International Women's Economic Summit "Peace Through Business" Graduation Ceremony

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
July 26, 2011

Thank you for that warm introduction. It is an honor and humbling to be here today with so many who are not content to simply dream of a better world, but are actively working toward one. I especially want to thank my friend Dr. Terry Neese, for her service as the founder and CEO of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women. Terry could have chosen to simply enjoy the fruits of her extraordinary career in business – instead she has chosen the more strenuous, but rewarding path of “paying forward” her knowledge and skills to others. Looking around this room today, I can tell that her commitment to empowering others is infectious. And while more than 150 women have been directly affected by this program’s training since 2006, there are countless more that have been touched by the ripple effects that alumnae create when they return home.

We have gathered here to celebrate the graduates’ send-off as you prepare to return home to grow your enterprises—women invest upwards of 90% in their family and community—and you share the skills and knowledge you have obtained with other female entrepreneurs. This is a great responsibility that you bear. You have a great deal to share– lessons in financing and marketing, management skills and business strategy development.

All are important lessons, necessary to turn the dreams of your fellow entrepreneurs into reality. But there’s another lesson that I urge you to bring back home with you – and that lesson is that we are all in this together.

3,494 miles separate Rwanda from Afghanistan. I can imagine that when you were first selected to participate in the Peace Through Business program, that must have seemed like an awfully large distance - and not just in terms of geography. The differences are considerable and varied – in language, dress, religion and customs. You might have wondered what, if anything, you shared in common with some of your fellow participants.

So where have you found common ground? The daughters of both Rwanda and Afghanistan have been forced to grow up all too fast, raised in the legacy of horrendous war and violence. No one in either country has been unaffected by the legacy of fighting. Both nations have experienced a terrible void left by so many being killed or forced to flee to safety.

And in both places, it has been ordinary women who have stepped up in an extraordinary fashion to lead the way to progress.

In the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in 1994, women and girls made up 70 percent of the population of Rwanda. With a pressing need to rebuild itself, Rwanda could no longer afford to tolerate the discrimination endured by so many generations of women in the past. Doors that had been shut for far too long were suddenly open to women. Girls who did not dare dream of lives outside the home now have jobs. Rwanda leads the world in political representation for females - at 56%, the highest percentage of women in Parliament of any country on Earth and the first to hold a majority. Rwanda has proven why eliminating gender disparities in elected representatives is so crucial, as female representatives have led the way on landmark legislation: reforming laws on sexual violence, property rights and family law.

Rwanda has rightfully been commended for its efforts to institutionalize the role of women in decision making. It has implemented “women’s councils” and “women only elections” to ensure representation. It has established a Ministry for Gender and Women in Development, with the mandate to install gender posts at all levels of governance. It is including the role of women and girls in the long view, incorporating a national gender framework into its Vision 2020 road map for growth. The Rwandan government has set forth a Girls’ Education policy in recognition of the critical importance of ensuring that our young women are in the classroom where they belong. Altogether 97% of both boys and girls in Rwanda attend primary school and girls comprise a full 50 % of students enrolled in college.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the women of Afghanistan have made their own significant advances toward greater equality. It was the women of Afghanistan who were instrumental in weaving women’s’ rights into the fabric of the 2004 Constitution. Now more women are returning to work. Women have been appointed to government ministries, serve as diplomats and today comprise a quarter of the parliament, with a record number of women standing for office in recent years – including Taj Sirat and Rahela Kaveer, two extraordinary leaders who this program can be honored to call alumni.

You know that under the Taliban, fewer than 900,000 boys were enrolled in school and no girls. Today, more than 6.2 million students are enrolled in Afghanistan's schools and 35 percent of them are girls.

But you know that we can’t be satisfied, not even with the progress we have seen so far. Overcoming institutionalized exclusion is a lengthy and difficult process. Domestic violence remains at unacceptably high rates in Rwanda and Afghanistan. Only an estimated 21 percent of Afghan women are literate, and the female illiteracy rate is as high as 90 percent in some of the rural areas. And although broader popular support for girls' schooling and empowerment is building, there are still those extremists who try to impose their brutal agenda by force – whether it is by throwing acid or burning down schools, or gassing brave young women.

We see a leader in Zarha Hossainy, who maintained her grades in high school despite the extraordinary challenge of supporting ten members of her family. She went on to earn a degree in English literature from Herat University and now works with the United Nations in Kabul, when not busy with her home-based carpet weaving company.

We see a leader in Diana Mbabazi, who works a full-time job and still manages to find both the time and energy to run an agro-industrial business that seeks to reduce poverty in her district in Karongi, Rwanda by diversifying agricultural products and reducing crop cultivation.

Chantal and Diana may have grown up a continent away from Mahbooba and Zarha, but it is clear that their struggles – and their triumphs - are linked. As the Secretary of State declared in Bejing in 1995, “human rights are women’s rights” – and that is true on the streets of Kigali and Kabul alike.

These are just a few of the heroes and leaders here today—we see all leaders. The group assembled in this room represents enormous potential that has been stifled for too long in too many parts of the world. You are heading back home as women on missions – to publish online magazines geared toward women. To create the first caring retirement centers for the elderly of Rwanda. To offer specialized technology training to engineers. To establish a fitness center geared toward women. To help others tap their potential and realize their own dreams of self-actualization. And when women progress, everyone benefits: men and women, boys and girls.

The United States is committed to backing you up every step of the way. This is why President Obama and Secretary Clinton have charged the Office of Global Women’s Issues with ensuring that the rights of women are considered across the board, in all of our relationships with our partners around the world. You are the leaders because you are serving on the front lines. It isn’t easy or glamorous. But this is how change comes about – from the woman who decides that she too can be a television graphic designer or a journalist or a school administrator. When times are hard and when change seems to perpetually be an uphill battle, I hope that you will remember the faces around you today. Your fellow leaders. We are all in this together.

I hope that you have taken away from this experience the realization that if a woman is denied a loan because of her gender or denied entry to a classroom because “her place” is deemed to be elsewhere, that makes all of our lives poorer – whether in Africa or Asia or America. However differently we may dress or speak, our differences are dwarfed by the commonality of our struggles and of our humanity. That which divides us is dwarfed by that which unites us.

I have three wishes for new graduates:

  1. That you know the happiness that comes from caring about others;
  2. The rewards of being a visionary activist; and
  3. Experience a world in which women and men are equal, women’s rights are understood as human rights, and women have every opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential and contribute to societies.

Clearly, you already know the happiness that comes from using your activism and your vision in service of others. Work on the third wish. I have total faith that with your leadership, we can make that dream a reality, as well. Because women’s rights are human rights and we cannot settle for anything less.

Congratulations and Godspeed.