Hillary Clinton challenges global women leaders

 “Democracy is a new thing in my country,” Naheed Farid, the youngest member of the Afghanistan parliament, said to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday morning at Wellesley College.  “Don’t you think that after 2014 there will be disaster for democracy in the region?” she asserted.  Clinton, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made the answer very clear to the packed crowd in Alumnae Hall.

The United States signed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan as a strong signal of continuing support,  said Clinton.  “We will continue to help train, assist and support the Afghan national security forces, but the primary role has to be that of your country.  We will still have a role to play in ensuring the security forces are able to defend Afghanistan.” She conceded that, “You will continue to face continued efforts by the Taliban to undo the progress that has been made.”

Clinton photo by April R. Yeaney

Despite the skeptics, progress has been made, in education for girls and young women, health care, women being allowed to work.  Clinton and Albright both sought to give reassurance that the United States is prepared, as long as the government and people of Aghanistan desire, not only to help with security but also with economic development, government functioning and services like health and education.  However, it’s an understatement to say that much more remains to be done, and it will take time,  just as the development of U.S. democracy took time – 200 years – and still does not always function smoothly. “We are committed to stand with you and support you on your journey.”  But both Clinton and Albright made it clear: this is “your journey.”

photo Ted Fitzgerald, Boston Herald

Today’s event marked the launch of the first Women in Public Service Institute at Wellesley College. The Institute is designed to train the next generation of women leaders, a project to get world leadershhip from 17.5 percent female to 50 percent by 2050.  Fifty women, many from the Middle East North Africa region, are at the College through June 22nd.  Other events will be hosted by other so-called “sister schools” like Bryn Mawr, Smith, Barnard, and Mt. Holyoke, as well as Mills, Scripps and Mount St.  Mary’s Colleges.

The  questions from women activists from  Egypt, Jordan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Sudan, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen and 15 other countries were all reminders that simply seizing power is just the first step.  As Clinton observed, “The challenge is to make what seems to be impossible possible.”  To those who eschew politics because it is inherently divisive, Clinton warned, “If you do not participate, others will  hijack your revolution.”

As Albright put it, “When women struggle for justice, silence is the enemy.”  She added that while “there’s no proof that women are better than men at negotiating peace agreements, after thousands of years of war, it might be nice to  find out.”  Women’s contributions, said Clinton, “are vital to building democracies and successful societies.”

The problem, they agree, is that “chauvinistic habits die hard.” Their concern is that while women participated in the Arab uprising, they will be frozen out and patronized.  That’s one of the purposes of the new program, which has as its goal institutionalizing some of the lessons learned by women leaders around the world, lessons as fundamental as how to move a bill through parliament, hold a press conference, and, especially, form coalitions.

The bottom line is that “democracy is not an event but a process.”  The question is: how much infrastructure has been built in, and what can be done. For example, a summer 2011 peace agreement creating the world’s newest country, South Sudan, promises many bumps on the road to implementation, especially in terms of clearcut borders and equitable division of oil revenues.  The paraties must find ways to compromise without returning to violence.  If they fail, it will be the women and children who suffer most.

This kind of process entails hard work, for it is up to these women (and their male counterparts) to run their own countries, not depend on the United States to do it for them. Those who simply want us out may criticize our continuing involvement.  Others will argue that we haven’t gone far enough to “win,” whatever that means, or even, as the NY Times Nick Kristof writes, to be humanitarian.  The United States and the international community need to pay attention going forward, but no country can depend wholly on outside forces in order to have freedom and justice. The process won’t be pretty or straightforward.

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