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Democracy and women's participation

How do we ensure that democracy and free market economies produce better lives for all people, especially the poor and the marginalized?
We believe that a nation's progress depends on the progress of women; that the strength of democracy depends on the inclusion of women; that the vibrancy of an economy depends on the hard work of women; that the richness of civil society depends on the full participation of women; that human rights are women's rights; and women's rights are human rights.

There is a very important report that was completed recently by the Women's Leadership Conference of the Americas that details the progress and the challenges that still face women in the Americas. This report confirms that while many governments, organizations and individual citizens acknowledge the importance of women's participation, women are still blocked from going as far as their talents would take them.

Progress has been made. More and more countries require a minimum level of women's participation in local and national elections. Others have created agencies to promote women and family policies. Some programs are now seeking to increase the pool of qualified women to compete for leadership positions.

But we all must do more to make sure that political parties are fair to women and include them in electoral lists, that governments seek out qualified women and give them opportunities to serve. We will all benefit if more women assume positions of political responsibility.

The second challenge is strengthening the rule of law. There is, of course, general agreement in polite company that women deserve equal rights under law. But there are still laws in the Americas that deny women equal rights. I have always believed that the job should be suited to the person. For example, many women cannot lift heavy objects, but some women can. If they qualify, they should be permitted to compete for those jobs.

The larger problem is that on paper we have equal rights, but they are not enforced. We have to do much more to institutionalize the rule of law in the Americas, with an independent judiciary, with due process. We know we will have achieved that goal when a poor, indigenous woman is able to walk into a court and demand the same rights as every other person.

I would hope that by opening up the legal system to more women judges and women prosecutors, women will make sure that women's rights are respected and the rule of law is enshrined in all of our countries. We need more women lawyers, more women judges, more women prosecutors.

Our third priority is opening up economic opportunities for women. Women cannot earn good incomes for themselves and their families and fulfill their god-given potential if they are not educated or if they are held back by poor, or unavailable or substandard health care. So we must do everything we can to ensure access to education for girls and women and to make available quality health care throughout the hemisphere. The economy of the 21st century will be unforgiving for those who are not educated and not healthy and able to make their way.

We also have to face up to continuing wage discrimination against women. And women who work in the informal sector, as many do, have no job benefits and no security.

We must look for ways to get more capital and credit into women's hands. I would again issue a plea to commercial banks and other potential funding sources to look at the success of microcredit as a tool for creating market activity at the grassroots level, giving more people a stake in the free market.

Now, where does this leave us? I hope that we are building on the progress so many of you have begun. I hope we are producing real partnerships that will strengthen democracies and improve lives of women throughout the Americas.

-- The writer, the United States first lady, presented the keynote speech at the Vital Voices of the Americas: Women in Democracy Conference, co-sponsored by the U.S. government and the IDB in Montevideo, Uruguay, on October 3. This article was adapted from her address.

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