“Unleashing the Power of Women around the World”

“Unleashing the Power of Women around the World”
National Association of Women Judges ∙ 29th Annual Conference
Philadelphia, PA
November 9, 2007

I wanted to start my comments with a lawyer joke — but, as I once heard Chief Justice John Roberts remark, the lawyers here wouldn’t think it was funny, and the rest of you wouldn’t think it was a joke.

Truly, I feel privileged to speak with such an extraordinary group of women — many of whom I know as colleagues, and many more of whom I know as friends. You don’t just talk about building a fairer, more equitable judicial system, but work tirelessly to realize it. You assure equal access for those who require justice, and gender equality among those administering it. The active concern you show for those who will come after you is both an inspiration and a model of mentorship. In my generation, many of the women who made their way to the top pulled up the ladder after them. I am thrilled and proud that you take your responsibility to the next generation so seriously. I understand that the theme this week is the increasing inclusiveness of the phrase “we, the people.” I’ve been asked to help frame our obligation as women to women — to share a few ideas about how we, the people here, can help unleash the power of women around the world.

The challenges are tremendous, but so are the opportunities: opportunities to tackle the disadvantages women face, from poverty to violence, from ill-health to illiteracy; opportunities to equip women with new tools to build better lives for themselves and their families; opportunities to empower more people with a stronger sense of connection and obligation to one another and our shared future. And, because of globalization, it is incontrovertibly clear that we all do share the future in a very different way. These days, everybody thinks globally.

I’m pleased to see so many international judges with us today, contributing to the vigorous debate that has raged these last several years about the applicability and admissibility of international statutes and precedents in American jurisprudence. Without taking a position on the issue — this is a conference of potential Supreme Court nominees after all — I will say I liked the way Justice O’Connor talked about these questions, and not just because she helped found the National Association of Women Judges and serves today as a Rockefeller Foundation trustee. Justice O’Connor said: “American judges and lawyers,” and indeed all of us, “can benefit from broadening our horizons.” Other legal systems, she argued, “continue to innovate, to experiment, and offer much from which we can learn and benefit. Our flexibility,” she continued, “is what will enable us to remain progressive, with systems that can cope with a rapidly shrinking world.”

I didn’t go to law school — and every time I hear Justice O’Connor ask her incisive questions at our board meetings I’m convinced that I made the right choice — but it seems to me that decisions made in other parts of the world, judicial or otherwise, do have consequences in our lives, and thus should be relevant in our jurisprudence and beyond. More generally, I believe fervently that we have much to learn from one another in, what Tom Friedman called, our flattening world. We live during a truly remarkable time in human history — a moment replete with promise — a moment of “broadening horizons” beyond the courtroom.

Travel and communication are faster and better. Technology both improves our lives and accelerates every day. We’re all the beneficiaries of veritable revolutions in health and medicine. We share robust markets and capital, knowledge and ideas, and dramatically more diverse communities. The world is smaller, we’re more interdependent, global security and human rights are much more deeply connected. We live at a time not entirely dissimilar to the late eighteenth-century when a group of Atlantic World provincials kept coming back to Philadelphia, debating, then declaring independence and human rights, struggling to respond to their unwieldy implications and messy consequences, and then framing new systems, structures, and institutions that could harness and preserve the benefits of their declarations and affirmations for generations to come.

We, like them, face new kinds of economic challenges, new and different social strains, and very different environmental threats.  And we, too, have the potential to initiate and institutionalize meaningful and lasting improvements in lives and societies. Just think about the scope and scale. Globalization can unleash extraordinary opportunities for some, but, for many, it’s unsustainable, unequal, and unpredictable — and especially for women. It’s unsustainable because we’re changing our climate, destroying or depleting our natural resources, and, in turn, altering the natural systems that have supported human life. It’s unequal because half the world still lives on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people live on less than $1 a day — 70 percent of them female. Ann Veneman, the Executive Director of UNICEF, shared some startling metrics with me that set the scope of inequality in sharp relief. Women do two-thirds of all the work in the world, but earn only about 5 percent of the income. They harvest 90 percent of the world’s food, yet own only 1 percent of the world’s land, and they’re three times as likely as men to work in informal economies. Globalization, finally, is unpredictable because it perpetuates consequences that disproportionately affect women: conflict and war — whether between old warring factions or as the result of new trends like increasingly limited resources; widening economic disparities which exacerbate poverty; greater frequency and intensity of diseases like HIV/AIDS.

