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Arab Women Making "Tremendous

Charlotte Ponticelli
Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Interview with NILE TV
June 8, 2004

Q: Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the State Department, we thank you very much for taking some of your time to talk to us.

Ms. Ponticelli: Thank you.

Q: Thank you so much. You spoke today, addressed the International Arab Women Forum that was held at the Arab League, and you gave a wonderful speech in which you outlined several issues pertinent to women affairs in America, in the Arab world, and at the international level. You have also been to the Middle East several times. You've come across a lot of women here in the Arab world. What is your "take" on the progress that women have so far achieved in the Arab world?

Ms. Ponticelli: I think women in the Arab world have made tremendous progress and really are an inspiration to women in other regions of the world.

We've been very impressed with the involvement of women in the Alexandria Library, for example -- that project -- women in many countries throughout
the region... I hesitate to single any out because I would leave out a
success story -- the fact that you have woman running for president in Lebanon, I think, is a huge milestone.

Q: There is the Alexandria document, the one that you have mentioned. There is also the final communiqué of the Arab Summit in Tunis last month, and they all centered -- sort of -- on empowering women, the need to empower women, for women to be more involved in the political decision-making process in development projects in the respective countries.

And there is also the initiative for reform or the Greater Middle East Initiative that is coming from the U.S. How would you relate what is in that document, the Alexandria document, the communiqué of the Arab League, and what has been mentioned in the Greater Middle East project?

Ms. Ponticelli: I think that's an excellent question, Nihal.

I would really look at it as a continuum of effort. These things are not thought up overnight. Discussions take, sometimes, a long time to evolve.

I think that there was a very interesting discussion that started a few weeks ago in Tunis. I think that women there...I understand that women there played a tremendous role in forging that statement of intent. I think that that statement of intent, particularly the way it mentioned the need for an integrated strategy, for example, the role of women in the political sphere, in the economic life of their country, in the
educational, social, and cultural sphere... Women's issues, neither here
nor in the United States, -- they're no longer a separate thing you can put in a little box and put on a shelf. They're part of the broader efforts for reform, for democratic change, for economic prosperity, and for peace and stability.

It's my expectation, I would hope, insha'Allah, that the leaders at the G-8 Summit will have a chance to build on that discussion. I think it's a very positive evolution of the discussion.

Q: Right. You're speaking about the G-8 Summit and, again, the Greater Middle East Initiative. Initiatives for reform for the Middle East is going to be high on the agenda of these leaders when they discuss this.

Now part of the speech -- in your speech -- you said that we cannot impose reform -- that any attempt to do that is going to be doomed to failure. That was part of the criticism that was directed to the Greater Middle East Initiative because it did not consult with Arab leaders, or it did not consult with Arab governments, and it was sort of imposed instead being negotiated with them.

Ms. Ponticelli: I know that Secretary Powell and Dr. Condoleeza Rice have already -- I know -- addressed this question a lot better than I ever could.

I will tell you as someone who works on women's issues at the State Department -- and when so much of our effort, of course, involves this region of the world and our efforts to form partnerships -- that it's very much a two-way street. We know we can't impose reform -- you're absolutely right -- that was a key point in my speech. We know that reform has to come from within, and just as we would like to express support and willingness to help the process of change here in the Middle East, we know that we can learn from suggestions that come from this region to us, and, again, a need to listen to Arab voices. I think that our officials have made it clear that that's going to be a key motivation for the G-8 Summit -- to listen to these other voices.

Q: Our First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, addressed the forum, and Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak has championed a movement, the Suzanne Mubarak International Peace Movement, or Women for Peace Movement, and that has been gaining a lot of international support. I don't know if you have had a chance to talk about that with Egyptian women here, or with other women in the region.

Ms. Ponticelli: Oh, I have. Yes.

Q: What is your "take" about it?

Ms. Ponticelli: My "take" is that it is fabulous, and that Mrs. Mubarak is a champion for the universal values that we all share: peace, cooperation, positive democratic change, and making sure that women have a place at the table working on those issues. So we very much support the thrust of her initiative. She made some excellent remarks, very stirring remarks, at the opening of the conference yesterday, which, I think, set the pace and set the good tone for the discussions. And I think that her message of working together for peace and cooperation in order to forge, as she said, "true partnerships" -- we very much applaud her leadership on these issues. She's fabulous.

