Remarks at Vital Voices of Asia Women's Summit

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New Delhi, India
September 15, 2010

It is a special pleasure for me to be here today with all of you. I want to add my welcome to this extraordinary gathering of women leaders from across Asia. We at the U.S. Department of State are proud to be a partner in this enterprise. Today I hold a new position in my government—one that demonstrates the U.S. Government’s commitment to incorporating women’s issues into our country’s foreign policy.

It recognizes that the major security, environmental, economic development and governance challenges of our time cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society. It remains a simple fact that no country can progress if its women do not progress.

Before Vital Voices became a global NGO, it was an initiative of the U.S. State Department. My government recognizes then—as we do now—that investments in women’s leadership are essential if women are to be effective in advancing political, economic, and social progress in their societies including in safeguarding human rights, bridging divisions and furthering peace, driving economic prosperity and growing strong democracies.

I have come to Delhi from Chennai where I met remarkable Indian women who are pioneering innovative models of development and progress.

The Working Women’s Forum, a self-help group led by Jaya Arunachalam, has helped millions of the poorest women transform their lives, through education and training; access to microcredit and health care; to move from abject poverty to economic self-reliance--from disempowerment to becoming confident leaders in their homes and communities. Being with hundreds of women, as I was the other day, and hearing their stories of personal achievement, I could not help but recall the visit to another extraordinary self-help group, SEWA, a few years ago with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. She asked the women how their lives had been changed. One woman proudly stood up and said “I’m no longer afraid. I’m not afraid of the police, I’m not afraid of my husband, and I’m not even afraid of my mother-in law.” Now that’s real empowerment!

I also met with women panchayat members in a village on the outskirts of Chennai. They are part of a silent revolution that is occurring across India, thanks to a quota adopted several years ago. Today more than one million women are serving on village or urban communities in record numbers. And they are making a difference, overseeing sanitation projects, adjudicating disputes, investing in education, clean water and energy conservation, setting up sustainable businesses, and successfully implementing government programs. The strength, confidence, leadership and dedication of the women with whom I met were evident. If only all political leaders were as effective!

I want to acknowledge Foreign Secretary Rao. She has had a distinguished career and I can testify first hand to her personal commitment to raising the status of women. The United States and India have a strategic dialogue on a range of important issues -- including security issues, climate change, the economy and many others. One of the working groups is on women’s empowerment. Foreign Secretary Rao has been eloquent in speaking on behalf of that agenda. We are grateful she is here.

When I leave India tonight, I will head to China for a summit to mark the anniversary of the UN 4th World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing 15 years ago this month. 189 nations adopted the Beijing Platform for Action that remains an ambitious blueprint for women’s equality against which we continue to chart our progress. Then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the world to take action in her historic address in Beijing when she said, “It is time for us to say to the world that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” Her remarks sparked a movement around the globe, creating a call to action to ensure women’s access to health care, education, credit, and jobs. A call for freedom from violence. A call for women to exercise equal legal rights and participate freely in the economic and political lives of their societies. It was a call to action to ensure that women and girls everywhere finally have the opportunities they deserve to fulfill their God-given potentials.

All around the world, women are blazing new trails and triumphing over long entrenched obstacles in the pursuit of creating a better world. You are all part of that movement. Throughout Asia we have seen the evidence of your efforts to grow vibrant civil societies, strong democracies and prosperous economies.

For example, Pakistan and Afghanistan have greater female representation in their Parliaments, thanks to the adoption of quotas. East-Asia and Pacific countries, including China and Thailand, have adopted strong anti-trafficking laws. The Philippines and East Timor passed ground-breaking laws addressing violence against women. Bangladesh has a law to curb the use of acid, which has been used to perpetrate violence against women. More and more countries are providing incentives and stipends to keep girls in school. Women are growing small and medium-sized businesses in greater numbers from Hong Kong and South Korea to Malaysia and Indonesia. Vietnam and Cambodia have adopted laws to ensure better working conditions and economic benefits for women. Japan is leading the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings this year and has endorsed a forum on women-run small and medium enterprises for economic growth.