These forces and others, researchers have shown, make women more vulnerable.  We have to look no further than the front pages of the New York Times to hear testimony of rapes, beatings, bridal burnings, dowry deaths, sex trafficking, and forced women’s labor. Whole societies suffer as a result. It’s discouraging to even think about. But the news isn’t all bad. Laws are starting to change. Women are gaining access to better healthcare and education. Women are gaining legal and financial tools that lift the conditions and aspirations of families and communities. Women are gaining equal justice — equality in the schoolhouse, in the marketplace, under the law, and, in many places around the world, women are breaking through traditional barriers, earning election as national and international leaders. But these advances and achievements are still too few and way too far between.  It is difficult to change women’s lives. It’s not one challenge; it’s many. So, for this distinguished audience, I want to suggest the five most important legal and policy changes that could set off cascading improvements in the lives of women, the world-over.

One — countries need to pass and enforce tougher laws that prohibit violence against women and punish the men who commit it.

Two — national and international entities should legally mandate the creation of supportive safe-houses in regions of conflict that can educate women in secure environments.

Three — governments should implement land tenure reform in places where women have no ownership rights.

Four — education systems in all countries should mandate that girls be required to attend school, exactly the same as boys are.

And five — governments must provide tax incentives to financial and banking institutions that develop and disseminate financial tools, in addition to micro-credit, to help women build better lives for themselves, their families, communities, and society.

All of these ideas are grounded in the bedrock notion that, in our interdependent world, we all benefit when more people are safer, self-sufficient, and active participants in our shared social and economic life. And the place to start is by recognizing there is scant progress our global community can make when acts of violence are committed against half the population with impunity — when one of every three girls in school, one of every three women in the field or at market, one of every three daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers is raped, beaten, or otherwise sexually abused in her lifetime — a pandemic every bit as deplorable and destructive as malaria or other health scourges that threaten humanity today. Madeleine Albright said it so powerfully: “Violence against women — anywhere — is not cultural; it’s criminal.” Nations need to write, pass, and aggressively enforce laws that treat it as such — whether it occurs in the form of rape or assault or dowry deaths, honor killings, female genital mutilation, human trafficking, or other gender-based atrocities. And these laws must attack the root causes: poverty, cultural norms that devalue women, and men’s attitudes and behavior.

Shamefully, today, less than 5 percent of rape prosecutions, world-wide, lead to convictions — representing an enormous enforcement challenge. One primary driver of this crisis is the small number of women in judicial systems. When women in many places withstand sexual violence, they’re victimized many times over — not just by the criminal who attacked them, but often by male police, male lawyers, male judges, and predominantly male juries in places they’re available — by men who, ostensibly, are there to defend them. We know that when women are empowered as lawmakers, statutes and enforcement strategies are strengthened, and that even deep cultural norms, values, and expectations begin to change. We have seen it over and over again. In Sierra Leone, for example, the new post-civil war government has enacted new laws, just this past summer, against domestic violence and child marriage, along with training programs for law officers, but we also know that when women advocate for and support other women, sexual violence is reported more openly and frequently — and justice is dispensed more evenhandedly.

One bellwether country to watch is Algeria. After a brutal civil war that left 100,000 dead by 2002, women, today, are emerging as a powerful economic, political, and legal force. Women now account for 70 percent of Algeria’s lawyers and 60 percent of its judges. They have doubled their representation in the workforce over the last ten years, and now comprise six of every ten university students. The New York Times, in May, called it “a quiet revolution”, and we believe Algeria will soon implement stronger laws, enforcement, and, most importantly, protections for women who report their attackers. In Zimbabwe this past spring, UNICEF, the government, and the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association collaborated to organize training for hundreds of tribal chiefs across the country, teaching them — the male tribal leaders — how to implement the country’s historic Domestic Violence Act, how to identify and report abuse, and how to offer community-based support to victims. In Thailand last month, the government hosted a conference of officials from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Timore-Leste to develop and deploy strategies to enlist men as partners to end violence against women. In India just a few weeks ago, landmark legislation protecting women from domestic violence came into effect, giving a magistrate sweeping authority to issue protection orders and impose punishments.

