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 Home > News & Policies > March 2004

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 12, 2004

President, Mrs. Bush Mark Progress in Global Women's Human Rights
Remarks by the First Lady and the President on Efforts to Globally Promote Women's Human Rights
The East Room

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2:34 P.M. EST

MRS. BUSH: Welcome to the White House. Thank you all very much for coming today; I'm so glad you're here. And a special thanks to Dr. Khuzai, Ambassador Ssempala, Sharon Cohn, and Mrs. Jawad. Thank you all for joining us.

The Ambassador from Afghanistan and Mrs. Jawad were here recently to see the film, "Osama." If you haven't seen it yet, I hope you'll have a chance to see it; I want to encourage you to see it. It's the story of a young Afghan girl who pretends to be a boy so she can go to work and support her mother. And it's a sobering reminder of what life was like under the Taliban. And it's a reminder of why all of us are committed to helping all women gain equal rights.

President George W. Bush greets Dr. Raja Habib Khuzai of the Iraqi Governing Council after delivering remarks on Women’s Human Rights in the East Room of the White House Fridy, March 12, 2004.  White House photo by Paul Morse President Bush and I often like to tell stories about this room that we're in. Many historic happenings, of course, have happened here in this room, and also some amusing ones. When President Adams and his wife, Abigail, lived here, there was no glass in the windows, and this drafty room provided the perfect place for the Adams to hang their laundry. (Laughter.) Although, Abigail Adams, like many women during her time -- and since, I might add -- handled the domestic duties, she believed that women should have an active role in developing our young nation.

As her husband helped to establish our democracy, she wrote to him and said, "In the new code of laws, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." Abigail Adams is one of the many women who helped establish the vitality of our nation. Others, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, led the determined struggle to gain suffrage for women. And, today, their actions continue to inspire women around the world.

Earlier this week, millions of women celebrated International Women's Day and the many accomplishments of women worldwide. As they gathered, they honored generations of mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers who sacrificed so that all of us can live better lives.

The struggle for women's rights is a story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. And today, the women of Afghanistan are writing a new chapter in their history. Afghan women who were once virtual prisoners in their homes, unable to go to school or to work, are helping rebuild their country. Several women helped draft and review the country's new constitution, which reserves seats in parliament for women. In more than 2000 villages, women lead local councils. And this year, all Afghan women will have the opportunity to vote in the presidential election.

Women are registering to vote in greater numbers, even though they're threatened by terrorists as they try to register. They're bravely defying these threats, walking for miles to register and holding their voter cards like passports to freedom.

Many women are working again and some are even running their own businesses through micro-enterprise programs. In Herat, female credit officers now have more clients than their male counterparts. Many women are learning to read and write, and they're becoming the greatest advocates for their daughters' right to education.

In two weeks, nearly 5 million Afghan children, including more than 2 million girls, will begin a new school year. Just three years ago, 90 percent of girls were forbidden to go to school. Today, at the Sultana Razia School, girls talk about their future and about rebuilding their country. One little girl said, "I want to become a lawyer because I want to bring justice and freedom to Afghanistan, especially for women."

I'm proud to be a part of America's efforts to advance the rights of Afghan women and girls. Beginning this fall, the United States will reestablish the American school in Kabul for Afghan children and for children of international families. I'm also working with our government and the private sector to develop a teacher training institute that will help prepare more women teachers for Afghan schools. The women of Afghanistan are gaining greater rights, and their solidarity is an inspiration for women worldwide, especially to the women of Iraq.

Earlier this week, during the signing of Iraq's interim constitution, Iraqi women marched together and many spoke publicly after decades of oppression. In al-Fardous Square, more then 200 women marched for greater rights, chanting, "Yes for equality, yes, for freedom." They were supported and applauded by a group of Iraqi men. One man smiled and said that, "This is the first time women have demonstrated freely in Iraq."

Iraqi women are working with the United States State Department to develop democracy programs that educate women about their rights. Women's self-help and vocational centers are springing up across Iraq, from Karbala to Kirkuk. Our commitment to the women of Iraq is part of a broader effort to support women across the Middle East, from girls' literacy programs in Yemen, to micro-credit initiatives for women entrepreneurs in Jordan, to legal workshops in Bahrain.

We're making progress toward greater rights for women in the Middle East and around the world. But still, too many women face violence and prejudice. Many continue to live in fear, imprisoned in their homes. And in brothels, young girls are held against their will and used as sex slaves.

For a stable world, we must dedicate ourselves to protecting women's rights in all countries. Farahnaz Nazir, founder of the Afghanistan Women's Association, said, "Society is like a bird. It has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken." Without women, the goals of democracy and peace cannot be achieved. Women's rights are human rights, and the work of advancing human rights is the responsibility of all humanity.

