U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: Latin America Bureau

OCTOBER 6, 1994

Remarks by Alexander F. Watson
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs

Washington, D.C.
October 6, 1994

Thank you very much. It is indeed a pleasure to be here with you this evening, and an honor to be here with so many distinguished experts on issues of concern to women in the Western Hemisphere. Throughout the Americas, women have played central roles in historic events, such as the women soldiers or Adelitas in the Mexican revolution, women suffragists in the United States, and the Argentine mothers in the Plaza de Mayo. And, of course, women contribute more quietly and often at great sacrifice to the quotidian struggle for life and dignity throughout the hemisphere. Yet for reasons which have only been all too apparent, their contributions to society and the family are often overlooked, and they are very frequently the victims of discrimination. Perhaps the traditional pain and suffering of women in the Americas was best captured by the Argentine poetess, Alfonsina Storni, in her 1920 poem "La que comprende." In this poem, Storni portrays a pregnant woman in church, imploring: "Senor, el hijo mio que no nazca mujer." (Lord, let my child not be born a woman).

Despite progress in recent years, women in our hemisphere are disproportionately poor. Prior to and during the 1980s both the absolute numbers and the proportion of women among the poor increased. Many women in our hemisphere live in precarious conditions; one example is that maternal mortality rates are estimated at 270 per 100,000 live births. Women suffer more than men from anemia, stunted growth from lack of proteins and calories, and iodine deficiency. In nine countries of the region, female illiteracy is 15% or more, and in three of them more than half the women are illiterate.

Although many countries in the region have enjoyed steady economic growth for the last 5 years, we must really question the value of economic development if its fruits are not going to be enjoyed fully by half of the population.

In short, women are interested in and deeply affected by the central issues the United States and the other countries in this hemisphere are trying to address: issues of democracy, prosperity, and equity.

The Summit of the Americas at which the chiefs of state and heads of government of the Western Hemisphere will convene at President Clinton's invitation in Miami in a couple of months will focus explicitly on these issues through its three central themes of Making Democracy Work: Reinventing Government, Making Democracy Prosperous: Hemispheric Economic Integration, and Making Democracy Endure: Sustainable Development.

We believe that specific initiatives generated by the Summit of the Americas will be tools to forge opportunities for both women and men, and to further the progress women have already achieved.

Making Democracy Work: Reinventing Government

Women cannot become full partners in the hemisphere's development until their right to live free from all forms of violence or discrimination in both public and private spheres is recognized and protected. Women's rights are human rights, and violence against women should be seen as a human rights violation and as a public rather than a private issue. Through an initiative under the rubric of "Making Democracy Work," the United States is proposing to our colleagues in the hemisphere actions to encourage development of private voluntary associations, many of which have been pioneers in protecting women's rights.

Although civil and family codes affecting women have been very restrictive in the past, many encouraging new laws have been passed to address these problems in our hemisphere. In the United States, some of the best examples have happened within our own lifetimes: legislation providing for widows otherwise facing destitution to gain access to the Social Security pensions of their husbands; legislation protecting women's rights to property and credit in their own names; and a judicial system and police force becoming more responsive and sensitive to women's needs for protection from domestic violence.

Important legislation has also been passed in other countries of the hemisphere, such as the new family codes in El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. For all of us, the continuing challenge is to see that such legislation is improved and -- even more importantly -- faithfully implemented.

In Brazil, another example, police stations staffed by women and for women have encouraged women to denounce attacks against them. These special police stations have been a model followed by other countries. I can remember when I was in Brazil as Deputy Chief of Mission of our Embassy these Delegacias were being established for the first time and I remember talking at great length with a leading Brazilian political figure and leader of this fight for women's rights in Brazil, Ruth Escobar, on exactly how these Delegacias were working.

But beyond legislation and government programs, the key to women's becoming fully partners in our hemisphere lies in a generalized awareness that the future of society is dependent upon full partnership of citizens regardless of gender.

Women can only become full partners in the hemisphere's development, however, when they have an equal opportunity to influence and decide public policy at all levels. In Latin America and the Caribbean we have seen efforts to involve women in public policy through political affirmative action. For example, in Argentina a law requires political parties to present slates with a minimum of 30% female candidates. The group assembled here tonight is a living example of what all women can achieve, if given the basic opportunities and resources.

The United States will propose an initiative at the Summit of the Americas, under the theme of "Making Democracy Work", which would commit governments of the region to take concrete actions to encourage the development throughout the hemisphere of civic-minded NGOs, and private voluntary organizations, such as Poder Ciudadano and Conciencia in Argentina, and Participa in Chile, which are major threads in the fabric of civil society.

Making Democracy Endure: Sustainable Development

Improving and implementing legislation to protect women is not enough by itself. Women make a significant contribution to economic development, and deserve recognition and encouragement in their endeavors in the informal economy and deserve an opportunity to participate in the formal economy. Women in urban areas are skillful entrepreneurs, starting up small businesses with next to no seed money. Estimates are that in the shantytowns or favelas surrounding large cities, a staggering percentage - up to 70 - 80 % - of households are headed by women.

U.S. AID and the Inter-American Development Bank have introduced micro-enterprise loans to encourage and nurture microenterprise as an employment alternative, with great success. At the Summit of the Americas, the United States will propose an initiative on Nurturing Microenterprise, an integrated set of projects that would further promote microenterprise and small business development. These projects could help non-governmental organizations provide financing on market terms, reduce legal obstacles that hurt microenterprises, lower transaction costs for small loans made by commercial banks to microenterprises, and encourage the development of business advisory services for small businesses -- all of which should benefit women.

Another critically important area to improve women's standard of living throughout the hemisphere is health care. Women's health is a factor in the productive capacity of countries all over the world, and its importance was just recently recognized in the Cairo Conference on Population. The Summit of the Americas, through an initiative on equitable access to basic health services proposed by the United States, could call for each country's commitment to ensure equitable, universal access to basic health services so as to reduce child mortality rates in the region by one third and maternal mortality rates by half by the year 2000.

Although human rights, economic opportunities, political affirmative action, and health are all important, we must not forget education. In the very high-growth economies of East Asia, for example, resources were targeted in the 1950's and 1960's to give priority to universal primary education of girls and boys. I think that Nancy Birdsall has been a pioneer in analyzing this data. This front-loading of resources formed a solid base for girls and boys to continue successfully into secondary and university-level education.

In some countries there are still gender biases and stereotypes limiting women's occupational choices to dead-end, low-paying jobs. Let all of us in the hemisphere examine our educational programs with the objective of replacing gender-restrictive stereotypes with encouragement and opportunities for girls and boys throughout their lives. Careful and hard-hitting economic studies by the World Bank and others have shown that educating girls and women is an essential investment with a very high return in economic productivity, improved health, sustainable population growth, better natural resource management and greater civic participation. All of these benefits will serve our hemisphere well in competing in the new world environment of free trade and economic integration.

Through an initiative of "Universal Access to Quality Primary Education", the United States proposes that the Summit of the Americas call for a hemispheric partnership to re-focus existing resources more effectively toward quality primary education through reforms in financing, decentralization and a reordering of budget priorities so as to achieve 100% primary school completion rates and 75% secondary school enrollment by the year 2000.

There is still a long way to go before women are full partners in our hemisphere. But times are certainly changing. Today, from Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala to dissident poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela in Cuba, women are speaking out with conviction, defending not only their rights but those of their fellow human beings. I believe that if she were here now, the woman in Alfonsina Storni's poem would be encouraged to see the changes forged by people like yourselves, and would share the hope which we all share for the future of women -- and men -- in our hemisphere. Thank you very much.


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