like her from my native country of Bolivia and from around the world. It’s the collective power of all of these women—including you—who are making positive change a reality of our lifetimes.

Now, let me turn to the role of women in peace building. In places of conflict, women are often seen first as victims. And there is good reason for that, because they are disproportionately affected by disaster and war. But I would also argue that they should be seen as the peace-builders, the first responders, and the healers.

I was recently invited to speak at an international conference on women in security, and the conversation was striking. Women around the world face extraordinary danger as they contribute to conflict prevention, mediation, and resolution. Their effort is not one of ease or comfort. And nor will it be in the shaping of North and South Sudan. But as Secretary Clinton noted, “women are critical to every step of building, negotiating, and keeping the peace in Sudan. Lasting peace and prosperity will not be achieved if half the population is excluded from that process.”

Meanwhile, your leadership in the post-referendum period coincides with a historic time for your continent. If there is a single lesson that ongoing events teach us, it is that young people hold the keys to change in our society, and young women are no exception. I know that many of you have been working as change agents for many years. You are presidential candidates, political party leaders, responsible army and police officers, directors of important health institutions, professors at prestigious universities, lawyers, teachers, professionals and leaders in disciplines too numerous to mention.

These are accomplishments that took you years of hard work to achieve and through which you learned many lessons. But, even amidst the difficulties you face, I want to remind you of the importance of sharing your lessons and passing them on to the next generation. You are their teachers. So, share with them your wisdom, and ensure that Sudan has a ever-widening circle of empowered, powerful women.

With that in mind, I want to hear from you. But before I close, I have been told that many of you are interested in continuing this conversation beyond today. And so I am happy to announce that we will continue this series of digital video conferences in upcoming months with a DVC featuring our Ambassador at Large for Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer. We will plan follow-on opportunities for dialogue focused around visitors, as well as with my colleagues at the Embassy.

So, in closing, I just want to add my thanks. There is nothing that the US government can do without the help and wisdom of women like you. You are already taking an active role in shaping the national agenda as well as the platforms of your own political parties. And on behalf of one powerful woman, my boss Hillary Rodham Clinton, I am proud to say that we support you.

The empowerment and protection of women—whether running for elected office or simply reporting a crime—is a global imperative. And the key to our success is not just protecting women but going one step further—by empowering them to fulfill their innate capacity to lead. After a career in microfinance, my greatest lesson was that there is nothing “micro” about the human spirit. Even in the most dire of circumstances, the best hope for women is women.

So with that, let’s open it up for discussion..