Honorable Elaine Chao – IWD 2014

103th International Women’s Day Conference – February 27, 2014

Secretary Elaine Chao
Secretary Elaine Chao


Thank you so much. This is such an important group of people, all additional voices in this ever-growing discussion, cry, and demand for equal rights for women all over the world.

This is a topic that’s really close to my heart.  Throughout my career, I’ve traveled all over the world as Peace Corps Director, as President of the United Way of America, and Secretary of Labor and especially to the Middle East to launch programs to help women access educational, political and economic opportunity.  And for me, economic opportunity, economic empowerment, is the most important of all.

My passion in helping women access education and economic empowerment wherever they live really started very early in my own family. My mother was among the very few women of her generation growing up in a war-torn and chaotic China that had the opportunity to gain an education. She came from a very progressive home that actually believed in the education of women.  Can you believe it?  That was a very, very unusual thought.

But because of her education, she was so much better able to be prepared to face the turmoils and the challenges of her later life; like losing her country, like having to leave her country and go to a whole new country and start a new life.

This theme also resonates in my own life because I’m an immigrant to this country as well.  I came to America when I was 8 years old.  We didn’t speak any English. Not only did we not speak English, we could not eat the food. (Laughter.)

We couldn’t understand putting these huge mounds of meat between two pieces of bread: Your hamburger, your hot dog.  And we didn’t understand the culture.  We really struggled to understand this new country in which we lived.

But like so many other newcomers to America, this is a story that’s replete across my country.  My parents are so brave and so hard working and full of optimism that America is the land of opportunity and this is where their daughters would excel because indeed I came from a family — I come from a family of six daughters.  You can’t imagine the jokes that I endured as I was growing up. They would be horrible jokes about how my parents would have to pay for all of these wedding bills.  Well, we got them back, all these people who said that to us because we made our husbands pay half the bills when we got married. (Laughter.)

My parents taught each of their daughters to fulfill their potential, to help others, to contribute to society.  They believed that with hard work, a positive attitude and perseverance, their daughters could do anything in the world and that belief was incredible empowerment and without their sacrifices and their encouragement I wouldn’t be here today.  One of the most important lessons that my parents taught me and taught all of their daughters was financial independence.  Without financial independence we were prisoners to whatever other people’s fate was for us.

So whenever I’ve had the chance I’ve tried to create programs that would empower women and help them achieve this very important goal of financial independence.

As director of the Peace Corps, I launched the first entrepreneurship program in the newly emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. And a very important part of this training was to encourage women entrepreneurs.

As Secretary of Labor, I had the unique opportunity to help make a difference of women in the Middle East.  I have so many stories that stay with me still. Rebuilding Iraq’s economy in civil society priorities.  Another priority was helping to rebuild Afghanistan after the Taliban who are especially brutal their treatment of women.

So as part of President Bush’s plan for Iraq reconstruction, the U.S. Department of Labor injected millions of dollars to rebuild the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

And did you know that under Saddam Hussein the Ministry of Labor operated prisons?  Under the new government, the ministry was tasked with creating jobs, training programs and employment services.  And that was really important for the stabilization of the country because so many people left the Army, because they were disbanded and so what were they to do.  But I wanted to assure that women were a priority in the new Iraqi Labor of Ministry.

So the first three Iraqis that were chosen to participate in a leadership training program in the United States were women.  And that was a powerful statement to the rest of the ministries in the country that women are to participate in the governance of their own country.

One of the greatest things that I grieved about during that time and still is, you know, throughout the Middle East is the economic disempowerment of women. And Iraq, as you all know, I want to go back to that time, was home to so many world’s on lived on tiny pensions and had so few opportunities to make a living.

I was in Iraq in 2004 and I saw this firsthand.  One of the places I visited was Halal. It’s a beautiful city, it was a beautiful city in southern Iraq near the ancient site of Barrule.  And when you read a Bible it’s a real city during the biblical times.

So when I went to visit the city women comprised 60 percent of the population of Halal because so many of the men over 40 had perished during Saddam Hussein’s regime.  In fact, one of the most gruesome discoveries, when I was there, was learning of a mass grave outside of Halal.  There Saddam Hussein’s forces had dumped the bodies of an estimated 30,000 fathers, brothers, husbands that had been murdered in and around Halal.  And the widows that they left behind were destitute.  Young and old women alike were desperate to learn marketable skills and access opportunity.