Q: Your department, the international women issues, is affiliated with the State Department. What is the pro-women foreign policy agenda in the State Department? How is it positioned in the State Department, which, I am sure, has so many things to deal with?

Ms. Ponticelli: That's an excellent question, and one that I deal with. I mean, we all of us have work that we do, and, as you know, one of the key things involved in your work is convincing others why the issues you work on are important, and how you might find ways and widen the net of support and work with others, and also to come out with a coordinated approach.

If everybody's going off in different directions, you often can cancel each other out, or work against each other. So we are a coordinating office.

We report directly to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, who has a number of very big portfolios including democracy and human rights, population and migration, the Office of Environment and Science and Technology, the Science Adviser's Office, and I have probably left out a couple. She also does Tibet. She's the Special Coordinator for Tibet. So our approach towards women's issues is very integrated into everything else.

Secretary Powell made a remarkable statement to the State Department just a year ago in which he made clear that women's issues are integral to U.S. foreign policy. Why? Because you'll never achieve true democracy -- you will never achieve freedom, prosperity, opportunities, peace, and stability -- if you exclude one half of your population.

Women are, I think, sometimes portrayed as the victims of the world, and true, they often suffer in a horrendous way from war and from conflict and from poverty and deprivation, but what you find working with women is they are tremendous resources for change.

Q: And particularly, that's truly correct when it comes to places of conflict like Palestine or like in Iraq. You've been to Afghanistan. You mentioned, before we started taping this interview, about the initiatives for women in Iraq and about the initiatives also for Palestinian women. Could you elaborate on these two initiatives?

Ms. Ponticelli: Yes, I will. I will try to briefly.

We very much support the efforts of the Palestinian women to deal with the problems in their society, to deal with the tremendous challenges that they're facing and so, again -- our integrated strategy. The U.S. is, I believe, the largest contributor to programs, humanitarian programs, hospitals, clinics, schools, but also in terms of exchange programs, which can be a great bridge for peace and cooperation that Mrs. Mubarak spoke of. So we have very much an integrated approach to help Palestinian women with the tremendous challenges they face.

With respect to Iraq, again, we try very much to be -- not impose -- but be responsive to the needs that Iraqi women have told us are priority for them. For them right now? They say, look, we've been through a lot, but we're very capable. We just need a little help, and that means training. So we have a new initiative. It's a ten million dollar Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative that focuses on helping women with leadership skills and concrete capacity building endeavors. Whether it's political participation, entrepreneurship, economic -- how do you start and run your own business, for example, how do you write a business plan -- also, women journalists, the role of women with the media -- so that there's some training programs underway for that. So we're very excited. I'm going to be reviewing those proposals when I go home. The proposals have come in and the deadline has closed for proposals. We have over thirty.

Q: And what is the timeframe for....

Ms. Ponticelli: We hope within the next couple of weeks to announce the proposals that have been selected under this ten million dollar initiative.

We've already used some money from the initiative to fund a group of Iraqi women, a delegation, who recently attended - actually it was just last week - the Global Summit of Women this year which was held in Korea.

There's another delegation of Iraqi women coming over soon -- in July -- that want to talk about political skills that they feel they need in preparation for their elections, which, insha'Allah, will be January of next year. So again, skills, but a very integrated approach.

We also have, finally, a new initiative called the U.S.-Iraq Democracy...
U.S.- Iraq Women's Network, forgive me. It is for democracy, but it's also the economic empowerment. We're very excited about that. It's a public-private partnership - realizing that governments alone can't do it all. We need the private sector. We have people in the corporate world who want to help.

Q: And the civil society.

Ms. Ponticelli: And civil society, and NGOs. I have over --- we have had over a hundred groups, organizations, NGOs, individuals, who have signed up, who say, "We want to help be a part of this." From the Society of Women Engineers in the United States to human rights organizations and NGOs, who want to help with training. And this is loosely built on our U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which also endeavors to have that integrated approach.

Q: Charlotte Ponticelli, the Senior Coordinator of International Women's Issues at the State Department, we thank you very much for taking some of your time.

Ponticelli: Thank you, Nihal. I appreciate it.


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