Web Chat: International Women's Issues

Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Washington, DC March 16, 2005

Thank you for the opportunity today to talk about the work the State Department is doing to promote the rights of women all over the world.
Reporting directly to the Under Secretary for Global Affairs, the Office of International Women's Issues (G/IWI) serves as the focal point in the Administration for the development and implementation of the U.S. pro-women foreign policy agenda.

Our main priorities are to broaden women's political participation, increase women's economic opportunities, support efforts to increase women's access to education and health care, and enhance U.S. outreach efforts to women across the globe. We are particularly focused on building bridges to the diverse women in the Muslim world. Why is there a need for the United States to have a special coordinating office devoted to women's issues, one might ask? Well, no country can succeed without the participation and contributions of all members of society.

As we have learned from our own history, no society can be truly free or democratic unless all members have equal rights and access to opportunities.

Secretary Rice has said, "We have been very outspoken about the need of every society to make sure the women's rights are protected" And it's not only in our moral interest but "it's also in the interests of those societies, economically, and in terms of modernity, that women take a rightful place and are fully contributing to the prosperity of these societies."

We are especially proud that the United States has led the international community in helping Afghan women take a more prominent role in political participation and civil society and have helped put more Afghan girls back in school.

The United States has also played a significant role in supporting democracy-building programs that helped Iraqi women candidates learn democratic organization and advocacy skills.

Highlights of U.S. programs and initiatives already underway to build and strengthen the capacity of women in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Broader Middle East include:

The U.S. Afghan Women's Council, (USAWC): Launched in January 2002, this public-private partnership mobilizes government and private sector resources to help Afghan women participate and take leadership roles in the political and economic life in their country.

The $10-Million Iraq Women's Initiative: Established in March 2004, this $10 million fund provides training for women in political leadership, coalition-building, media and entrepreneurial skills. Carried out in partnership with our NGO (non-government organizations) grantees, the initiative helped to prepare women to compete in the January 30 elections and will continue to assist women as they forge ahead with the task of drafting a permanent Constitution.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA), are programs that advocate for women's legal rights, provide literacy and skills training, political and leadership training, and aim to bring women into civil society and the business community.

Now I'll be glad to take any questions you might have relating to women's issues.

Question: Why hasn't the US been able to do more to curtail human trafficking especially in places like Cambodia and the Eastern European countries?

Answer: Under President Bush's leadership, the U.S. has devoted more than $93.5 million to combat trafficking. The U.S. is working actively to address trafficking on all fronts and in every region, in terms of protection, prevention and prosecution.

Question: From your experience, what social and economic factors are key to promoting equality and freedom for international women.

Answer: That's a great question! Our priorities for helping women focus on fostering women's political leadership and economic opportunities, and women everywhere remind us that education is key to women's active participation in both of those areas.

Question: Has the Department of State submitted a report to the U.N. on progress on the Beijing Platform in the United States and where can we get a copy of such a report?

Answer: Yes! In preparation for our participation at the recent UN Commission on the Status of Women, we submitted a comprehensive report on the range of US activities during the 10 years since Beijing.

Question: Good afternoon. Are you satisfied with what caliber of women the U.S. selects to help in your arena of Diplomacy? In other words is the Department able to recruit women who have an adequate back ground?

Answer: Since September 11, 2001, the American response to public service, including jobs in the Department of State as Foreign Service Officers and Civil Service, has been phenomenal. More than 15,000 individuals register annually to take the Foreign Service Officer written examination. This year it will be given April 23, but it is not too late to register (by March 23). We are very impressed by the professional talent in our Department.

Question: Ms. Ponticelli, it is shame that talented women like you are not utilized to fix our own urgent problems here at home. According to CNN, Dec. 10, 2004, One-third of all U.S. children are born out of wedlock.

