Armenian Women's Leadership Conference

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
October 12, 2011

(As prepared)

It is my honor to be able to address you on this wonderful occasion. I only regret that I cannot be in San Francisco today with all of you who have gathered from across Armenia, the United States, Russia, Lebanon, Argentina, Canada, Europe and beyond. I salute you for the work that you are doing on behalf of Armenian women all around the world. It is so crucial that the diaspora community of women remains engaged, no matter how far from Armenia you may find yourselves. You are an inspiration in the work that you are doing.

I have seen firsthand your commitment and enthusiasm. A few of you I met during conferences in New York; others in Armenia and I'm so impressed by your commitment and active leadership in making a difference.

I was pleased to accompany Secretary Clinton on her trip to Armenia several months ago. I had the opportunity to have a long and thoughtful discussion in Yerevan with some of Armenia's women leaders from civil society, government and business. They told me about their challenges and their achievements - and one of the outcomes of my visit was the "Invest in the Future" conference that the State Department hosted in Istanbul for women in business from the Caucuses, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.

The women not only created regional business relationships but also had access to new support, enabling them to be more effective in their businesses and in contributing to the overall economy of their countries. We know that women-run small and medium size business are accelerators for economic growth and critical to any country’s prosperity and economic competitiveness.

The Armenian women who came to Istanbul were enthusiastic participants and since they returned home to Armenia, they've created a vibrant network and are continuing to grow their business skills and their enterprises --- and our embassy has stayed engaged with them.

Because we know that when women progress, countries progress. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. Women’s political, social and economic empowerment is critical to driving positive development in every society. Today, there is a mountain of data that positively correlates investment in women with a country’s prosperity.

Around the world, women are entering the field of politics and government in growing numbers, yet their gains have been uneven. In Armenia, high ranking officials such as the Minister of Culture and Youth and the Minister of Diaspora are women. In 2010, America's wonderful former ranking diplomat to Armenia, Ambassador Yovanovitch, awarded the United States’ Freedom Defender’s Award to two extraordinary female judges who had taken bold stands for human rights.

While these are positive developments, women are still vastly underrepresented in Armenia, the U.S. and globally. Women are half the population - yet they hold less than one-fifth of positions in national governments. Many are discouraged from entering the political arena for a variety of reasons. This means that important decisions that affect women, their families, and their societies are made without their having a voice. Democracy without women is a contradiction in terms. We should all work to help women become more successful political candidates by helping them address the range of challenges they confront.

The women of Armenia were instrumental in passing 2007 legislation that aimed at increasing the number of women in public office – a crucial step forward for Armenia. Women must also have the ability to exercise responsibilities effectively once in office. We need capacity-building for governance, we need networks and alliances to help women surmount barriers and we need to keep working to break down the stereotypes that continue to hold women back. That is why events such as this are so important.

Women are the agents of change in society - advancing political, economic, and social progress, creating peace and stability - and we need each and every one of you to lend your skill and energy to creating a better future. In March, Ambassador Yovanovitch presented the U.S. Embassy’s Women of Courage Award to honor the late activist Ms. Amalia Kostanian for her decade-long crusade to promote accountable and transparent governance, combat corruption, and strengthen civil society engagement. Her persistence and dedication to Armenia’s development and democratization exemplified honor and patriotism of the highest order, and her actions conveyed the message that we are all responsible for tackling corruption. As her example makes clear, women’s participation in government, civil society, business, education and so much more is critical to overcoming challenges, healing divisions, and creating a better life for everyone – men and women, boys and girls.

I vividly recall the story of one entrepreneur from Armenia I met at the economic forum in Istanbul. Her name is Kareen and she exemplified the key elements of the conference: regional cooperation, personal effort as an entrepreneur, and networking. Kareen runs her own production company that creates TV videos about neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Georgia, and her programs have been a success on TV and their contributions to sustainable regional peace are not to be underestimated.

Think of how many more Kareens there are in Armenia and around the world. As Secretary Clinton has stated, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” When women are provided opportunity, they invest in their families and communities. Even when the challenges look daunting, women continue to be on the frontlines for positive change.

I hope you will carry with you a renewed sense of possibility and commitment and continue to use your skills and energy to contribute to the growth and progress of your families, your communities, and your countries ---- and in a special way to continue to be a support to the women in Armenia. Women can and will help create a stronger, more stable, more secure, more prosperous, more peaceful world. I wish you all a successful and fruitful conference, and I look forward to hearing about your progress. Thank you.