We cannot, overnight, reweave the complex social fabrics that so often cloak violence against women.  We cannot, instantaneously, reestablish women’s trust in judicial systems which, for so long, have been complicitous in the mistreatment of women. But from these cases I mentioned and others, we do have reason to hope.  Each new law puts greater pressure on those who allow violence against women to persist. Each next step makes it harder to turn back the progress of women’s human rights, and this is the moment to build on the legal groundwork governments have laid with continued meaningful action — especially in regions experiencing or just coming out of periods of civil strife. Amnesty International estimates that 70 percent of the casualties in recent conflicts around the world have been non-combatants — and 80 percent of these casualties are women and children. Conflict makes women more vulnerable to discrimination, poverty, and sexual violence. It creates massive refugee crises that tear away at supportive networks of family and community. The rape epidemic that has emerged as a byproduct of the war in the Congo — just for one sickening example — runs counter to every moral fiber of our civilization, and should compel us to act.

I believe governments must respond by mandating the creation of safe houses — havens where women can bring their children, escape the violence surrounding and often targeting them, and access healthcare, education, economic and legal services. But if women truly are to escape poverty, cope with crisis, and build better futures, they need more than greater physical security; they need the economic security of property and inheritance rights. The problem may be an easy one to recognize, but it’s thorny to understand — and there’s no universally applicable solution because laws and customs vary widely among countries and cultures. In many sub-Saharan African nations, for instance, women live on, work, and farm their father’s or husband’s land — property that women legally cannot own. If a father or husband dies, a daughter or wife may lose her home, tools, and livelihood at precisely the moment she and her family need them most.

Tenure rights also connect back to domestic violence, poverty, and health challenges. Research in Kerala, India, for example found that almost half of women who owned no property reported physical violence compared to only 7 percent who did own property. Other studies have shown that women who don’t own land are statistically more likely also to be infected with HIV/AIDS. Since women are the main food growers in many parts of the world, there’s a clear correlation between land tenure and agricultural productivity. Research in Ghana has shown that agricultural workers who face insecure land rights fallow their plots less, reducing yields significantly. In other words, securing women’s land rights is one way to prevent domestic violence, improve health conditions, and increase agricultural yields, thus combating poverty, all at the same time. The International Center for Research on Women has identified several key legal reforms countries need to implement. The legal structures that govern women’s property rights are a starting point. but countries also need to align customary behaviors with statutory law, promote legal education and literacy, support organizations that advocate for women in court, and more accurately measure and characterize the problem in a way that reveals additional solutions.  Collecting the data matters.

At the moment, UN-HABITAT, the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are beginning a joint initiative for land policy reform. They’re working on approaches that will encourage women to purchase land jointly, own it individually, but farm it collectively. And they’re working on one simple idea that could generate an extraordinary result — adding an extra line on land titles and allowing the registry of two names, not just one. Joint-titling can help women protect themselves from capricious husbands or in-laws — though I suspect my husband might say that men need protection from capricious in-laws too. It can help women protect themselves against disenfranchisement through separation, divorce, or widowing, and it could give women the collateral to access credit, participate in banking, and act more like twenty-first century entrepreneurs than fourteenth century serfs.

Rwanda, which has the largest percentage of women parliamentarians anywhere in the world — nearly 50 percent — has made significant progress in this area.  Today, Rwanda’s women legislators are passing and requiring enforcement of new laws against sexual violence and expanding rights to inheritance of wealth and land. Of course, even if we could wave a magic wand that ended violence against women and secured their tenure and inheritance rights, it still would not be enough. If women are to pursue realistic aspirations for a brighter future, education systems also need to do a better job opening schoolhouse doors to girls and helping them find their way through.

