Posted by Melanne Verveer
Melanne Verveer serves as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
Women are half the world’s population, yet hold less than one fifth of the positions of power in national governments. While it is certainly true that women today have made tremendous gains in reaching the highest rungs of leadership — Brazil, Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia and Bangladesh are among the countries with female presidents — overall the gains remain uneven. Furthermore, the contributions women have made toward achieving peace, prosperity, governance, and civil society in many parts of the globe too often go unrecognized; their inclusion in the political processes of their countries remains limited.
This week, coinciding with the Community of Democracies Ministerial in Vilnius, Lithuania, prominent female leaders representing government and civil society came together in a special conference to redress this imbalance and to commit to increasing support for women’s participation in the public sphere. Co-chaired by President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania and President Tarja Halonen of Finland, the “Women Enhancing Democracy: Best Practices” Conference underscores that women are central to building and sustaining democratic change everywhere. Representing the United States at the Community of Democracies Ministerial, Secretary Hillary Clinton also joined us at the women’s conference, energizing the participants with her inspiring words of encouragement in support of women working in the struggle for democracy and human rights.
This timing of this conference is especially propitious given the essential role women are playing in the democratic movement sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Bringing together the women who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago with women from Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Middle East who were on the frontlines of the Arab Spring, the conference illuminates the diverse yet instrumental ways women have been drivers of political, social and economic development. When women are empowered to fully participate in their country’s political, economic and social spheres, and given the opportunity to work together, women can be force multipliers for democratic change, reform and economic growth. There is a mountain of data that positively correlates investment in women with a country’s prosperity. Countries that fail to recognize the value of the female half of the population are short-changing their own development.
While there is much to be hopeful about, particularly given the enthusiasm and collective energy generated by the Vilnius gathering, we must remain vigilant. The horrific incidents of sexual violence being used to intimidate and punish protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, are a grim reminder that the rights of women are not fully protected and that many of the gains women have made are fragile at best. To address this collective concern, we also focused on the importance of strengthening women’s social status and the need for greater leadership and accountability in tackling violence against women and human trafficking.
Noting that democracy and economic prosperity go hand in hand, we also discussed the importance of women’s economic advancement. The United States has been at the forefront in developing programs supporting women entrepreneurs to increase their economic independence, employment and earning potential. It was very beneficial to exchange experiences with other women who are also making inroads in this crucial area of women’s advancement.
The women I met during the conference are a source of inspiration and strength and a testament to the need for more women in leadership and decisionmaking positions at all levels of society. We also need to seek ways to make it easier and more rewarding for girls to also aspire to enter the field of politics so their voices, energy and ideas can sustain a future generation of female leaders. Women’s active engagement in politics, civil society, and government decision-making are key ingredients to building democracy.
Democracy without women is a contradiction in terms. Investing in women’s political participation and encouraging women to seek leadership positions is investing in a future where democracy will truly take root and the benefits of peace, progress and prosperity are most likely to flourish.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health is celebrating women’s health this week. It brings together communities, businesses, government, health organizations, and other groups in an effort to promote women’s health. The theme for 2011 is “It’s Your Time.” National Women’s Health Week empowers women to make their health a top priority. It also encourages them to take steps to improve their physical and mental health and lower their risks of certain diseases. Those steps include:
- Getting at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both, each week
- Eating a nutritious diet
- Visiting a health care professional to receive regular checkups and preventive screenings
- Avoiding risky behaviors, such as smoking and not wearing a seatbelt
- Paying attention to mental health, including getting enough sleep and managing stress
Order FREE Dear Abby “Healthy Moms Advice Kit”: Get practical tips on hay fever, depression, keeping food safe, getting a good night’s sleep, HPV (human papillomavirus), and other topics. You can order the kit in printed form or view an online version of the publications.
The National Women’s Health Information Center (NWHIC): The NWHIC is a useful resource that offers free women’s health information on hundreds of topics through their call center and website (http://www.womenshealth.gov/). Women can help improve their physical and mental health and lower their risks of certain diseases through regular checkups, preventive screenings, and more. The NWHIC can be reached at the address listed below.
Phone: 1.800.994.WOMAN (1.800.994.9662)
National Women’s Health Information Center
8270 Willow Oaks Corporate Dr.
Fairfax, VA 22031
Hours of Operation: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET
Academy Award winning actress Julia Roberts will join the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as “Global Ambassador,” and together with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will help to bring attention to the global issue that kills nearly 2 million people annually: toxic smoke from unsafe and inefficient cookstoves.
Ms. Roberts first learned about the Alliance’s effort while interviewing Secretary of State Clinton for a special airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “Extraordinary Moms,” presented and executive produced by Ms. Roberts, airs Saturday, May 7 from 8:00-9:30 p.m. (EDT/PDT).
“Nearly 2 million people around the world — mostly women and children — die each year from an activity that many of us take for granted: cooking for our families,” Ms. Roberts said. “I am proud to stand with Secretary Clinton to work to reduce the senseless and preventable deaths from unsafe cooking conditions in the developing world and I look forward to contributing to the important work of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.”
As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, “The United States continues to make women a cornerstone of our foreign policy. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing. Women and girls drive our economies. They build peace and prosperity. Investing in them means investing in global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for everyone-the world over. So let us …[find] ways to ensure women and girls’ access to education, healthcare, jobs, and credit, and to protect their right to live free from violence.”