Advancing Women’s Empowerment: A Shared Vision for the United States and Jordan

Alice G. Wells, The Ambassador of the United States of America to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. March 16, 2015

Remarks as Prepared

Good afternoon.

I would like to thank Dr. Ekhleif Tarawneh, the President of this great institution, for his exemplary leadership of Jordan’s oldest and largest university, and for his commitment to bilateral understanding through exchanges and engagements between our two nations.

I would also like to thank our moderator, Dr. Abeer Dababneh, Director of the Center for Women’s Studies. Thank you for the visionary and vitally important work you accomplish at the Center—the first institute of its kind in the Middle East.

Finally, I would like to welcome today’s guests—the students and professors from many departments and faculties, and the students from Middlebury’s exchange program. To all of you, it is an honor to be here today. And it is a particular privilege to be here at this time. In the United States, March is Women’s History Month, when we recognize the consequential role women play in every society but also acknowledge that far too many women and girls still face daunting obstacles to full empowerment and equality.

I want to talk to you today about our common struggle to ensure that all women can achieve their full potential and contribute to the creation of a more prosperous, just, and secure world.

In the United States, as in Jordan, we have traveled a long and challenging road, but the achievements we have seen over the last several decades are a reminder that real progress is possible, even in the space of one generation. And the U.S. government remains firmly committed to working with the Government of Jordan to advance women’s political and economic empowerment.

When women can reach their full potential, communities flourish and economies grow. “We know from experience,” President Obama has said, “that nations are more successful when their women are successful.”

Across the world, we have made enormous strides in ensuring that all girls and women have the opportunity to make full use of their talents and abilities. In the United States, as in Jordan, more than half of university students are women, and the number of women pursuing masters and doctoral degrees has soared. In the United States, as in Jordan, more women than ever are taking leadership roles in politics and business. But progress remains halting, and on some fronts painfully slow.

The number of women in the U.S. Congress has tripled over the last 25 years, and yet women are still under-represented at our highest levels of government. Women in the United States participate in the workforce at rates once unimaginable, but they still earn less than men.

We are convinced that empowering women makes the United States stronger and more prosperous; and so we continue to address the obstacles to shatter the glass ceilings that still exist today.

This struggle has never been more urgent or necessary than it is now. In Iraq and Syria, Da’esh continues to abduct, enslave and rape thousands of women and girls. They have oppressed tens of thousands of others, in Mosul, al-Raqqa, and elsewhere. In robbing women of their rights to participate freely in the economy and society, Da’esh is robbing these communities of everything these women can contribute, socially, politically and economically.

Now is the time for the rest of the world to step up and take a stand against such backwardness. While Da’esh offers oppression and violent, retrograde ideology, we must advance opportunity and openness. While Da’esh slowly suffocates communities, we can build prosperous and secure communities by empowering women and girls.

In 1995, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” We affirm these principles today, and add that empowering women promotes stability, security, and prosperity.

II.

We have a long way to go before all women can reach their full potential. But we have also—all of us—traveled many miles already.

After Prime Minister Nsour announced his new appointments early this month, Jordan’s Cabinet now includes five women, which means Jordan has one of the highest numbers of female cabinet members in the Arab world. I have already extended my warmest congratulations to newly-appointed Minister of Industry and Trade Maha al-Ali and Minister of Communication and Information Technology Majd Shweikah, and I look forward to seeing Jordan’s economy continue to grow and develop under their leadership.

Women are making their mark on Jordan’s elected bodies too. Eighteen women now serve as MPs, three of whom won seats outside the quota.

Women now comprise 36 percent of municipal council members, far exceeding the 25 percent quota. These women are making positive changes in their communities, responding to citizen concerns and making sure families get the services they need. These women are also developing skills that will help many of them one day reach positions of still-greater authority: as deputy mayors, mayors, and Members of Parliament.

Jordanian women have emerged as leaders and visionaries not only at all levels of government, but also in business, media, and civil society. Their example stands as an inspiration for the next generation.

In the mid-1990s, Randa Ayoubi marketed her computer-based educational materials from a rented van that she drove from village to village. Today, her company, Rubicon, a global leader in multimedia education, has 150 employees here in Amman; with more than 250 workers in offices in Los Angeles, Manila, and Dubai; and clients around the world.

When Lina Hundaileh, an alumna of this university, set out to open a chocolate factory in the early ‘90s, she struggled to convince potential partners that a woman could be an entrepreneur. Today, she manages a successful business and chairs the Young Entrepreneurs Association, which advocates for promising young businessmen and women.

When Jumana Ghneimat took the helm as editor-in-chief of Al-Ghad, she became the first woman in Jordan and one of the first women in the Middle East to lead a major Arabic-language daily. Since then, she has expanded the newspaper’s reach and influence and stood as a powerful voice for a responsible and independent press.

When Hadeel Abd al Aziz helped found Justice Center for Legal Aid in 2008, many impoverished Jordanians, women in particular, had limited access to legal services and little knowledge of their rights. Today, JCLA operates 25 offices, and its lawyers can be found in courts, prisons, and communities across the country, advocating for those who could not possibly afford counsel on their own.

