Namaste, asalaam aleikum, and good morning to you all.
Dr. Gopinath, Dr. Ramdas, distinguished speakers, conclave participants, including those who have traveled from Bangladesh, from across India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and old friends: I am delighted to be here today. The Women in Public Service Project fills an important niche and I am heartened to see the Project come here to South Asia. I want to recognise Lady Shri Ram College and its esteemed principal Meenakshi Gopinath for hosting the event; the Wilson Center and its Women in Public Service director Dr. Rangita de Silva; and of course the Ford Foundation and Dr. Kavita Ramdas who have made this possible.
I want to particularly recognise the participants. Your efforts in the coming days will be vital in improving regional and cross-border cooperation on one of the pressing challenges of the 21st century: violence against women. You have already made real differences on issues as diverse as legal reform, economic development, and education. I urge you to take full advantage of the next three days. You will find that the cross-border ties you build will be vital in our joint pursuit of justice.
Over the last three years, the Women in Public Service Project has helped prepare the coming generation of women public servants to lead. This morning, I would like to discuss why addressing violence against women is in the core national interests of all countries represented here. You will be the ones who will advance this movement forward in your countries.
My message today is that we must do more. As Secretary Kerry said: “Political stability, peace, and prosperity all require every one of us to do what we can to advance human rights for everyone, regardless of their gender, or ours. And this will remain a fundamental priority of the Department of State and the foreign policy of the United States.”
Women’s issues, as we all know, are more than just women’s issues – they are families’ issues, they are economic issues, they are security issues, they are justice issues. They matter to everyone – men as well as women, boys as well as girls, no matter the religion we follow or the government we live under.
In recent years, my government has taken several concrete steps to advance these issues, domestically and internationally. President Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls to prioritize gender equality in the work of every single US government agency. Former Secretary Clinton created an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, and made protecting the rights of women and girls a signature of her work. Secretary Kerry, during his time in the Senate, established the subcommittee on global women’s issues. Since becoming Secretary of State, he has continued to be a strong voice for global equality. From the White House to the State Department to the Senate, women and girls across the world have more champions in the US government than ever before.
I have been working in and coming back to South Asia throughout my entire career. I have seen remarkable progress in the status of women. Across the region, the average marriage age is going up and girls are staying in school longer. Women have better access to health care, resulting in lower child and maternal mortality rates. Women are also participating in the work force in greater numbers, and literacy rates are improving.
While the trends are good, more progress can be made. We continue to witness shocking violence against women. This violence plagues all countries of the world, including the United States, and can block women's active participation in society. Fortunately, many in South Asia are standing up against these injustices.
During my tenure as ambassador, the US Mission to India has supported Indian partners in taking concrete steps to move forward on this issue. For example, we are supporting innovative municipal leaders across the country in the UN Safe Cities partnership to bring the public and the police together to stem violence against women.
It is the extraordinary women and men working together every day to address this challenge who deserve the real recognition. Every year, the State Department recognizes the amazing work of some of these women with the International Women of Courage Awards.
As you may know, last year the award went posthumously to Nirbhaya. Her tragic story sparked outrage in India and then across the globe. Her suffering and courage inspired people all over the world to come together to say no more – no more looking the other way when people commit these horrific crimes, and no more stigma against the victims, the survivors, and their families. If you will permit me, I would like to read a short statement from the parents of Nirbhaya which eloquently captures the challenge before us all:
“Our message to the world is: do not tolerate any attack on your dignity and honor; do not silently bear ill treatment. Earlier, women would keep silent and hide away when they were subjected to sexual misconduct. They would not report it to the police, nor lodge any complaints. They were scared of the stigma. That has changed – the fear is now gone. And while her end was horrendous, her case is imparting strength to all women to fight and to improve the system. Women, both in India and in the rest of the world, refuse to be stigmatised and will not keep silent anymore.”
This year, the work of another survivor was recognised. Laxmi, a survivor of an acid attack, is a courageous example for us all. After surviving the attack, Laxmi became a tireless campaigner. Thanks to her diligent hard work, India’s Supreme Court has made prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue and regulation of acid sales more robust. Her campaigning continues in the face of arduous resistance.
Laxmi is a model for us all. It is not enough to recognise the problem. It is not enough to speak about the problem. We must work with Laxmi’s diligence and tenacity to solve the problem. We, women and men together, must stop the violence.
As First Lady Michelle Obama said: “While our circumstances may be different in so many ways, the solutions to our struggles are the same. So when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation.”
The United States strives for stability, peace, and prosperity around the world. We recognise that this is not possible without the full and equal participation of women in public life. This is a work-in-progress in the United States and across the globe. We must strive for prosperity and progress for all. For these goals to be realized, we need you – the current and future leaders of your societies – to work together. This is why we support efforts like the Women in Public Service Project.
All of our national interests – whether we be American, Indian, Afghan, Bangladeshi, Maldivian, Nepali, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan – lie in a world with wide-spread stability, peace, and prosperity. We are more effective together than apart, across borders and genders.