CDA Jones’ Remarks at the Women on the Front Lines Conference

I would like to thank Mrs. Lama Salam for her patronage, but also the passionate and inspiring May Chidiac for bringing together this group of leaders. May, your courage is an inspiration to all of us. One week from today, on March 8, we will celebrate the 105th observance of International Women’s Day. The creation of International Women’s Day emerged from the activities of labor movements at the turn of the 20th century in North America and across Europe. This day honors the history of the women’s rights movement, including advocating the right to vote and hold public office, and for fighting discrimination in the workplace. It is a time to reflect on progress, to call for change, and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by women who have made a difference in their communities and countries. The goals of this conference are to inspire women to pursue their passions, think big, and turn their dreams into reality. They are beautifully aligned with this year’s International Women’s Day Theme. Every International Women’s Day has a theme, by the way, and 2016’s is “Pledge For Parity.” The idea behind this theme is that everyone can take action to empower women and girls. In fact, a community effort is exactly what we need to make real, lasting progress. Empowering women is a complex challenge that requires a collaborative solution – one in which we can all play a role. International Women’s Day offers a moment for the world to celebrate women – past, present, and future. In the past, the world has often overlooked or even erased the contributions of women. From history books to the Nobel Prize, the inventions, discoveries, quotes, achievements, or simply the names of women are missing – or worse, attributed to men instead. In interest of full disclosure, this speech was written by a woman. Anyway, International Women’s Day is an opportunity for all of us – especially educators and students – to learn about these missing women and honor their contributions to society. As we celebrate these women, we also have to recognize the tremendous barriers that can stand in their way simply because they are women. From the very beginning of our lives, gender defines us – the first thing anyone will ask about a new baby is if it’s a boy or a girl. Well, almost everyone. I remember when my wife and I had our first child, I telephoned my parents. After receiving the news of the birth, my mother shyly asked me: “And what is the baby’s name?” When I responded that it was Joseph, she screamed to my father outside, “They had a boy! They had a boy!” To be fair to my parents, my son was their fifth grandchild and the first four were all girls. So, it’s a matter of balance. Unfortunately, as babies grow into children and then adults, gender too often determines the opportunities available – just about everywhere boys are more empowered to contribute than girls, and that is a sad fact. Women remain disempowered in many economies, held back from working in certain fields or positions, or even at all. Women account for about 40 percent of the total global workforce, but make up 58 percent of all unpaid work and 50 percent of informal employment. In developing countries, the disparities are often even larger. Leaving women out of the formal economy not only disadvantages the women themselves, it also equates to an economic loss for society at large. According to the International Monetary Fund, legal barriers to women’s labor force participation causes losses in GDP of up to 30 percent. The McKinsey consultancy estimates that if women around the world participated on an equal footing with men, as much as $28 trillion could be added to annual global GDP by 2025. Women are often denied the ability to make decisions for themselves, their communities, and their countries. Despite comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women continue to be underrepresented in every aspect of political and public life. Today, only 22 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women – in Lebanon, there are only four women among 128 parliamentarians. Globally, less than 20 percent of government ministers are women – in Lebanon, there is only one woman minister, although now she has two portfolios. Since 1992, women have represented fewer than three percent of mediators and eight percent of negotiators to major peace processes. I should mention that among United States Ambassadors around the world, only 31% are female. But this is a huge rise since 1956 when only 3% were female, but we still have opportunities to grow. In Lebanon, the number (of female U.S. ambassadors) is two out of twenty two, but it will soon be three out of twenty three. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Lebanon, nationality laws deny women equal rights with men to acquire, change, or retain their nationality, or to confer their own nationality to their foreign or stateless husband. In 27 countries around the world, including Lebanon, women do not have the same rights as men to confer nationality to their children. So if a woman gives birth and the child’s father is absent, the baby may be denied the mother’s citizenship, leaving the child with no citizenship at all and creating a new generation of stateless persons. The United States knows well what can happen when women are empowered to achieve their full potential. Nearly 50 years ago, the role of women started to change in the United States. More and more women started to enter the workforce. Because of their contributions, the GDP in the United States rose by 25 percent. Empowering women to achieve their full potential is a goal that we work on not only within the borders of the United States, but also globally. Here in Lebanon, we are involved in a wide range of programs for women. One of those programs is called “Teaching Women English.” Over the past eight years, we have served 6,500 women in 120 communities – teaching not only English but also business, critical thinking, and conflict resolution skills. One woman found a new investor in her chocolate business due to her new skills; another convinced her daughter to stay in school by helping with homework. These women are stronger partners in their families, are better integrated into the economy of their towns, and through their example to their children and siblings, are becoming role models for the value of education. This is just one example of how programs targeted to improve women’s empowerment can build up an entire family, and an entire community. So what else can be done? Policymakers can implement new laws, and improve laws that continue to discriminate against women. Government officials can start programs that help women climb the barriers in front of them. Business leaders can change company policies to make things easier for working families. Entrepreneurs can share their knowledge of where the barriers remain, and extend a hand up to the women coming up the ladder. Researchers can help society better understand the challenges women and girls face, and help to quantify the social and economic benefits of gender equality. And civil society can hold all of us accountable to our promises, press for new commitments, and shine a light on the everyday realities of women. The World Bank recently released a study on the most powerful indicator to predict gender equality in a country. The study considered things like a country’s wealth and the progressiveness of political parties. It found that, while those things mattered, the most important indicator was whether or not a country had strong grassroots advocates of women’s equality. In a democracy like Lebanon, where the nature of most political parties is, shall we say, at the very least not exactly conducive to the full participation of women, grass roots activities will likely be even more important to gaining greater equality. Of course women would like to and should be able to take active, leading roles in politics in Lebanon, but even while opportunities to engage in such overt political activities remain limited, there are many ways Lebanese women may influence the evolution of Lebanon’s democracy toward a more democratic, gender neutral future. As important as they are, elections are not the be all and end all of democracy, not in Lebanon, nor in any country. Democracy has many more aspects than elections and the principle of majority rule. Strong institutions, the rule of law and the protection of minority rights are just as important. They may even be more important in many instances since they are practiced every day in a vibrant democracy, whereas elections are held only every couple of years – or every six or eight in the case of Lebanon lately. Opportunities are opening up in many areas for women interested in strengthening Lebanese democracy. Women are now able to join the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces, to train for careers in banking, in law and in the media. And as always, they are able to speak out within their families and within society when they see violations of law and abuses of power. Today, we can also add social media to that list. One wonders whether Lebanon would be without a president and missing elections for the past six years, if Lebanese women had made a concerted effort using such tools, or followed Lysistrata’s example. In a way this conference is reminiscent of the gathering of Greek women at the beginning of that ancient Greek comedy. It brings together a diverse group of like-minded advocates to achieve a political goal. But we’re also here to celebrate women’s contributions on the front lines – in international relations, responding to pressing refugee crises, as journalists reporting on exclusive stories from the field, or as business leaders overcoming the risks and the struggles of entrepreneurship to create jobs. But it also brings together concerned women to continue the struggle for their rights. In some cases the front line of this struggle could prove to be as close as their own homes, as they fight extremism in their own families. In all these sectors, women have an important role to play. On International Women’s Day, we can remember the women of the past – we can celebrate the great women of today – and, we can lay the foundation for the women of tomorrow. Most importantly, we can pledge to make the change, knowing that humanity can reach its full potential only when women and girls are empowered to reach their full potential. Thank you, I wish you the greatest success. شكراً وأتمنى لكم نجاح كامل. عاش لبنان.