President Bush is firmly committed to the empowerment in education and health of women around the world. The President knows that women are vital to democracy and important for the development of all countries. And he has three very strong women at home who won't let him forget it. (Laughter and applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my husband, President George Bush. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much. It takes me 45 seconds to walk to work, and sometimes I get introduced by my wife. (Laughter.) It's a heck of a job. Thanks, Laura.

Laura is -- you know, one of the interesting moments in our family came when she gave a radio address. She used the President's time to give a radio address, to speak to the women of Afghanistan. And it made a big difference in people's lives. And it was from that moment forward that she, personally, has dedicated time to make sure that people who have been enslaved are free, particularly women. And I'm proud of Laura's leadership. (Applause.)

In the last two-and-a-half years, we have seen remarkable and hopeful development in world history. Just think about it: More than 50 million men, women and children have been liberated from two of the most brutal tyrannies on earth -- 50 million people are free. All these people are now learning the blessings of freedom.

And for 25 million women and girls, liberation has a special significance. Some of these girls are attending school for the first time. It's hard for people in America to imagine. A lot of young girls now get to go to school. Some of the women are preparing to vote in free elections for the very first time.

The public whippings by Taliban officials have ended. The systematic use of rape by Saddam's regime to dishonor families has ended. He sits in the prison cell.

The advance of freedom in the greater Middle East has given new rights and new hopes to women. And America will do its part to continue the spread of liberty.

I want to thank a man who is working hard to continue the spread of liberty, and that's the Secretary of State, Colin Powell. (Applause.) I appreciate three members of my Cabinet who are here: Secretary Gayle Norton, Secretary Ann Veneman, and Secretary Elaine Chao. I put together, in all due humility, the greatest Cabinet ever. (Laughter and applause.) And one of the reasons why is these three ladies have agreed to serve. (Applause.) The President has got to get pretty good advice -- I mean, really good advice, frankly, from people other than his wife. (Laughter.) I get great foreign policy advice from Condoleezza Rice, who is with us today. (Applause.)

I want to thank other members of my administration who are here for this very important occasion to end what has been a very important dialogue. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is with us; Andrew Natsios, who runs USAID; Paula Dobriansky, of the Department of State. I want to thank you for going to Afghanistan recently with Joyce Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld's better half, who also went to Afghanistan recently to spread the word that America will stay the course; that when we say something we mean it and that we say we're going to -- (applause.)

I just named a distinguished American to be a U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, my sister, Dorothy. Thank you for being here, Doro. (Applause.) And I took the recommendation of Vice President Cheney for another member of the same delegation. He suggested that America would be well served by his eldest daughter, Liz. And he's right. Good to see you, Liz. (Applause.)

I want to thank Rend Al-Rahim, who is with us today. Rend, thank you for coming. She's the senior Iraqi representative to the United States. That is a forerunner to ambassadorial status, I guess. Certainly I'm not speaking for what is going to be the sovereign government of Iraq. She's good at what she does, I'm telling you. (Applause.)

There's a lot of ambassadors who are here. I want to thank you all for coming. It's good to see you. I appreciate you taking time to be here. This is an important conference. The message of the United States, about freedom and liberty in the Middle East, is a serious message. And I thank the governments for being here to listen and to help us advance this vital cause for what's good for the world. And so thanks for coming. There's a lot of countries represented here, particularly Middle Eastern countries.

As I told you, Joyce went to -- and Paula went to Afghanistan. There are other members of the U.S. Afghan Women's Council that went to Kabul. I want to thank you all for going. I hear it's -- one of the travelers, Karen Hughes, reported back, and Margaret did, as well -- Margaret Spellings, who is my Domestic Policy Advisor. They said it's unbelievable what's taking place there. The country is transitioning from despair to hope. And it's easy to see now. It's changing, and changing for the better. The people of Afghanistan have just got to know that we'll stand with them for however long it takes to be free.

I appreciate the Iraqi women who attended the Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week. I want to thank you all for coming. I appreciate you being here.

I want to thank my friend, Dr. Raja Khuzai, who's with us today. This is the third time we have met. The first time we met, she walked into the Oval Office -- let's see, was it the first time? It was the first time. The door opened up. She said, "My liberator," and burst out in tears -- (laughter) -- and so did I. (Applause.)

