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Diplomacy in Action

Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Leadership that Gets Results and Builds Collaborations

Alyssa Ayres
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Keynote Address at the South Asia Women Parliamentarians' Conference: Women Leading for Gender Responsive Governance
Dhaka, Bangladesh
July 8, 2012


As prepared

Good morning. And assalamu aleikum, namaskar, and ayubowan!

Shuprobat! Ami apnaderke dekhe khubi khushi. Asha kori amra shobai ajker din upobhog korbo. Dhonnobad! (“Good morning. I am very happy to see you all. I hope we all have an enjoyable day today. Thank you!”)

Thank you for inviting me to join you for this extremely important conference focusing on women and governance. I am very honored to be here with you all today.

We’re also delighted to work with partners who have come together to make this intensive series of discussions a reality. I'd like to thank the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development and the United States Agency for International Development for sponsoring this event, and the Asia Foundation and the State University of New York's Center for International Development, who have organized and managed this conference, making it all possible.

I also want to acknowledge the Parliamentarians who have taken time out of their busy schedules from all across South Asia to join us today. I believe we have about 130 women Parliamentarians from across the region! It is so nice to be able to welcome you here. You are here today because you are amongst the too few women working in government as elected officials, and you are trailblazers in your countries and in the region, so we look forward to hearing about your experiences.

What brings us together is an interest in learning from one another about challenges facing women in political participation, and we hope that the conversations that will take place today--and in the coming days--will help further your work, and build collaborations towards these shared goals.

This conference has truly brought together a remarkable and extremely distinguished group of participants from the region and beyond, including of course first and foremost the accomplished women Parliamentarians who will drive the discussions of the coming days, but as well a tremendous roster of leaders from Bangladesh's Parliament and the Prime Minister's Office; many illustrious ambassadors and high commissioners from neighboring countries as well as others; Bangladesh's world-renown NGO community; development experts from the region and beyond, including UNDP and the World Bank; senior members of the media; and many other donor community supporters.

Thank you to everyone for making the time to join these discussions. I am very much looking forward to the conversation that will unfold over the coming days.

Let's talk a little bit about numbers. All of us are here today because we believe that the challenge of opportunities for women’s leadership is not yet fully solved—and we want to keep working toward solutions. To give you an example from my own country, less than two weeks ago an essay was published that within hours was the talk of the nation.

I’m referring to the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Dr. Anne Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, and of course the first women director of Policy Planning in the State Department.

Dr. Slaughter wrote about the challenges she faced in one of the most senior roles in the State Department, especially in trying to find a way to balance the demands of work with the demands of family life. She has gotten all of us – women, and men as well – talking about what we’d like to see our society accommodate—and how we could create a better society in the process.

It’s certainly true that we have come a long way. Women are leading countries and leading companies, and we are making our mark in every field.

But we probably all agree there is room for improvement.

In that context, we’re in a pretty special region here in South Asia, where Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all elected women as prime minister or president.

In fact, when Sri Lanka was still called Ceylon, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became world's first elected woman prime minister in 1960. In her third term as prime minister, her daughter (Chandrika) held the newly more powerful position as president after having briefly been Prime Minister.

India’s Indira Gandhi became the world’s second woman head of government when she became prime minister in 1966.

Pakistan elected Benazir Bhutto as prime minister twice, for the first time in 1988. And what will be well known to all here: Bangladesh has had two women prime ministers—with Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, or Khalida Zia of the BNP, at the very top of this country’s politics nearly continuously since 1991.

How do things look in party politics? Globally, although women comprise 40 to 50 percent of members of political parties, they hold only about 10 percent of party leadership positions.

As of 2011, women account for 18 percent of members of South Asia’s legislatures, up from more than 13 percent in 1995. Women’s representation exceeds 25 percent in just four countries: Nepal, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Unfortunately, the United States is no exception. According to our own Congressional Research Service, in our Congress the percentage of voting female representation is 16.6%. That’s lower than in many other countries. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which maintains a database of worldwide female representation, ranks the United States 69th worldwide.

Again according to the IPU, women hold almost 20 percent of seats in parliaments worldwide, and serve as heads of government in over 20 countries, including in Costa Rica, Liberia, Lithuania, and of course Bangladesh.