So at the request of the local Iraqi women we opened a women’s center in Halal and provided democracy training and skills training. I visited there and toured the center’s internet cafe. Populated with women. Women learned computer skills.  They communicated with the outside world.  I visited a sewing class which produced clothes to sell in the locate market.  Another stop was a more traditional setting with a kitchen where cooking and catering skills were taught.

The women in Halal were very entrepreneurial contrary to what a lot people had thought. And by the time I visited they established three income streams to support the center system. These included a small catering center.  They signed up the Iraqi boxing team as their first agent and they ate a lot so it was a very profitable contract.

And while I was there I presented the center with a framed autographed photograph of eight of the top women leaders at the Department of Labor.

I’m very proud of the fact that we actually achieved gender equality in our top leadership ranks while I was at the Department of Labor and these Iraqi women could not believe that half of the leadership team in this large department in the United States Government were actually women.

But with this moment of these photographs they were given, the women of Halal were given concrete proof that so much can be done.  Women worked together to pursue shared goals. But most of all I gave them the photographs in the hopes that they would hang it up on their wall in the center and it would always be a reminder that they can dream big, too.

Now, let me note, some of the women at the center and throughout Iraq at that time wore modern attire, but many others were veiled, they were completely drenched in black.  And some, while they were typing on the computers, even wore black gloves. But they all had the same message, which is that they begged us not to abandon them and continue to raise our voices in support of their efforts to gain educational, economic, political opportunity.

During my tenure, I also had the great privilege of working with Secretary Condoleezza Rice. I served with her as co-chair of the interdepartmental task force on child trafficking. This is a horrible problem as you all know. And she was a dedicated proponent of strengthening sanctions against child trafficking.

And then I also worked with First Lady Laura Bush who was passionate about providing access to education for Afghan women and girls.  As a former teacher, Mrs. Bush felt so strongly that the need to have women be educated is one of the pillars of the modern society.  So to support her efforts we provided funding, let me tell you, when the First Lady calls, you just ask how much.  So to support her efforts the department provided funding to purchase materials for women in Iraq to make school uniforms so that daughters, girls, women, young women will be able to wear the costumes, the uniforms, or whatever was required to go to school.  Because, you know, for a lot of people, for a lot of impoverished family even to have a separate set of clothing was a big deal and, as you know so well, girls couldn’t attend school during the Taliban. But today hundreds and thousands of Afghan girls and young women are getting an education.

There’s so much more to be done and deep resistance continues in all parts of these regions. But opening up educational opportunity for women is one of the most significant achievements that we can contribute to.

And so let me note as today’s panel illustrates that the effort to empower women worldwide is bipartisan.  I’m pleased to have worked with Vital Voices under the leadership of Ambassador Melanne Verveer and many other groups, conduct training programs, to invite young women leaders from all over the world to visit with us and it’s always so inspiring to meet these young women leaders. They learn from us, yes, surely. But we also learn from them. And together we help to build bridges of understanding between different cultures which is so important in the world today. Being a person of a bicultural background I am a firm believer that cultural communications is an area that we need to pay more attention to and that we need to understand, to overcome the divide of culture to really fully understand and communicate with one another.

As today’s panelists will discuss and have discussed, there are so many challenges still.  So many barriers to accessing education and so many barriers for political participation as well.  But that’s why economic empowerment is key and that’s why working on removing some of these barriers, a lot of women have bank accounts, own property, live independently, are so important.  Economic freedom, as you have heard already, is not distinguished from political freedom. The two work hand-in-hand to form the foundations of a free society.

I mention all of this to you not to boast about our accomplishments but to share with you the experiences, the joys as well as the heart breaks, of what has been accomplished and yet so much more needs to be done.

So let me thank you for being here, for having the interest to be here.  I hope the best practices that you’ve heard about this day will be helpful to you and as we celebrate March 8, International Women’s Day, I hope you will also lend your voices to this continuing effort, this continuing battle which must not end.

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