Dr. Khuzai also was there to have Thanksgiving dinner with our troops. And it turned out to be me, as well. Of course, I didn't tell her I was coming. (Laughter.) But I appreciate that, and now she's here again. I want to thank you, Doctor, for your hard work on the writing of the basic law for your people. You have stood fast, you have stood strong. Like me, you've got liberty etched in your heart, and you're not going to yield. And you are doing a great job and we're proud to have you back. Thanks for coming. (Applause.)

Ambassador Ssempala is with us, as well, from Uganda. It's great to see you again, Ambassador. Thanks. She made our trip to Uganda so special that time. She paved the way for what was a special trip. I'm going to talk a little bit about HIV/AIDS. I want to thank you and your country's leadership in that important issue. (Applause.)

Shamim Jawad is with us -- Ambassador Said Jawad's better half. I want to thank you very much for being here, Shamim. Thanks for coming. I appreciate your coming. (Applause.)

The Director of the Anti-Trafficking Operations for International Justice Mission is Sharon Cohn. She's with us. Let me tell what that means: that means she's working to end sex slavery. She is a noble soul who cares deeply about the plight of every woman. And I'm honored that you're up here, Sharon. I want thank you very much for your strong commitment. This government stands with you, and our country stands with you. We abhor -- we abhor -- the practice of sex slavery, and we will do all we can to help you. (Applause.)

Support for human rights is the cornerstone of American foreign policy. As a matter of national conviction, we believe that every person in every culture is meant by God to live in freedom. As a matter of national interest, we know that the spread of liberty and hope is essential to the defeat of despair and bitterness and terror. The policy of the American government is to stand for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity -- the rule of law, the limits on the power of the state, free speech, freedom of worship, equal justice, respect for women, religious and ethnic tolerance, and protections for private property. That is what we believe and we're not going to change.

We have transformed this belief in human rights into action. Last year, our government devoted nearly $75 million to combat the worldwide trafficking in human beings. It's a brutal trade, inhumane trade, by sick people that targets many women and girls. I spoke out against this practice at the United Nations. I called upon the world to join us. This country is determined to fight and end this modern form of slavery.

HIV/AIDS has orphaned millions of children worldwide. In some African countries, nearly 60 percent of adults carrying the virus are women. In 2002, we created the Mother and Child HIV Prevention Initiative to prevent viral transmission of the virus between generations. It's an important initiative by this government, but it wasn't enough.

Last year, I announced an emergency plan for AIDS relief, a $15 billion commitment over five years to fight this deadly disease. This country is determined to turn the tide against this modern plague. When we see disease and suffering, we will not turn our back.

The economic empowerment of women is one effective way to improve lives and to protect rights. Each year for the past five years, the United States government has provided an average of $155 million in small loans, micro-loans. About 70 percent of those benefit women. It turns out the world is learning what we know in America: The best entrepreneurs in the country are women. In America, most new small businesses are started by women. With the right help, that will be the case around the world, as well.

We're determined to help women to find the independence and dignity that comes from ownership. These are necessary responses to urgent problems. Yet, in the end, the rights of women and all human beings can be assured only within the framework of freedom and democracy. If people aren't free, it is likely that women will be suppressed.

Human rights are defined by a constitution; they're defended by an impartial rule of law; they're secured in a pluralistic society. The advance of women's rights and the advance of liberty are ultimately inseparable. America stands with the world's oppressed peoples. We've got to speak clearly for freedom, and we will, in places like Cuba or North Korea or Zimbabwe or Burma.

We stand with courageous reformers. Aung San Suu Kyi is a courageous reformer and a remarkable women who remains under house arrest for her efforts to bring democracy to her nation. Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi Jahmi. She's a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy. It's an encouraging step toward reform in Libya. You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things. We hope that more such steps will follow in Libya, and around the world.

The advance of freedom cannot be held back forever. And America is working to hasten the day when freedom comes to every single nation. We understand a free world is more likely to be a peaceful world.

When Iran's Shirin Ebadi accepted the Nobel for peace -- Nobel Prize for Peace last year, here's what she said: "If the 21st century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence and acts of terror and war, and avoid repetition of the experience of the 20th century, there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right for all mankind, irrespective of race and gender, faith, nationality, or social status."

That's a powerful statement coming from Iran. No wonder she won the Nobel Prize. She's a proud Iranian. She is a devout Muslim. She believes that democracy is consistent with Islamic teachings. And we share in this belief. That's what we believe in America. A religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government. Promotion of democracy in the greater Middle East is important. It's a priority of ours. And it will be a long and difficult road. But we're on the way.

Three years ago, the nation of Afghanistan was the primary training ground for al Qaeda. You heard Laura talk about the movie, "Osama." See it. It'll help enrich the words I'm about to say: The Taliban were incredibly barbaric. It's hard for the American mind to understand "barbaric." Watch the movie. Women were forbidden from appearing in public unescorted. That's barbaric. Women were prohibited from holding jobs. It's impossible for young girls to get an education. That's barbaric. It's not right.