All of these women I just mentioned, and every woman in Jordan, has a shining example to look up to in Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah. The Queen’s powerful leadership on education, health, and community development has touched the lives of millions, including many of Jordan’s most vulnerable citizens.

These dynamic leaders, and many more like them, are not only forging new pathways for women in Jordan, they are also supporting the expansion and development of Jordan’s economy and the fulfillment of His Majesty’s vision for reform and a democratic future.

III.

In the United States, too, a generation of leaders has broken new ground for women in politics and the economy. Female leadership has transformed the international and domestic face of American politics.

No woman ever served as a U.S. Secretary of State before Madeline Albright took up the position in 1997; since then, two of the last three Secretaries have been women.

Women’s participation in Congress has increased dramatically over the last generation. When Secretary Kerry was sworn in as a U.S. Senator in 1985, he was struck that he had twice as many daughters as there were women in the Senate – and he only has two daughters. But now, he says, “with the service of 20 women, the Senate is a stronger, smarter place.”

Though we’ve seen rapid change in the last several decades, these transformations took years of struggle.

The media hailed 1992 as the “year of the woman” in American politics. That was the year when women’s representation in the U.S. Senate tripled from just two members to six—a victory that seems modest in retrospect but felt like a sea-change at the time. And women’s representation has grown dramatically since then.

What have we learned from this transformation?

We’ve learned that building capacity matters. In the 1970s and 80s, women broke down the barriers that had once kept them from pursuing careers in law and business, and honed their political skills in school boards and county commissions. The proportion of women in state legislatures more than quadrupled in the two decades before 1992. If we want women represented at the highest levels of government, we need to make sure they have opportunities at all levels to develop their skills and experience.

We’ve also learned that civil society matters. The women candidates who won in 1992 didn’t succeed on their own. They had unprecedented levels of support from civil society organizations dedicated to training female candidates, backing their campaigns, and boosting female voter turnout.

Nonpartisan organizations like the National Women’s Political Caucus recruited women candidates, raised money to launch their bids for office, and taught them how to run effective campaigns. And these organizations still back promising female candidates today. Partisan organizations also work to recruit and train candidates, with EMILY’S List helping to elect over 100 Democratic and pro-choice members to the U.S. House of Representatives and 19 to the Senate.

Finally, we’ve learned that high-level support matters. Where female candidates have encouragement from top-level political leaders, they run for office in greater numbers and with more success. When political parties make a real effort to recruit and develop female candidates, women’s representation goes up.

Here in Jordan, the U.S. Embassy is committed to partnering with the government and civil society to expand women’s opportunities to participate fully and actively in politics at every level.

For example, we support the women’s parliamentary caucus, where female MPs of vastly different backgrounds and ideological perspectives work together to share their experiences and exchange advice. The caucus gives new women MPs the space to learn from their more seasoned counterparts as they work to improve their constituent outreach and advocate together on key issues like ensuring that Jordan’s budget takes into account the needs of women and girls.

IV.

Just as women’s political participation in the United States expanded dramatically in a single generation, so too did women’s workforce participation. Between 1965 and 1995, women’s labor force participation shot up from less than 40 percent to almost 60 percent. Women now make up just under half of the American workforce.

And women have increasingly taken on leadership and management positions. In 1960, just 15 percent of managers in the U.S. were women; by 2009, women constituted almost 40 percent. From 1997 to 2009, the proportion of U.S. companies with female CEOs increased more than six-fold.

Economists have called this influx of women into the U.S. workforce a “quiet revolution,” and it shows how quickly change can happen with the right combination of visionary political leadership and private sector pragmatism.

Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. government passed a series of laws that banned discrimination in hiring, employment, and education. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, banning wage discrimination; President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing sex discrimination in employment; and President Nixon signed Title IX, banning sex discrimination in publicly-funded education.

By giving women the opportunity to pursue education and work on an equal footing with men, these laws gave women powerful new incentives to enter the workforce. The legislation also gave women a powerful tool to fight sex discrimination suits in the U.S. state and federal courts. The courts, again and again, have upheld the law and held discriminatory employers accountable.

Meanwhile, the private sector, seeing an influx of qualified, accomplished, and ambitious women, came to realize that hiring and retaining women was simply good business. Economists have shown that having women in positions of leadership improves organizational effectiveness, and business leaders have come to recognize that having women in the boardroom helps companies earn higher profits, manage risk better, and lower bankruptcy rates.

Many ICT companies in Jordan have come to a similar recognition that hiring women makes good economic sense: more flexible, family-friendly policies have boosted women’s economic participation in this sector to a robust 30 percent, and, partly as a result, ICT is one of the most dynamic sectors in the Jordanian economy.

The U.S. Embassy is committed to supporting the advancement of women in the tech sector as well. Every year, Jordanian women and girls travel to the U.S. for the Tech Women and Tech Girls exchange programs, which connect and support the next generation of Middle Eastern women leaders in fields such as programming, robotics, mobile application building and web design. And USAID recently launched a local chapter of Girls in Tech to mentor and train girls aspiring to work in tech fields.

