Remarks at Women Enhancing Democracy Event
Secretary of State
(In progress) and thank you for your patience. I appreciate greatly being here for this important conference as part of the Community of Democracies beginning its second decade. And I want to acknowledge those who are on the podium with me. Thank you, Wendy, for that introduction; and Margot Wallstrom, thank you for the work you’re doing; and my friend, the president from Finland who has been a great leader in so many of these issues for so long; and my friend and our host and our ally in this important conference, Dalia, thank you so much for everything that you have done.
It is such a pleasure for the United States to be co-chairing the Community of Democracies Working Group on Gender Equality and the Promotion of the Rights of Women with a trailblazer when it comes to women in politics. And I am delighted to see in the audience so many distinguished leaders from across the world. In addition to the presidents of Finland and Lithuania, we have also Mongolia, Kosovo; I know Cathy Ashton will also be part of this important conference. And I’m also told by our global ambassador for women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, that the conversation has already been very productive.
I think this is an important time for us all to pause and take stock of where we are as democracies and whether we are fulfilling the promise and potential that we so believed in over the last decades. When the Soviet Union collapsed here in Europe, we knew that there was a lot of work to be done to build democratic institutions, to ensure the rule of law, accountability, transparency, protection of minorities, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so much else. But we also knew that if democracy did not deliver in tangible ways, in improving the lives of people, there would be great disappointment. And it was essential that women, half the population, needed to be given the opportunity to fully experience the benefits of freedom.
I’m not sure we could have foreseen even 10 or 11 years ago how much progress has been made. Just look at Lithuania today. Not only has it conducted a very successful chairmanship of the Community of Democracies, but it is setting a high standard for the rest of us – a female president, a female speaker of parliament, a female finance minister, and a female defense minister. Why, pretty soon, they’re going to start comparing Lithuania to Finland. (Laughter.) (Applause.) And what Central and Eastern Europe have proven is that democracy without the full rights and responsibilities guaranteed and the full participation welcomed of women is a contradiction. And so we can look at this region and see an enormous amount of progress. But let’s be very honest with ourselves – there is still a long way to travel.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 20 percent of seats in parliaments worldwide are now held by women. I would add that’s a higher percentage than in my own country. And with one-half the population, there is simply no reason women should only be represented at one-fifth of the seats at the table. In too many places, still today, and in too many discussions affecting the futures of entire societies, women’s voices, their vital voices are underrepresented or absent altogether.
But as we look at new democracies taking hold, from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East and Asia, I think there are so many lessons that can be learned and applied from what happened here in Europe.
Think about the Polish women who ran a shipyard’s newspaper that helped bring about a revolution that truly did change the world. Think about a woman like Nasta Palazhanka of Belarus, who joined a youth protest movement at age 14 and continues to devote her life to bringing freedom and human rights to her country. Or think about a woman like Zane Olina, who returned home from a Fulbright Scholarship in America and created a corps of volunteer teachers to serve in poor Latvian communities, and she calls her program Mission Possible. And of course, we see it in the President of Lithuania, who as an economist and now as president, has helped to put and keep Lithuania on the path to prosperity.
So if we are looking for examples of individual leadership, of results, we have many we can share from Europe. Today, it is North Africa and the Middle East experiencing its own season of change, and we especially have to work together to ensure that all people – women, as well as men – are part of that change.
Across the region, we have seen on our own television screens how women have stood on the frontlines of the struggle for freedom and human rights. They have more than earned their place as equals in the democratic societies they have struggled to create, but we know that transitions to democracy are difficult. And we know that they come from the soil of preexisting cultures, and so we have to be sure that democratic change doesn’t leave women behind. We need to, for example, ensure that the new democratic Tunisia embraces and reaffirms its commitment to women’s equality.
The United States was disappointed to see only two Tunisian women appointed to the Transitional Government, but there is also some good news. In April, the commission responsible for drafting Tunisia’s new electoral code ruled that there must be full gender parity on election candidate lists and not just at the bottom of the lists, but from the top down. And for our part, we are supporting on-the-ground efforts to increase women’s participation in the political process.
In Egypt, we have seen steps both forwards and backwards. Women played an absolutely critical role in carrying out Egypt’s revolution, and yet Egypt’s constitutional committee does not have a single female member. When women marched to celebrate International Women’s Day, they were harassed and abused. As one woman put it, “The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go. But now that he has gone, they want me to go home.” So the United States supports efforts like the Charter of Egyptian Women. Nearly 500,000 women and men and 500 NGOs signed on to a set of demands for the political, social, and economic rights of women in Egypt. And we will be funding a wide variety of programs to help Egyptian women as they exercise their roles as community leaders, business owners, and citizens.