Answer: I have to say that one of the most rewarding aspects of my job here at State is the opportunity it gives me to help form and reinforce Partnerships -- not just partnerships between and among governments, but also partnerships with women here in the US private sector. I find the American women I meet with -- in business, in academia, in NGO's etc. -- to be very capable and committed to addressing the range of challenges here at home.

Question: Residing in the U.S. are women interested in helping within this international area; these women have the background to assist. Does your Department or Agency (or similar ones) successfully recruit them.

Answer: We actively recruit women. For additional information go to www.careers.state.gov. We also send Department officials to colleges to speak to interested students about Department of State careers.

Question: Do you think that the woman in U.S.A is suffering now any discrimination?

Answer: I'm glad you asked that question. As Sec. Rice pointed out last week on International Women's Day, "America's founders did not create a perfect union, but the legacy they left behind was a system of government that had within it the means within it to correct its own imperfections." Democracy is never perfect, and discrimination can always occur, but we are blessed with laws and institutions to address discrimination when it occurs.

Question: From your experience what would you like to see happen on the U.S. side in these changing times, in terms of helping women internationally.

Answer: We have so many talented women (and men) in the U.S. And so many approach us every week asking what they can do to help. My goal would be to increase the opportunities for matching those talents here with the critical needs on-the-ground in so many places around the world.

Question: Why are some questions given a response and others ignored. Is there a selection process that eliminates some type questions?

Answer: I have received hundreds of questions during this chat already and am going as fast as I can.

Question: What will the follow-up be to the recent visit from the Afghan and Iraq delegations?

Answer: I'm heading to Afghanistan in just a few days to prepare for our next meeting of the US-Afghan Women's Council, under the leadership of Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky and Min. for Women's Affairs Massouda Jalal.

We'll use that meeting to follow up on Min. Jalal's recent visit here. Before she left, Min. Jalal received a check for $2.5 million for her ministry. On Iraq, we're seeking continued funding to help on Min. Othman's priorities.

Question: How does the State Department propose to affect changes of the plight of women in Islamic nations or within Islamic societies within >> non-Islamic>> nations?

Answer: Now that women have taken such brave steps in the recent elections that have occurred, for example in Afghanistan and Iraq, they tell us that their current priorities concern training and support for constitutional and legal reform and legal awareness initiatives.

Our efforts to help them will therefore continue to focus on practical training and skills to help them as they move forward.

Question: Will it be appropriate to ask what your specific responsibilities are in the State Department.?

Answer: My office seeks to foster women's political participation and economic empowerment by identifying specific needs and solutions to the challenges the women themselves identify. We are a clearing house, in a sense, and network central in the Department of State, matching needs to resources.

Question: In your work, have you found a connection between women's education and the spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa?

Answer:Yes -- absolutely! There's no question that there is a direct connection between women's education and their susceptibility to HIV/AIDS. One of our US-funded programs provides HIV/AIDS awareness training to illiterate market women in Togo, for example, to become peer counselors.

I should also mention that property and inheritance rights is another important women's issue directly connected to the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which has increasingly taken on a woman's face.

Question: Agriculture is a fundamental ingredient to consider in developing countries. The small minority farmer; and particularly minority farmer, is cognizant of the many issues and problems women face in business.
What process are you utilizing to ensure participation in your program by women entrepreneurs in the field of agricultural particularly those who produce food products and document sales figures under one million dollars per year?

Answer: Great question, and one that's extremely important for women in countries like Afghanistan, where we are currently looking at every possible avenue for encouraging women in business (and particularly agribusiness) as a way to help address the poppy cultivation problem. The women in Afghanistan, especially the widows, will tell us that a top priority for them is jobs!
We have already had some exciting projects we've been working on with USDA.

Question: Being that education is a vehicle towards building the nation state and given the fact that many Middle Eastern women are employed as teachers and administrators in schools, what is being done to enhance the professional development for these women as teacher leaders and administrative leaders?

