Women Are Agents of Change Around the World, State's Hughes Says

By Carolee Walker
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – When women have access to education, capital and health care, they not only improve the well-being of their own families but the stability of their communities, said Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, at the International Women’s Leadership Conference in Honolulu on August 29.

“When you educate a woman, she teaches her family. Give a woman a micro-grant so she can start a small business in her home and she will buy shoes, milk and books for her children with the profits,” Hughes said.

In the Middle East, according to Hughes, where two-thirds of the estimated 70 million illiterate people are female, U.S.-sponsored education programs for women teach both literacy and practical skills such as better nutrition for children.

“I'll never forget meeting with women at a literacy program in Morocco – as they told me of their pride in being able to go to the market and post office, read for themselves, and for the first time, be able to help their children with homework.”

In Morocco, Hughes said, a new family code promotes equality between men and women and has raised the legal age for marriage for girls from 15 to 18.

One of the major goals of President Bush’s Africa Education Initiative, a U.S.-led partnership designed to increase access to quality basic education and to increase the number of teachers in Africa, is to enroll more girls in school, Hughes said. Through the Ambassadors Girls’ Scholarship Program, the United States will provide 550,000 scholarships to girls at the primary and secondary levels. To date, 180,000 scholarships for tuition, fees, books, uniforms and other essential supplies have been awarded to girls in 40 countries in Africa. (See related article.)

Hughes said enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since Saddam Hussein was removed from power; by 2004 about 35 percent of school-age girls attended school. Hughes said Iraqi women have told her they want a unified Iraq to succeed and emerge peaceful and free. “Women are working at great personal risk to help make it so.”

Every extra year a girl attends school reduces the mortality rate of her children by 8 percent, according to Hughes, who said educated women are three times more likely to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.

“As I have traveled around the world, I have seen that women are increasingly agents of change, arbiters of peace and reconciliation, and advocates of education and health,” Hughes said.

A new generation of women leaders is being voted into office and bringing new backgrounds to government service, Hughes said, allowing women to have a greater impact in their communities outside their homes.

For example, Angela Merkel, Germany’s first woman chancellor, is a former physicist. Prior to running for office in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was an economist and banker. Today, children are back in school in Liberia, which Hughes said was once known as among the “worst places to be a woman on earth” and where an estimated one in 10 children was recruited into militias.

Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, the daughter of a Chilean general who was tortured and died in prison, was a victim of hate, Hughes said, who dedicated her life to turning hate into understanding and tolerance.

“One women’s ability to overcome hate and violence with hope and love is exactly what the world needs more of right now as terrorists seek to exploit political differences and grievances sometimes centuries old to their violent purposes, to the detriment of all of us who want a more peaceful and hopeful future for our children,” Hughes said.

Today in Rwanda, 39 percent of the members of parliament and 40 percent of the Cabinet are women. “After the horrific genocide of the 1990s, when more than 800,000 people were killed,” Hughes said, women “are promoting reconciliation and healing in Rwanda and actively supporting improved literacy and financial credit for women.”

Hughes said mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are vital to advancing freedom, opportunity, education and health care and isolating violent extremists and undermining their ideology of hate and terror.

“We have much progress to celebrate as women around the world advance opportunities for themselves, their families, their communities and their countries,” she said.

For more information, see a fact sheet on the Africa Education Initiative and Women in the Global Community.

A transcript of Hughes’ remarks is available on the State Department Web site.