And today, we are pleased to welcome women from across the Arab world, including Hoda Badran of the Alliance for Arab Women. It’s a sign of how important the relationships are between old, young, and new democracies that they have taken the time, as their countries undergo dramatic change, to be here with us today.
We also need an active effort to ensure that women are safe from violence in the political process, on the streets, in their homes. And we were very troubled by reports of sexual violence used by governments to intimidate and punish protesters seeking democratic reforms in some Middle Eastern and North African countries. We urge all governments to conduct immediate, transparent investigations to hold those responsible accountable.
Just this past week, the United States and the United Nations came together, as we often have, to once again stand up against violence that affects women and girls. We are particularly concerned about the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have committed more than $30 million to combat sexual and gender-based violence there. And we salute the Lithuanian parliament for making it clear that there is absolutely no safe space, in public or in private, for violence against women. This is not a private a concern. It is a matter of public interest and human rights.
I think we also have to remember, as we meet in this beautiful hall, talking about women and democracy, how many tens of millions, hundreds of millions, of women and girls in the world today don’t yet even have the basic necessities of life – deprived of education, deprived of health care, deprived of an opportunity to live up to their own God-given potential. And we will campaign for their rights, and we will work for the changes that are necessary.
But I also want to remind us to keep our eye on what happens every day in their lives, and look for ways we can make a difference. For example, the World Health Organization considers smoke from dirty cooking stoves to be one of the five most serious health risks affecting people in poor and developing countries. And who’s mostly hunched over those stoves, breathing that dirty air, harming their health, shortening their lives? Who mostly is wandering for hours looking for fuel, either trees and twigs or dung? Who is it that really bears the brunt of the work that is done day to day in most places in the world? Well, it is women and girls. And in an effort to try to provide clean cookstoves in 100 million homes by 2020, the United States, along with many other countries, led by the United Nations Foundation, is part of the Clean Cookstoves Global Alliance.
Because we think changing the conditions of women and girls must go hand-in-hand; their economic, political, and social empowerment must be addressed simultaneously.
This January, as a commitment to the Community of Democracies, the United States brought together more than 120 women from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus who own or wish to start small to medium-sized businesses to kick off the Invest for the Future Initiative. We want to help women across the world to train, network, and connect so that they too can start businesses to support themselves and their families, and eventually, employ their neighbors. And we will be expanding this program into Central Asia, the Balkans, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine.
We are especially appreciative of the work that has been done by so many of the European leaders represented here. We thank all of you for that support. I particularly want to thank the Scandinavian countries for the work you do to integrate refugees into your societies by giving women access to work and education, and by protecting women from the scourge of human trafficking. I want to acknowledge the programs that The Netherlands are running to train civil society leaders and business women in Afghanistan. And I want to thank Lithuania again for your support for women entrepreneurs in Georgia, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Ukraine.
We want to do more to figure out what it is women themselves want, because we don’t want to be in a position of imposing or trying to sell ideas that may or may not be responsive to the needs that women themselves have. Through the Gender Equality Working Group, we partnered with The Netherlands to put together dialogues with female civil society leaders. The first meeting was in Tunisia in May; it brought together women from Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon.
So our work is to help empower and enable, to convene and then to support. Our struggle is not just about the choices people make in the voting booth, it’s about all the choices that should be available to women today – to study, to take out a loan, to inherit money, to win custody of children, to start a business, to drive.
Sometimes dignity means nothing more profound than to walk safely to fetch water or visit a friend without fear that you’ll be beaten, harassed, or kidnapped. But for too many women in too many places, even these most basic rights remain a distant dream. Whether you are a woman in downtown Cairo or a mother in a small Indian village or a girl growing up right here in Vilnius or in New York City, we have to send a clear, unmistakable message that young women, just like young men, have the right to their dreams and their dignity in the 21st century.
When you look back at the last 300 years of history, you can see a pattern. You can see that the 19th century, the great human rights struggle was against organized slavery; the 20th century, the great struggle was against totalitarianism; the great struggle of the 21st century is to ensure that women are fully given the rights they have as human beings – in their families, in their societies, and in the world.
So let us work together, day by day, to make sure that when we meet again 10 years from now, we will be able to look back on progress, not only continuing progress in my country, which someday, perhaps, will match Finland and Lithuania with having a woman president – (laughter) – but in every country everywhere – (applause). And particularly, let those of us who enjoy the benefits of freedom, for whom legal restrictions and barriers have been broken down, and what remains are more internal, more psychological – let us be sure that we keep opening doors for those elsewhere. We cannot take any solace in our own freedoms when women elsewhere are denied those same rights.
So this is a great opportunity for us to come together and acknowledge that women’s progress is essential for global progress, and the United States stands with all of you as we make that progress together. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)