Remarks Prepared for Delivery by the Hon. Elaine L. Chao
CARE 2017 National Conference
May 22, 2017
Good afternoon! I am so pleased to be part of this forum on empowering ppy to have had the opportunity to help make a difference for women in Iraq and Afghanistan. And their potential unlwomen and girls globally.
My goal of helping women access education and opportunity started early in life, in my own family. My mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, was among the very few women of her generation in war-torn China to gain an education. She came from a distinguished family that believed in the education of their daughters. Because of her education, my mother was so much better prepared to be able to face the turmoil and challenges of her later life. She returned home to the Lord on August 2, 2007, but her spirit continues to inspire me every day.
As you know, I am an immigrant to this country. I came to America when I was eight years old not speaking any English. Not only did we not speak English, but we struggled to adapt in so many ways. We had difficulty with American cuisine, and we didn’t understand the culture.
Like many other newcomers, my parents were so brave. They were incredibly hard working and determined to build a better life for their family. The fact that all of their six children were girls was never an issue. They taught each one of us to work to fulfill our potential and contribute to society. They believed that with hard work, a positive attitude and perseverance, we could achieve anything. That was their recipe for empowerment.
One of the most important attributes my parents taught their daughters was to help others, and to appreciate the value of financial independence for women. So whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I have tried to launch programs that empower women and help them achieve this important goal.
Broadly speaking, we know that education is key to success in all countries, rich and poor. Illiteracy remains a huge impediment to reducing poverty rates, especially for women. Nearly a billion adults in the world are estimated to be illiterate. Two-thirds of them are women.
I was once Director of the U.S. Peace Corps and witnessed many efforts big and small to help impoverished people around the world. One account that stayed with me is of a Peace Corps volunteer’s experience helping rural women build their own small businesses. These women told her that the skill they needed most was to learn how to read and write numbers. Now basic math skills are something we take for granted in developing countries. But it’s worth remembering that women in developing countries need these basic skills to access opportunity.
It takes more than just math skills, however, to successfully run a small business or a small farm. Basic entrepreneurial skills are critical, as well. So as Director of the Peace Corps, I launched the first entrepreneurship training courses in the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. An important element of this training was encouraging women entrepreneurs.
Then, as Secretary of Labor, I had an opportunity to help make a difference for women in the Middle East. Rebuilding Iraq’s economy and civil society were priorities after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
As part of the plan for Iraq reconstruction, the U.S. Department of Labor provided $5 million to rebuild the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Ministry was tasked with creating job training programs and employment services. I wanted to ensure that women were a priority for the new Iraqi Labor Ministry. So the first three Iraqis we chose to participate in a leadership training program at the U.S. Department of Labor were women. That was so important, because one of the major challenges in Iraq—and throughout the world—is the economic empowerment of women.
I was also honored to support the efforts of First Lady Laura Bush to provide access to education for Afghan girls and women. Her daughter, Barbara, is carrying on her mother’s work on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable populations. I’m delighted Barbara is on the program this afternoon. Working with First Lady Laura Bush, the Labor Department provided funding to purchase material for school uniforms in Afghanistan, so that impoverished Afghan families could send their daughters to school. As you know so well, girls could not attend school under the Taliban. Today, hundreds of thousands of Afghan girls and young women have access to education.
In addition, I co-chaired-- along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice-- the Administration’s Interdepartmental Task Force on Child Trafficking. Our goal was to strengthen sanctions against Child Trafficking, which is another scourge that devastates so many of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.
Let me share one more story with you. We achieved gender equity in our top leadership team during my tenure as U.S. Secretary of Labor. So when I had the opportunity to travel to Iraq, I presented a group of Iraqi women with a framed, autographed photograph of the eight top women leaders at the U.S. Department of Labor. The Iraqi women could not believe that women held half the top leadership positions in a government ministry. It was a small, but inspirational gesture touchstone for these women. And it was reminder that even in the most advanced economies, there is always more that can be done.
So thank you for everything you are doing to globally, to ensure that each mother, daughter, sister and wife can grow and reach her full potential, so that our world can benefit from all the wisdom of its populations.