Sat. Jul 13th, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken’s Remarks at an International Women’s Day Reception

AMBASSADOR RAO GUPTA:  Good afternoon to all of you.  Thank you so much for joining us to mark International Women’s Day.  I also want to say a sincere thank you to Secretary Blinken and to Director Jen Klein for their leadership and for all that they do every day to elevate women’s voices and power.  (Applause.) 

And most of all, thank you to each of you for being here.  Together we are here to honor the unwavering bravery and fierce determination of women around the world and to remember together why we must continue to be brave, to be fierce, to be unyielding in our quest to achieve gender equality.

This has been an extraordinary week because I have had – have had the honor and the privilege to spend time and get to know each of our 2024 International Women of Courage awardees, who are here with us today.  Raise your hands.  (Cheers and applause.)  You will hear from one of them soon, but I want to take the short time I have right now to share with you some of the insights that I have gained from my conversations with them this week. 

What I’ve realized and what we’ve talked about together is that courage is not the absence of fear.  These women here today and far too many around the world, they all know fear.  Far too many of us are living in conflict, in displacement, without adequate access to water or food.  Far too many of us are living under the thumb of an autocrat determined to squash our collective power.  Far too many of us have experienced violence, whether in times of war or in times of peace, whether that’s in our homes, online, or on the street.  There’s really no shortage of things to fear.

Courage, though, as one of our awardees told me, is about being scared but nevertheless doing our job – the work that we must do to advance the rights of women and girls everywhere despite that fear – a job born of compassion, a job born of empathy, a job born of love.  Courage is a quiet grace.  It’s about letting that love of family, of community, of country, of freedom speak louder than your fear.  As another awardee told me, courage isn’t really a choice.  Courage is love in action.  (Applause.)

Before I turn the microphone over, I want to take a moment to acknowledge my entire team, and especially Candace, Katie, and Allison, who worked tirelessly to ensure that we could honor – (cheers and applause) – that we could honor these women today, through this week, and moving forward as they all travel to L.A.

With that, I would like to welcome my esteemed colleague and friend, Jen Klein, to the podium.  It won’t surprise some of you to learn that Jen is an alum of S/GWI, and now she serves as assistant to President Biden and the director of the White House Gender Policy Council.  Jen.  (Applause.)

MS KLEIN:  I was standing behind her to symbolize that I will always have her back.  (Laughter.)  Thank you, Geeta, Ambassador Rao Gupta, for your introduction, and as I said, for your partnership and your friendship, and happy International Women’s Day to all.  Thank you so much for being here today.

I’d also like to extend a particular note of gratitude to Secretary Blinken, who is a true friend and a true champion for the rights of women and girls around the world.  (Applause.)  And I’d also like to recognize the 2024 International Women of Courage awardees here with us today, the Washington diplomatic corps, and our many civil society partners who are here.

As President Biden has said, every domestic and foreign policy we pursue rests on a foundation of dignity and equity for women.  The administration’s establishment three years ago today of the Gender Policy Council I am privileged to lead has worked to elevate the status of women and girls both here at home and around the world.  This is both a moral and a strategic imperative.  Societies, including our own, do better when women participate and have equal opportunities.  Economies grow, education rates and health outcomes decrease – increase, excuse me – political instability and violence decline, and, put simply, the status of women and girls and the stability of security of nations are inextricably linked.

To achieve this vision, this administration has marshaled historic resources, mobilized new partnerships, and spoken out in support of the rights of women and girls everywhere.  We’ve increased our investment in care infrastructure globally and committed to cutting the global gender digital divide in half by 2030.  We continue to be the largest donor to family planning assistance worldwide, and we’re taking action to combat the maternal health crisis both at home and abroad.  We’re strengthening our government’s exercise of financial, diplomatic, and legal tools against conflict-related sexual violence and imposing sanctions driven by a focus on this abhorrent human rights abuse.  And we’re addressing the alarming rise of technology-facilitated gender-based violence and its chilling effect on women’s political participation.

This is just a sample of the tremendous work that all of us have done together through all the work that colleagues across the U.S. Government, working in partnership with the private sector and civil society, are leading every day.  Thank you, all of you, for your contributions to these efforts and for your tireless work to improve the lives of women and girls.  Let me once again congratulate this year’s IWOC awardees, who we were proud to welcome to the White House earlier this week and who have served as an inspiration to us all and to me personally.