Since 1960, primary school enrollment rates have risen for both boys and girls in developing countries. Some studies say they have almost converged. Still, UNESCO estimated that, last year, 43 million school-age girls were not enrolled in school — and many millions more completed fewer than six years of schooling. We know that if the crops need picking, or a health crisis ensues at home, it is the girls, not the boys, who are pulled out of school to help. Leading scholars also argue that disparities in educational opportunities result, in many cases, from racial and ethnic discrimination. Prejudice is worst against girls from ethnic minorities, isolated clans, or who speak different languages. In response, communities and countries need fairer education policies, expanded schooling options, and safer educational environments. They should also create incentives for families to send their girls to school — whether conditional cash transfers, scholarships and stipends, or feeding and nutrition programs. We know that these and other strategies — like eliminating school fees or helping pay for uniforms and books — can make a dramatic difference.

Incentives can also be more than just cash.  From our work in Kenya, the Rockefeller Foundation has learned that there are two major reasons girls withdraw themselves from school even if their families encourage their attendance. First, their schools often lack sanitary facilities. Second, they feel vulnerable to sexual harassment and have no recourse when it occurs. We have seen that once schools addressed these issues, girls often returned on their own initiative. So, if schools are sanitary, safe, and supportive environments for girls, school attendance in many instances becomes its own incentive.

Finally, women’s safety from violence, important land tenure reforms, and expanded educational opportunities all connect with economic growth. And there are a host of financial tools that women need to improve their economic prospects and those of their families. We have all followed how microcredit has helped millions lift themselves out of poverty. It earned Muhammad Yunus, of Bangladesh, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He started a microcredit facility in Bangladesh 32 years ago. In a country with a per-capita income of barely a dollar a day, he has made nearly 7 million loans, 97 percent of which went to women, and almost 60 percent of which helped individual people and families work their way above the international poverty line. But microcredit, alone, is not enough — though it has earned a great deal of attention.  We need to think about economic empowerment in a more integrated, strategic way. Education, health, insurance, financial literacy, and infrastructure development are all ingredients of the recipe.

Agricultural development is a vital part of the mix as well. 80 percent of Africa’s agricultural workers are women.  But right now, women receive less than 10 percent of all credit directed toward small farmers, and 1 percent of the total credit to agriculture. The Rockefeller Foundation is working on one solution through our partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a new alliance for a “green revolution” in Africa. As one part of our work, the alliance will help widen access to credit so that small, local farmers — in many instances, women — can buy seeds and fertilizer and eventually become agro dealers.

They say that one good example is worth a thousand theories, so let me tell you about Janet Matemba from the village of Lumbadzi in rural Malawi. Ms. Matemba is a wife, a mother — and was the owner of a remote, small roadside stand that sold sodas, soap, biscuits, and cooking oil to area farmers. A little more than five years ago, a representative of the Rural Market Development Trust, a Rockefeller Foundation grantee, approached her about also selling agricultural products. She hesitated. It would mean learning new skills and, more intimidating still, making a relatively substantial upfront investment. But Ms. Matemba eventually decided to take the chance — she studied business management and earned her certification in agro dealing. With the help of a guaranteed credit facility, she purchased fertilizer and seeds from wholesale suppliers in 50 kilogram bags. She broke those packages down into smaller, more manageable sizes of ten, five, two, or even one kilogram – small enough for a farmer to carry on foot or a bicycle.  She began selling them to local farmers. And then her business took off. After just a couple years, Ms. Matemba expanded her shop to the size of a warehouse, and now, in a country where most of the people live on about $1.50 a day, Janet Matemba’s sales are around $200,000 a year — most of which she reinvests into her growing business, hiring her neighbors, expanding opportunity.

Janet Matemba and so many like her embody the potential for small, retail entrepreneurs to transform the African landscape — working hand-in-hand with farmers to replenish depleted soils, create a viable agricultural marketplace, and enhance Africa’s ability to feed its people. Ms. Matemba and countless other women have demonstrated courage and talent.  I want to underscore that none of these women are passive recipients of aid — they are able, active partners.  And while they may be ahead of the curve, they are part of a growing trend.

