Nita M Lowey

The Leadership for Women To Thrive Award - Sept. 10, 2008

Nita M Lowey
September 10, 2008— Washington, DC
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Good evening. Thank you, Steve, for that kind introduction. It is a true honor to be here tonight to accept this award. In the decade since its founding, Women Thrive Worldwide, formerly Women’s Edge Coalition, has emerged as a leading proponent of women’s development around the globe. Their staff works tirelessly to make the case for investing in women and without their efforts -- and similar organizations’ -- the huge strides we have made for women all around the world would simply not have been possible.

I would particularly like to thank the organization’s President, Ritu Sharma Fox, for her dedication, as well as Nora O’Connell and Seema Jalan, who work very closely with my staff. Women Thrive Worldwide is a true champion of expanding opportunities for women around the globe, and your stamp of approval means a great deal to me.

While there are countless women who blazed the trail before me with much greater impact, women’s empowerment, both domestically and internationally, has been a priority throughout my Congressional career. While our ultimate goal has not been reached – women in the United States still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men - we are lucky to live in a country where women are approaching the same economic and educational opportunities afforded to men. Indeed, the glass ceiling is increasingly cracked. And the Democratic Congress is fighting to shatter it for good, in its work to achieve equal pay for equal work. However, we did not reach this point by snapping our fingers. The fruits of our labors have often been policies enacted as a result of advocacy by women to create an environment in which women can be educated, employed, and still raise a family. An environment where women can thrive.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in many other countries. Of the 113 million children aged 6 to11 that do not attend school, 60 percent are girls. According to the United Nations, while women make up over forty percent of the global workforce and work more hours than men, we only earn a quarter of the global income. This troubling reality must be rectified, not only because women deserve better, but because we know that when given the tools and opportunities, women are miraculous agents of change. When they escape poverty, they use the positive influence in their own lives to lift up their families and communities, and to literally shape nations.

Education is critical for women to make better choices. I think of a girls’ school in Dadar, Pakistan, one of the most conservative and traditional parts of the country, that I had the thrill of reopening in April 2007. The school had been devastated by an earthquake, but the girls’ thirst for knowledge was absolutely unshaken. They asked for computers. They wanted a science teacher. They knew, almost instinctively, that schooling was the key to a better life – and that they had it within themselves to do more, to be more. It is this reason that I have consistently fought for and provided funding for international basic education, to the benefit of young girls around the globe. With your support, I have worked to significantly expand primary education funds in poor countries, from $98 million in 2001 to $700 million in 2008.

Educated girls and women are empowered and equipped with the tools to make informed, responsible decisions. Educated women have fewer, healthier, and more educated children, and they make better decisions about the health of their families. For example, they are more likely to seek and appropriately use family planning services, which we must increase in the developing world. That is why I have consistently fought against the global gag rule, worked to expand internationally family planning funds and have supported funding for the UNFPA. I am proud to have included $600 million for family planning in the FY09 House foreign aid bill, and I look forward to continuing this effort.

Beyond their own families, women with access to credit build more than a business – they build self-confidence, independence, and the means to support their families and economic engines in their communities. I think of the women at the Kijimo dairy cooperative in Arusha who sat up a little straighter when they spoke of how they learned to produce cheese, and how their incomes and confidence helped support their families and communities. That is why consistent support for programs to expand women’s access to the economy, including through microcredit and microenterprise programs, is so critical.

Women’s development helps them escape the cycle of poverty and participate in civil society and government. The return on these investments multiply exponentially. Despite U.S. and international focus on and investment in gender equality, more work remains to be done. One of the impending challenges is mainstreaming gender integration into all of our foreign assistance programs. We have the evidence and anecdotes to support mainstreaming gender; while the effectiveness of our international assistance and development trends upwards when gender is considered, a huge loss results when it is not.

A 2007 survey by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) reports that an estimated $42 billion to $47 billion is lost each year in Asia alone, due to restrictions on women’s employment opportunities. Another $16 billion to $30 billion each year is lost in the region due to gender gaps in education. As we move forward into the next decade of Women Thrive Worldwide and as a new Administration enters the White House, we must renew our commitment to fight for expanded opportunities for women. That is what I pledge to do. And I look forward to working with Women Thrive Worldwide to continue to make the goals of women’s empowerment and equality a reality. Thank you very much for this award and for your work.

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