Answer: Teacher training is a key concern. Forgive me if I stay too long on Afghanistan (since I'm heading back real soon!), but I should point out that thanks to the support of First Lady Laura Bush, we now have a new teacher training institute in Kabul and literacy-training to reach the rural areas.
In the Broader Middle East, literacy for women and girls and training of teachers is a high priority.

Question: I am also curious if there are any people connected with the DoS who would be willing to answer some questions about careers at State or if there are any resources/opportunities for dialogue about such things with real, live people.

Answer: Yes, if you search www.careers.state.gov there should be contact information.
Also, if your institution would like someone to come to speak to a group of interested folks you can request a recruiter from human resources or from our office of public liaison
at 202-647-5171.

Question: As a fellow woman could you describe how you have experienced your job; explain in any way comfortable to you.

Answer: I feel so lucky and honored to have this chance to serve the President -- sometimes it's a lot of work and it's easy to get discouraged, especially when we lose one of our courageous women in Iraq...But sometimes these women give us so much more than we give them -- they inspire and they are so grateful to the USA.

Working with the women of the world is just awesome!

Question: How were the folks who are chatting with you right now selected?

Answer: We sent out an announcement to hundreds of community groups, colleges and universities and contacts. This is our second webchat and we hope the word will continue to spread. We also post chat announcements on our main page at www.state.gov where anyone who is interested may participate.

Question: Saudi Arabia recently held local elections, but only men were allowed to vote. What did the US do to try to convince the Saudis that women should be granted the opportunity to vote?

Answer: We view the elections in Saudi Arabia as an important first step, though we were so disappointed about the exclusion of women. We believe that as events in Iraq and the region have recently demonstrated, there is a momentum for positive change.

And there are many tools in the toolkit for encouraging that positive momentum (e.g. some of our special training programs for Saudi women and through our Middle East Partnership Initiative in general).

Question: Ms. Ponticelli what will Ms. Karen Hughes to accomplish?
I am Muslim American women who is tired of being painted as backward and unliberated.

Answer: We are very excited about Karen Hughes' appointment. Here at State we have already seen her clear and firm commitment to advancing the cause of women not just in Afghanistan and the Broader Middle East, but around the world!

If anyone can succeed at this huge task of public diplomacy, it's Karen Hughes!

Question: Do you work specifically on only Arab women issues?

Answer: Thank you! No, it's true that Afghanistan and Iraq and Middle East are currently our top priorities, but we are a global office and working on a range of issues important for women in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Women's work is never done!

Question: Is President Bush interested in women's issues?- Globally

Answer: Prsident Bush is a true champion of women's human rights, and under his leadership we make sure the U.S. puts its money where its mouth is, in terms of practical and critical projects to advance women's economic and political empowerment and educational opportunities.
Left, right or center, we can all be proud of U.S.leadership on these vital issues.



First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary Rice hosted a special conference for women leaders from 15 Muslim countries on International Women's Day, March 8. We wanted to hear directly from these women about the challenges and opportunities that women face in their countries, the issue of preserving women's rights and creating democratic institutions in the face of different interpretations of Islam, and the most effective ways for the United States to help.

Included in this larger group, were women leaders from Afghanistan and Iraqi, including the Ministers of Women's Affairs from both countries. My office organized and funded their visit to New York City and Washington. In New York City, these vibrant and dedicated women leaders attended the Commission on the Status of Women and met private sector and academic leaders.

In Washington they participated in meetings with the Administration, Congress and diverse non-governmental partners and met President Bush and Secretary of State Rice.

As a result of these very full, productive and enlightening two weeks, our Office is all the more resolved to continue to help these women who stand at a critical juncture in their nation's reconstruction and development.

Secretary Rice said on International Women's Day:

In recent months, we supported the women of Afghanistan, Iraq, and of the future Palestine as they heroically went to the polls. We're hoping to create opportunities for all Muslim women to participate fully in the lives of their nations."

See http://www.state.gov/g/wi/ for International Women's Issues ************************************************************


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