It is no great secret that women face greater obstacles to economic empowerment than men do, but when they overcome those barriers — when they have access to credit and insurance — the economies of whole communities grow stronger because women’s repayment rates are so much higher than men’s, and because women are so much more likely to invest money back into their businesses and in their families. Women in many places, as I said, are denied ownership of family resources by law, but when they are empowered to make economic decisions, they are more likely than men to devote substantial resources to nutrition, health, and education — findings reinforced in studies of countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, and South Africa. Girls and women are often excluded from education, but the data affirm that when schoolhouse doors are open to them, their learning sparks transformations not only in their lives, but in the lives of generations that follow.

In all the areas I’ve talked about today, I keep returning to the same point: the actions that individuals, public and private organizations, governments, the judiciary and multilateral institutions are taking right now make a profound difference. But they are not enough. It is not enough to provide financing to women. They need more consistent, predictable, and timely access to these vehicles, and the confidence to leverage them. It is not enough to imagine, develop, and commercialize new technologies — microbicides, for example, that can prevent the HIV virus and enable women to take control of their sexual health. Women need mechanisms that can deliver these innovations into their hands, accountability functions that ensure they’re actually using them, and intensified efforts to destigmatize behaviors like family planning that can save lives, elevate families, and change societies. It is not enough to build new schools.  The schools have to be safe, enriching, and welcoming environments for girls. It is not enough to pass laws. Laws have to be accepted. Laws have to be implemented

And this illuminates something much bigger: reform efforts may take time because we’re pushing uphill against the gravity of laws and cultures, but we are approaching a tipping point.  We have to keep implementing, building on, and bringing the approaches to scale that we already know can be successful. “We, the people” — we as women — all have a special role to play. It could be getting involved with the International Association of Women Judges. It could be bringing to scale NAWJ programs, like “Color of Justice,” around the world — encouraging more women and people of color to pursue legal education. But, importantly, it must be continuing, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, to “become the change you wish to see in the world.”

You and your colleagues are making decisions that are changing the way we look at the judicial function and ensuring a fairer, more equitable dispensation of justice. Study after study shows that women judges promote system-wide transformations: expanding access to community and drug courts, encouraging parties to explore alternative dispute resolution, and reaching back to help women and minority lawyers and judges find their way into the bar and onto the bench. You are changing how we litigate and sentence. You are changing who does the litigating and sentencing. You are changing the way we approach the law — how we think, learn, work, and learn from the work of reform together. What is different today is that you are doing this as a part of a global system — where nothing happens in a vacuum anymore, and where every action you take has an equal reaction. When you change how justice works in your jurisdiction, it reverberates in distant places you may not know — educating, energizing, and enabling meaningful, synergetic transformations.

I started my comments this afternoon by suggesting that we were privileged to live at a historical moment ripe with peril but also enormous promise — during a time that’s reminiscent, in many ways, to those heady, late-eighteenth century days, when another, less colorful group gathered in Philadelphia and asserted that “we, the people” have certain rights, certain responsibilities, and certain roles to play in the world. Even more so now, than was the case then, we should hear and heed the voices of the great majority of people who were not allowed a seat or speaking slot at the Constitutional Convention, during that hot Philadelphia summer, 220 years ago.

In March, 1776, before anyone had any inkling that there would be a Constitution much less a country, John Adams was here in Philadelphia, participating in the great debate over American independence while his wife Abigail remained home in Boston. The seminal power of that moment was lost on neither of them, but it was she who admonished him, in a now famous letter, that the men who made the laws ought to, in her words, “remember the ladies.” Sort of like the Rendells today. The phrase has certainly become something of a truism — you can find it on t-shirts and bumper stickers at the gift shop down the street, but make no mistake: we live in revolutionary times just as John and Abigail Adams did. While their challenge keyed on independence and the human rights they hoped it would unleash, our challenge is to harness our deepening interdependence to the advantage of more people in more places.

The opportunity to make that promise real — the opportunity not just to “remember the ladies” in law, but in terms of substantial, meaningful, and uplifting opportunity — feels palpable in this room. Those of us here have been privileged to lead extraordinary lives not only at a moment when so much is changing, but when we have so much opportunity to change things for the better. I’m optimistic we can seize it — investing in the potential of women in schoolhouses, marketplaces, farm-fields, small businesses, and villages like Janet Matemba’s — unleashing the power of women around the world.