Today, the Taliban regime is gone, thank goodness. Girls are back in class. The amazing accomplishment, though, is that Afghanistan has a new constitution that guarantees full participation by women. The constitution is a milestone in Afghanistan's history. It's really a milestone in world history, when you think about. All Afghan citizens, regardless of gender, now have equal rights before the law.

The new lower house of parliament will guarantee places for women. Women voters in Afghanistan, as Laura said, are registering at a faster rate than men for the June election. What's new? (Laughter.) Afghanistan still has challenges ahead, no doubt about it. But now the women of that country, instead of living in silence and fear, are a part of the future of the country. They're a part of a hopeful tomorrow.

Iraq has a different history, and yet a different set of challenges. Only one year ago -- only one year after being liberated from an incredibly ruthless person and a ruthless regime, Iraqi women are playing an essential part in rebuilding the nation. They're part of the future of the country.

Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed. He is a barbaric person. He violated people in such a brutal way that some never thought that the spirit of Iraq could arise again. We never felt that way here in this administration. We felt that people innately love freedom and if just given a chance, if given an opportunity, they will rise to the challenge.

Three women now serve on the Iraqi Governing Council -- you just heard me praise one. The historic document that was written recently guarantees the basic rights of all Iraqis, men and women, including freedoms of worship, expression and association. The document protects unions and political parties and outlaws discrimination based on gender, ethnic class and religion. It's an amazing document that's been written.

Iraqi women are already using their new political powers to guard against extremism and intolerance in any form, whether it be religious or secular. The women leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq have shown incredible courage. When you think about what life was like months ago for many women, the fact that they have risen up is a testament to their souls, to their very being, their bravery. Some have paid for their new freedoms with their lives but, in so doing, their sons and daughters will be forever grateful. These leaders have sent a message throughout the Middle East and throughout the world: every man and women in every culture was born to live in freedom.

The momentum of liberty is building in the Middle East. Just think about what's taken place recently. In 2002, Bahrain elected its own parliament for the first time in nearly three decades. Liberty is marching. Oman has extended the vote to all adult citizens. On Monday, the Sultan appointed the nation's first female cabinet minister. We're making progress on the road to freedom. Qatar has a new constitution. Yemen has a multiparty political system. Kuwait has a directly elected national assembly. Jordan held historic elections last summer. Times are changing.

America is taking the side of those reformers who are committed to democratic change. It is our calling to do so. It is our duty to do so. I proposed doubling the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy to $80 million. We will focus its new work on bringing free elections and free markets and free speech and free labor unions to the Middle East.

By radio and television, we're broadcasting the message of tolerance and truth in Arabic and Persian to tens of millions of people. And our Middle East Partnership Initiative supports economic and political and educational reform throughout the region. We're building women's centers in Afghanistan and Iraq that will offer job training and provide loans for small businesses and teach women about their rights as citizens and human beings. We're active. We're strong in the pursuit of freedom. We just don't talk a good game in America, we act.

In Afghanistan, the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council is developing projects to improve the education of women, and to train the leaders of tomorrow. You heard Laura talk about her deep desire to help train women to become teachers, not only in the cities, but in the rural parts of Afghanistan. We'll succeed. We'll follow through on that initiative. We're pursuing a forward strategy of freedom -- that's how I like to describe it, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. And I believe there's no doubt that if America stays the course and we call upon others to stay the course, liberty will arrive and the world will be better off.

The momentum of freedom in the Middle East is beginning to benefit women. That's what's important for this conference. A free society is a society in which women will benefit.

I want to remind you of what King Mohammed of Morocco said when he proposed a series of laws to protect women and their families. It's a remarkable statement. It's like he's put the stake in the ground for women's rights.

He said, "How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice and violence and marginalization, notwithstanding the dignity and justice granted to them by our glorious religion." It's a strong statement of freedom. He's right. America stands with His Majesty and others who share that basic belief. The future of Muslim nations will be better off for all with the full participation of women.

These are extraordinary times, historic times. We've seen the fall of brutal tyrants. We're seeing the rise of democracy in the Middle East. We're seeing women take their rightful place in societies that were once incredibly oppressive and closed. We're seeing the power and appeal of liberty in every single culture. And we're proud once again -- this nation is proud -- to advance the cause of human rights and human freedom.

I want to thank you all for serving the cause. The cause is just, the cause is right, and the cause is good. May God bless. (Applause.)

END 3:08 P.M. EST