Expanding women’s economic participation remains a struggle, in the United States as in Jordan. American women are still under-represented as CEOs, on boards of trustees, as partners in law firms and as deans at universities. The wage gap persists: women earn 77 cents to every dollar a man earns. And American women still comprise only about 25 percent of workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

These gaps matter not only because women and girls deserve the same opportunities that boys and men enjoy, but also because women’s economic participation lifts entire economies. Economists have estimated that U.S. GDP is $2 trillion greater because so many women have entered the workforce in the last 45 years.

When women work, quite simply, economies grow. In fact, economists estimate that if we close the narrow gap between male and female employment in the U.S., our GDP would grow a further 9 percent. Here in Jordan, where just 16 percent of women work, the potential impact of bringing more women into the labor force is staggering.

V.

We still have a long way to go, and this struggle matters as much as it ever has.

It matters not only because women’s rights are human rights, but also because women’s empowerment fosters stability, growth, and development.

And when I say empowerment, I don’t just mean making sure that women can enter the workforce or serve in parliament. I mean expanding opportunities and making sure that women’s voices are heard. As President Obama said in Cairo in 2009: “I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”

Whether or not they work outside the home, women advocate for better schools for their children. Women demand better health care for themselves and their families. Women speak up for safe neighborhoods and freedom from violence. When women are healthy and educated, their children are more likely to be healthy and educated. When women are empowered, they have more capabilities and more resources to demand better futures for their families.

Finally, women’s empowerment promotes peace and stability, an imperative in today’s increasingly unstable world. Women, as deeply influential figures in their families and communities, can play a vital role in efforts to combat violent extremism. Empowered women are an indispensable ally in the ideological battle against Da’esh.

VI.

For all these reasons, advancing women’s empowerment is our common project.

In September 2012, Jordan joined with the United States as a founding member of the Equal Futures Partnership, an international effort to combat obstacles to women’s political and economic participation. Through the initiative, each partner nation has committed to making real changes for women and girls in their country.

The United States has made commitments we are implementing at home, like increasing opportunities for girls and young women to study science, and better assisting victims of domestic violence.

Jordan, similarly, has committed to increase women’s political participation: in the judiciary, in parliament, in the Cabinet, and on other appointed bodies. It has also committed to reviewing the Labor Code and other legislation to encourage broader female economic participation.

The Government of Jordan has an ambitious vision for improving the status of women. We look forward to seeing the government endorse a finalized Equal Futures Partnership action plan, which will hold everyone accountable for making these goals a reality.

Governments play an important role in advancing gender equality. For example, the establishment of the Jordanian National Commission for Women was an important step in promoting women’s rights. It is vitally important that the Commission has sufficient resources to fully accomplish its goals.

The Government of Jordan can also send strong messages about the importance of women by following through on its public commitments and appointing visible female role models. While the recent appointment of only three women trustees on public university boards was disappointing, we look forward to seeing more women appointed in the future. We applaud the government’s nomination of a record five female ministers to the new Cabinet, and welcome the opportunity to work with them.

It is encouraging to see organizations like the Sisterhood is Global Institute and the JNCW speaking up loudly and often for victims of gender-based violence. We hope the groundswell against Article 308 of the penal code will lead to its abolition, so that victims of rape will no longer be compelled to marry their attackers.

The Embassy is committed to supporting the Government of Jordan’s efforts to advance the status of women. USAID recently launched the Takamol program, which over the next several years will partner with government and civil society here in Jordan to support policy reforms, to expand access to female-focused services, and to encourage women’s economic participation.

The U.S. and Jordan are engaged in a common struggle to advance women’s empowerment. Shared commitments like the Equal Futures Partnership help propel us forward. Though progress towards these commitments may not always be as speedy as we like, making our goals public and taking stock of our progress holds us accountable. It forces us to answer the question of how determined we truly are to make a difference. We are proud to stand with Jordan as a partner in efforts that advance gender equality.

VII.

Every country—every society—must find its own path to advancing women’s empowerment. But we share the same goal: making sure that all girls and women have the rights and opportunities to contribute to their fullest potential. As Secretary Kerry has said: “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.”

Harnessing the strength of women promotes prosperity and growth. It is also vital to peace and stability. Women often suffer most in armed conflict. When women are involved in finding a resolution, it builds the ground for a more stable and lasting peace.

We are fighting Da’esh on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but we are also fighting Da’esh on the battlefield of ideas. Da’esh’s abductions, enslavements, and rapes of girls and women constitute gross violations of basic human rights. They also reflect the organization’s wholesale rejection of the principle that all girls and all women deserve to see their choices respected and their voices heard.

Women are essential players in the fight against violent extremism: their workforce participation strengthens economies; their political participation enhances legitimacy; and, in the vital roles they play in the family and community, they teach our youth to think critically and reject extremist ideology.

As Her Majesty Queen Rania has said, “as the political, social and economic plates shift and settle around our region, there’s never been a better time for girls to rise up and share their talents with society. And, girls, society has never needed you more.”

I look forward to continuing the journey with you, as the United States and Jordan work hand in hand to find our own paths, face our challenges, and create societies that are more prosperous, more just, and more free. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions.