Remarks – Zonta Club Presentation

Good afternoon.  President Bernadette Gibson and members of the Zonta Club of Nassau, thank you for inviting me to speak today.  First, I would like to commend the Zonta Club and all of you for your efforts to advance the status of women in The Bahamas and worldwide.  I have heard about your work and accomplishments from your Vice President, Anne Marie Bain, including your partnerships with the Crisis Centre and AIDS Foundation, the support you provide to teenage mothers and senior citizens, and your work with rising generations of Bahamians through school literacy programs and the Z Clubs at the College of The Bahamas and St. John’s College.

The struggle for women’s equality is a global issue.  From the voting booth to the office cubicle, the road to women’s equality has been a long and difficult one.

Brave Bahamian women have taken part in this struggle, for example during the suffrage movement when women in The Bahamas fought for their right to vote by gathering petitions, staging rallies, and fighting for justice in the courts.  They paved the way for today’s women, and made it possible for their children and grandchildren to play more full and active roles in society.

But unfinished business remains, including pay and benefits inequity, workplace discrimination, and the disproportionately low number of women in elected positions.  The women’s equality movement may be less controversial now than in its early years, but it must be no less determined.

Gender equality has been, and remains, a top strategic priority for the United States.  That is not just because it is the right thing to do.  It is because when women and girls are safe, able to exercise their universal rights, and empowered to participate fully in decision-making processes, societies benefit.

The U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that countries that respect the rights of women are more prosperous, more stable, and more secure.  As a result, when it comes to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals, the United States focuses on opportunities for women abroad to fully participate in the economic, social, and political lives of their countries.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said in his speech on International Women’s Day in 2013, “Women’s issues, as we know, are more than just women’s issues.  They’re families’ issues, they’re security issues, and they’re justice issues.  And they matter to all of us, men as well as women, boys as well as girls, those of us who live in free countries as well as those of us who don’t.”

The economic downturn a few years ago had severe repercussions for women in the workplace.   During periods of economic stagnation or downturn, women are impacted disproportionately, which has a profound impact on their families.  Worldwide data shows that women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups.  They are paid less, work in lower-paying occupations, spend more time on unpaid caregiving for family members, and are more likely to work part-time rather than full-time.

Over the years, the U.S. Embassy in Nassau has partnered with a number of Bahamian government agencies and organizations including the Bureau of Women’s Affairs, the Crisis Center, and the Zonta Club to raise awareness about the importance of equality for women.

In September, the Embassy funded a visit by Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, who presented to community and student groups on enhancing the political, social, and economic empowerment of women and girls.  For last November’s International Day to Eliminate Gender-Based Violence, the Embassy funded a program, in conjunction with the Royal Bahamas Police Force, to raise awareness about domestic, teen, and gender-based violence through workshops in Nassau and on five of the Family Islands.

Each year, the Embassy presents an annual Woman of Courage award to a Bahamian woman who has exemplified courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress in The Bahamas.  This year, our Woman of Courage award went to Sheila Culmer for her role in advocating for laws to protect disabled people in The Bahamas.

The Embassy also has sent several Bahamian women to International Visitor and Leadership Programs in the United States to enhance their skills in human rights, civil rights, and NGO management, and to learn more about opportunities for women in education and politics.

Going forward, the Embassy will continue our partnerships with government agencies and local NGOs to help empower Bahamian women.

In the words of President Barack Obama, “the best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women.  If it’s educating girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward.  But if women are oppressed and abused and illiterate, then they’re going to fall behind.”

President Obama’s words are borne out not just by experience, but by fact.  A team of researchers led by Professor Valerie Hudson of Texas A&M University found in 2012 that the best single predictor for the stability and peacefulness of a country was not economic prosperity, the level of democracy, or ethnic and religious identity, but rather how well the women of that country are treated.  Hudson’s research suggests that large gaps between the treatment of men and women in a society also have negative influences on economic growth, corruption, social welfare, and the level of violence.

We must ensure that women and girls of The Bahamas, the United States, and the world are valued equally and have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  We know that investing in women and girls is a force multiplier and can be a powerful catalyst for economic development.  This includes equal access to education and preventing and responding to gender-based violence, both key priorities for the U.S. Embassy and for the United States.

The U.S. Embassy salutes the Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas for its recent efforts to promote gender equality in The Bahamas, including the forthcoming referendum to provide a constitutional foundation for equality between women and men, and between girls and boys.

I believe that all of you will agree with me that it is time for the women of the Bahamas to stand on an equal legal footing with their male counterparts.  I hope that each of you here today will play an active role in encouraging the Bahamian government to move forward with the referendum on gender equality.

As Bahamian women continue to advance in all facets of society such as education, labor, government, and politics, they will need the continued support of organizations like the Zonta Club.  Your work in promoting the advancement of women and providing leadership development and networking opportunities are crucial in helping women play an even greater role in shaping society to ensure a better future for all.

Thank you very much.