Yet, despite a solid record of progress, our work is by no means over. As Secretary Clinton said, “We have to write our next chapter to fully realize the dreams and potential that we set forth in Beijing.”

Our work is far from done because although we have made strides in girls’ education, two-thirds of the unschooled are girls and the shortfall in girls’ education is a recipe for unrealized potential on a vast scale.

Our work is far from done because we have yet to fully unleash women’s economic potential even though women run small and medium sized businesses drive GDP, and invest up to 90% of their incomes in their families and communities.

Our work is far from done because women are underrepresented in parliaments around the world and local governing councils of nearly every country and they are more often than not excluded from the tables where peace plans are negotiated and their futures determined.

Others suffer persecution and arrest for their efforts to support democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest in Burma. Others risk their lives to vote or run for office.

Our work is far from done because too many women have no access to health care or family planning. And, nearly every minute there is a women in the world who dies in pregnancy or childbirth and countless more are disabled for life. The scourge of AIDS has a women’s face.

Our works is far from done because violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. The suffering of women and instability of nations go hand in hand.

As the most recent Beijing implementation report noted, “the reality for girls in the region is rather bleak, culturally engrained son preference often results in girl infanticide or feticide, girls have less access to food or an education or are forced into early marriage.”

We must find innovative ways and make more concerted efforts to raise the value of girls, including working more effectively with men and boys. Yesterday, I met with a group of young men from Rajasthan who have become rights advocates on behalf of women and girls in their community. This Men’s Youth Forum is standing up against gender- based violence and they are helping to change attitudes.

Next week heads of state from around the world will gather at the UN in New York for the MDG Summit. Ten years ago nations of the world adopted those measureable targets for reducing poverty by 2015. As we assess progress on the MDGs at this ten-year juncture, we can see that while we have made great sides in some areas, we are still falling short. The Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals are linked together. Millennium Development Goal three on gender equality and women’s empowerment is critical to the realization of all the other Millennium Development Goals. Yet, redressing gender equality remains one of the most difficult goals.

In my own government we are working to integrate women through our foreign policy efforts around the world. President Obama has made global health a priority and launched a 63 billion initiative to improve health and strengthen health systems worldwide. We will continue to make significant investments in the fight against infectious disease, particularly HIV/AIDS which is rapidly becoming a women’s disease. We’ve also put a major emphasis and commitment of resources to ending maternal and child mortality, providing access to family planning and generally improving women’s access to a continuum of care.

The U.S. has also unveiled a major food security initiative to enhance agricultural productivity, end hunger and strengthen the world’s food supply. We know that the majority of small farmers around the world are women and our initiatives recognize that women and men farmers have different needs. Women, for example, need appropriate training, access to credit, and preservation of their land tenure rights.

Another key area of engagement is climate change. Women are the primary users, managers, and stewards of natural resources. In many areas they have the primary responsibility within their families for securing natural resources like water and energy supplies. The effects of climate change, including droughts and floods, which affect women most severely, endanger their livelihood and often their survival.

But women are not just victims; they are critical actors in addressing this challenge. We are working to increase their access to a range of adaptation and mitigation strategies. Better farming practices and technologies like clean cook stoves and solar lanterns not only address environmental degradation, but also provide economic opportunities.

Let me end with news announced just hours ago. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon named the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, to be the UN Under Secretary-General for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and to head the new UN agency, UN Women. She will be a strong voice for women’s empowerment and leadership in this new powerful position. Former President Bachelet also happens to be recipient of a Vital Voices Global Trailblazer award. We strongly supported the creation of UN Women and we applaud the choice of former President Bachelet. This is indeed good news to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.

When then-First Lady Hillary Clinton came to India 15 years ago -- just months before the Beijing conference -- she was handed a poem written by a young Indian college student. She would go on to incorporate the poem into her major speech here in Delhi. She wrote this and I’m paraphrasing.

“It is time to end the silence. Our grandmothers were silent and our mothers were silent. We seek to raise our voices and have power. But it is not for ourselves, it is to give voice and power to others who cannot raise their own voices.” Your voices are vital to create a better life for women and men, girls and boys, everywhere.

As Gandhi said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” You represent that change.

I wish you Godspeed in all you do.