Athens, 2. Juni 2008 Rede/Interview

International Conference "Next Generation Initiative: Local Business for Global Rights - Middle East Regional Forum of Local and Regional Women Entrepreneurs" (Rede nur in englisch)

Keynote Speech by Ursula Plassnik, Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs

2-3 June 2008, Athens Lagonissi Grand Resort

Let me first of all thank Dora Bakoyannis for bringing us together at this wonderful location. Dora has been a constant encourager for me and my work.

Some of you participated at our Women Leaders conference last year in Vienna and there are also some new faces. I am looking forward to getting to know you personally.

Let me briefly touch upon the subjects we will be dealing with tomorrow: Middle East and peacemakers, women, security and leadership and economic empowerment of women.

The discussions at our conference in Vienna last year were based on the Arab Human Development Report "Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World", a very thorough report written by scientists and politicians from the region which clearly indicates the achievements but also what remains to be done.

The situation in the Middle East region lends ample space for pessimism but there are also some positive developments:

  • In Lebanon, positive steps were taken to overcome the constitutional crisis as a result of political courage and leadership. Solutions have to be found from inside. To support this process I will be hosting an international donors' conference in Vienna on June 23rd for the reconstruction of the Nahr el Bared refugee camp for Palestinians together with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

    I believe that we should make a visible contribution for women in this process and I want to use this opportunity to discuss possible ideas with you: A skills development center or program for women for example would help women to stand on their own two feet. Empowerment comes through education. I will also discuss this with the World Bank and the Lebanese Government.
  • Another very positive development is that Israel and Syria have started talks with Turkey working as a mediator. I am deeply convinced: Without Syria there will be no comprehensive peace settlement in the region. This is why we also strongly supported Syria to be part of the Annapolis conference last year.
  •  Talking of it: Annapolis raised many expectations. There is now concern about events such as the recent announcement of new settlements. But let us not be pessimistic: We need to continue and redouble our efforts. And women have a share and a space in these efforts.

Women, Peace and Security: Elisabeth Rehn has always been a role model raising awareness and campaigning for women and peace and for practical steps to be taken. Women are agents of change in our societies.

Let me quote from the Arab Human Development Report:

"Appointing a woman to a ministerial position has been a general rule in most Arab governments since at least the 1990s. However, the essential ministries which allocate resources, define foreign policy and safeguard internal and external security remain in the hands of men."

Europe is not much different. At the moment, Dora Bakoyannis and myself are among the only three women foreign ministers in the EU group of 27.

As stated in the Brussels conference in March it often helps to look at the many female heroes. From Aung San Suu Kyi to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, leadership by women is as legitimate as leadership by men.

Since the adoption of the Vienna Women Leaders recommendations, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki‑moon has appointed a number of women in the UN peace and security structure:

  • Just last week, Ann-Marie Orler was appointed Deputy Commissioner for UN Police, which currently has 11.000 police officers from 90 nations serving in UN peacekeeping missions worldwide.
  • Also last week, Austrian judge Renate Winter was elected asPresident of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, mandated to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during the 1990s civil war. This again is an important step. Impunity has to end.
  • We also have in the United Nations a committed supporter of women’s participation: Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, who is finding the best qualified women to participate in UN peace efforts.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, adopted in the year 2000, is coming of age. It is very broad in scope and needs yet to be fully translated into practice. That is why I am advocating a Review Conference in 2010. Ten years is a good time. Numerous Action Plans have been elaborated. We should look at what can now be done more specifically and define future priorities.

Austria sponsored in 2006 a UN study on violence against women. The study had alarming results: At least one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten or abused - with the abuser usually someone known to her. In Europe one out of every four women has experienced physical violence.

This is a shocking statement. We have to keep working to end violence against women. On June 19th the UN Security Council in New York will hold a meeting on the issue chaired by our colleague US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend personally because the meeting coincides with the European Council held on the same day. However, we should be seen to make our contributions.

In the West Bank, two female police units have started local initiatives to end domestic violence by raising awareness both within the police and the population, establishing support facilities for victims and enhancing prosecution to end impunity. Some of us are contributing to these initiatives in the framework of our engagement in the EU Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories EUPOL COPPS. The Nahr el Bared reconstruction effort should also include this aspect.

Violence against women often increases in refugee camps and in conflict and post-conflict situations with the frustration of men and young boys. We also have to look at youth and their employment and education. I was impressed at the Madrid Alliance of Civilisations conference in January when Sheikha Mozah of Qatar donated an important fund to youth employment activities.

More self confidence - the will to take up more responsibility is key!This is not an elite subject and it is not in the first place about entrepreneurship but about the day to day work in household, garden, farm, stable and the care for the elderly. The reality around the world shows that without the contribution of women in each and every household, society would not work at all.

I have also recently met with African women: African agriculture could not produce anything without women.

I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow to hear about the outcome of today’s workshops and how you see women’s contributions to economic development and stability in conflict resolution and post-conflict situations in the Middle East.

Let me mention five brief facts which have been stated in the recent World Bank report "The Environment for Womens´s Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa Region":

  1. Female entrepreneurs have become a driving force for development and an engine of growth in the Middle East.
  2. Female-owned firms generally employ more women than male-owned firms (except in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia), in particular at the professional and managerial levels.
  3. Today, the percentage of large female-owned firms is higher in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region - this is according to the World Bank gender overview of 2007.
  4. Access to contemporary media such as the internet allows women to occupy spaces they could not have entered before.
  5. Discrimination of women is short-sighted: Higher levels of women’s participation in the economy correlate with higher growth rates.

However, the report also highlights the fact that despite significant gains in education, many women still cannot join the labour market because of a variety of social norms and traditions. Legal constraints such as limitations to buying property, borrowing money or setting up a business without men’s consent are still among the main factors limiting women’s economic empowerment.

We all know: Legislative changes are not enough. Institutions are made to provide stability but they also take a long time to change.

This is also seen in democratic processes: Women could vote for the second time at recent elections in Kuwait. But although 27 women presented their candidature, not a single seat in Parliament was secured by a woman. However, participation was secured at other levels: two women ministers have now been appointed in the new government.

I am convinced: Networking can be an important tool. Investing in women is key. This is a question of "social engineering" rather than of ideology. National budgets are crucial instruments to consciously advance the causes of women. This is an appeal to male prime ministers, presidents, ministers of finance across the region.

This is why I think that establishing a fund for promoting local and regional women entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa - as proposed in the Draft Declaration to be adopted at our meeting tomorrow - is an important step and can make a difference.

Of course we should avoid duplication and make best use of existing funds but this is not enough: We have to promote a specific format, a fund for the MENA region.

What we need to do is create networks. We need to accelerate, to speed up the process. Networking among women and between civil society and government representatives is one of the keys to improving the situation.

Tzipi Livni said at the Vienna conference last May - and I quote:

"I did not go into politics on an empowerment agenda. But I now see how important it is to have a woman in a certain position at the right moment."

We will also continue to work on the legal frameworks. Human rights have to be universal.

I am a Protestant woman and I know: the role of women is a complex issue in many religions. We have to point out differences between religions and traditions. This is why at the recent meeting of the EU and Arab League in Malta we launched an initiative for a bi-regional report on women’s issues in both areas - not to compare but to look for concrete and practical steps to support each other.

From the Austrian side, we will continue to offer a platform for dialogue.

Europe is not indifferent.

Europe is committed to cooperate with the Middle East – our neighbours – to put into practice one of our basic values: equality of men and women.

Equality not in nature, not even in capacities or talents, because we are different.

But equality in responsibilities,
equality in opportunity,
equality in rights and
equality in respect.  

Thank you.