While these are positive developments, women are still vastly underrepresented globally. That 20 percent is better than several decades ago. But it also means approximately 4 out of 5 parliamentarians are still men.

So clearly, we all have a lot of work to do. Let’s look at this as a call to each of us to work to encourage female participation in politics, at all levels.

So what are we doing to keep pushing towards success? I’ll focus on the foreign policy aspects of our work on women’s empowerment since that is the State Department’s role.

The empowerment of women is a key policy priority for the Obama Administration. At the State Department, Secretary Clinton has made women’s empowerment a cornerstone for everything that we do; additionally, she elevated the focus on women’s empowerment by appointing the first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer.

In the South and Central Asia bureau, our assistant secretary, Bob Blake, is a great supporter of the empowerment of women and has worked hard to promote economic opportunities and education in the region for women.

Under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, the United States has put women in the forefront of the three pillars of our foreign policy—diplomacy, development, and defense— in recognition of our powerful role as drivers of peace, stability and economic growth.

Women’s empowerment is embodied in the President’s National Security Strategy, the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, and the 2010 U.S. Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

The United States Government has made significant progress in our efforts to specifically address gender-based violence, including through the development of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which fulfills our obligation as a signatory of UN Resolution 1325.

This reflects the unprecedented focus the United States Government has brought to promoting equality and advancing the status of women and girls in the pursuit of peace and security around the world.

In March 2012, both the Secretary of State and USAID issued new policy guidance on advancing gender equality in the United States’ foreign policy. This had an immediate effect on the way we do business, including ensuring gender-based violence is a focus for USAID interventions.

But, one of our most important efforts to promote equal representation of women is the Women in Public Service project. Announced by the Secretary last December, the project seeks to build a generation of women leaders who will invest in their countries and communities, provide leadership in their governments, and change the way global solutions are forged.

We are looking for tangible progress with this initiative: It is our hope that by 2050, we will find a world in which political and civic leadership is at least 50 percent female. This is going beyond breaking the glass ceiling to leadership across the board.

Women’s political participation, role in civil society, and in government decision-making are key ingredients to building strong democracies and promoting peace and stability in the region and beyond. Democracy without the full participation of women is a contradiction as it is a simple fact that no country can fully progress or prosper if half its citizens are left behind. Progress for women, democratic development and good governance go hand in hand.

There is a growing body of evidence proving that women’s full political and economic participation in society is critical to economic development and sustaining peace and stability.

For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Poverty Action Lab studies show the impact of women’s leadership on policy decisions. In India, for example, women leaders invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant to the needs of not just their own gender, but the needs of their communities. That is the kind of investment that creates sustainable change, and provides better results for all of society.

Moreover, at the country level, according to the World Bank, higher rates of female participation in government are associated with lower levels of corruption; a goal for which we should all strive.

Women, like all of you here today, are a vibrant force in civil society, working around the world to advance social, economic, and democratic progress, safeguard human rights, and promote peace.

Women the world over are strengthening democracies and creating more equitable societies. It is in our interest – for ourselves, for our children, and for our communities – to support those efforts.

Many colleagues gathered here today will perhaps have personal memories of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing in 1995. The conference produced an unprecedented Platform for Action that was adopted by the United States and 188 other countries.

The conference served as a call to action on multiple fronts, including access to education and health, the right to live free from violence, and the opportunity to participate fully in the economic and political lives of their country. The Platform for Action underscores: “Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of the perspective of women at all levels of decision-making, the goals for equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.”

The Beijing action plan called for women’s participation at the level of 30 percent. This goal has been embraced in word, if not in practice, by many international and national bodies. But, to date, the 30 percent critical mass mark for women’s representation in parliament has been reached or exceeded in only 28 countries.

One large-scale example lies in India. There, approximately 40 percent of all elected representatives in villages and municipal councils are now women, following the 1993 Constitutional amendment reserving at least one-third of the seats for women in India’s 265,000 village governing bodies.

More than a million women across India have since been elected into the reserved positions in these panchayats, which administer public services and resolve disputes on matters ranging from marriage to property. The success of India’s panchayats has often been referred to as a silent revolution within the democratic decentralization process.

According to many studies, women-led panchayats have provided more public services, from building wells to roads, and they acquired more public funding for local projects. These panchayats improved attention to service delivery such as the water supply, sanitation, and other issues including education.

The large presence of women in local governments has brought women considerable gains— both social as well as psychological— including enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence, which has led to a greater role for women in their households and in the community.

Not surprisingly, the increasing numbers of women in government bodies helps inspire young girls to improve their own lives. For example, according to a new study, based on a survey of roughly 8,000 girls and their parents conducted by the MIT Poverty Action Lab, increased presence and visibility of female politicians in local government raises the academic performance and career aspirations of young women in India.

Those are pretty impressive results.

Getting elected is one part of the battle but being an effective official when in office is another. At all levels of elected office, women need leadership development programs that enable them to be more effective political leaders.

Because of obstacles confronted by women in finding a space in politics, women need wider networks and alliances to enhance the kind of participation that will enable them to surmount barriers. This conference is a place that can foster those invaluable networks.

One example of a joint effort to build the capacity of newly-elected women leaders is a new forum on which the U.S. State Department and the Asian University for Women—right here in Bangladesh, in Chittagong—are collaborating. The “Grassroots Women’s Political Leadership Forum” will bring together a total of 60 grassroots women political leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to participate in a 10-day regional seminar on effective political leadership development.

The Leadership Forum will take place this September at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong and will enable the participants to focus on substantive issues that affect their communities, as well as on effective ways to leverage their leadership skills and potential through training in public speaking, leadership development, coalition building, campaigning and fundraising.

While the focus of the forum is to help women acquire concrete leadership skills they need in order to be effective local leaders, the forum will also offer exposure to critical themes of good governance including: the environment, public health, economic development, anti-corruption, access to information, and human rights.

The Leadership Forum will be led by the inspirational Ambassador Nasim Firdaus, who established the very important Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership. The forum will draw upon the talents of many capable professors at the Asia University for Women, which is the only pan-Asian university for women in the region.

This forum is intended to provide an opportunity to engage a key group of women, already involved in grassroots initiatives and local governance, in best practices in local governance. The Leadership Forum will also offer a venue for these grassroots women leaders to share their own experiences with their counterparts from across the region. Together, they will build networks and other avenues for increasing regional cooperation and collaboration.

We are also sensitive to the role civil society plays, not just as an agent of change, but also as an incubator to train women in the skills they need to run for and succeed in office. Therefore, civil society activists also require capacity building for the range of challenges they confront. One of the key ways that women have gained access to political opportunities is through their engagement with the work of NGOs, and the U.S. actively engages with civil society groups.

Through our efforts to ensure that women are integral to all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. government has identified opportunities and created synergies to strengthen women's ability to tap into opportunities for political empowerment, participation, and decision-making. Many of our training, exchanges and small grants programs are specifically aimed at creating opportunities for women’s political participation and leadership development.

For example, the State Department regularly bring groups of women to the United States through travel-study programs aimed at strengthening the visitors’ understanding of the role of the U.S. government and federalism and introducing them to history of women’s rights in the U.S. These types of exchanges can have a powerful impact on the lives of women.

All around the world, women are blazing new trails and triumphing over long-entrenched obstacles, resulting in major advancements to the development agenda and global progress.

The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues supports these efforts by providing high-impact grants through U.S. embassies to community-based organizations working to meet the critical needs of women and girls around the world. These grants, totaling over $1.3 million, support 16 programs in 13 countries aimed at increasing women’s understanding and application of their legal rights and increasing their political and civic participation.

Today I have described a few of the ways we are trying to reinforce opportunities for women to keep breaking through that glass ceiling, gaining greater and greater representation in governance at all levels. Together we can help attain our goal of 50 percent by 2050!

The United States is committed to working for the advancement and empowerment of women, with political participation as a cornerstone of that work. You know what it takes to be elected and to be a representative of your people. The kind of ambition and drive you have to make changes and make the world a better place to live in for your families and for generations to come is an inspiration to all of us.

As Secretary Clinton said recently, “We’ve been focused intently here at the State Department on the challenges facing women and girls, and we’ve done that not just because we think it’s a moral imperative and absolutely historically necessary. We’ve done that because we really believe that transforming the lives of women and girls transforms societies, countries, and our world.”

You all are at the forefront of that transformation, and we salute you for all that you are doing to make that glass ceiling a metaphor of the past.


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