I now have the distinct pleasure of welcoming Secretary Blinken, who is not only, as I said, an impressive leader but a sincere advocate who embodies the principles of equity and fairness.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Good afternoon, everyone.  Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department.  Now, I’m sorry that you have to listen to all of us, and you’re standing there; there are no chairs.  (Laughter.)  Now, if it were the State of the Union you’d be standing and sitting and standing and sitting.  (Laughter.)  But I’m so delighted to see all of you here, and I especially also want to emphasize how pleased I am to see the awardees from this week from the International Women of Courage Award.  It was the most inspiring moment of the week – maybe of many weeks – that we had at the White House with the First Lady.  And to hear your stories is to be reminded – I think Geeta just said it so well – of what courage really is; and we’re grateful for your presence this afternoon.

Let me start by saying to Jen how grateful I am for your extraordinary leadership.  Three years ago today, President Biden established the White House Gender Policy Council, and every day since then Jen Klein has worked with tenacity and with vision to achieve its mission: simply stated, equality, dignity, opportunity for every woman and girl.  Thank you, Jen.  (Applause.)

And to our indomitable Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, thank you.  (Cheers and applause.)  Now, so I’ve really – I’ve learned something this week from Geeta, because we had the wonderful ceremony at the White House, and the all-star lineup of extraordinary women leaders in our administration was introduced one by one, but the reception that Geeta got was unlike anything.  (Laughter.)  Samantha Power, Karine Jean-Pierre, Jen Klein – all very strong receptions.  But Geeta – so clearly there’s something going on in this room – (laughter) – and I want my team to take some notes from this.  (Laughter.) 

But here’s the truth:  Around the world, Ambassador Rao Gupta and her team are working to unlock opportunities for women and girls.  And this is a mission, a focus, that is designed to produce results – to bring more women into decision-making roles in political and civic life; to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. 

As Jen and Geeta know so well, as we work toward greater equality, it’s essential that we look to and learn from partners outside government, human rights defenders, development workers, journalists, community leaders, and survivors, and so many of you are represented in this room.

Now, I also have to tell you that for me, every single day is International Women’s Day, and it starts at home with my wife, Evan Ryan, the White House cabinet secretary who is here with us today as well.  (Applause.)  Although I think as Evan will acknowledge, it probably starts even more with our daughter – (laughter) – who is very much a young woman, a very young woman of – of real courage.  (Laughter.)  And she demonstrates this every – she’s four years old.  (Laughter.) 

But there is no more fitting day for – fitting way, excuse me – to mark International Women’s Day than to be with some of the individuals who inspire and inform our work, including our 2024 International Women of Courage awardees. 

When I had the opportunity to be with the awardees along with the First Lady on Monday, like so many of you, I heard their extraordinary stories, their extraordinary work.  In the face of incredible personal risk, they’re championing the vulnerable; they’re championing the underserved – children, the LGBTQI+ community, people living with disabilities, survivors of rape and domestic violence.  The United States, by the ceremony that we had but also by the work that our leaders are doing every day, is committed to standing with them and all women who work toward a better and brighter future for their communities.

President Biden has put the empowerment and the inclusion of women and girls at the heart of our foreign policy.  As the President often says, history shows us again and again and again that when women are safe and free and treated with equality, their communities are better off, their countries are better off, the world is better off.  Advancing their rights – (applause) – as you heard my colleagues say, we believe strongly that advancing women’s rights, advancing their representation, is also, simply put, a moral imperative. 

At the State Department, we’re working around the clock to promote greater gender equality and women’s rights around the world.  And we’re putting into action a comprehensive strategy to help women contribute to and benefit from economic growth and prosperity, and that means a few things.  It means providing training and education so that women can lead in all sectors.  It means expanding access to childcare so that women can enter, return to, and remain in the workforce.  And by the way – so many of you know this – if we were able to achieve workforce participation parity for women around the world, we would add $28 trillion to the global economy. 

Just imagine what our countries, what our societies, what our world could do with those resources.  Holding women back, denying their participation, simply put, is bad for everyone.  Enhancing it would be good for everyone, dismantling the legal and societal barriers that stand in the way of a level playing field.  In short, helping women gain their rightful autonomy over their own lives while working to close the gender gaps which cost so much to so many of us.

We’re also working to deliver on our Women, Peace, and Security Action Plan to increase women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.  And each day, in communities around the world, American diplomats and our partners are advancing women’s rights and opportunities and harnessing the benefits that come when they can realize their full potential.

But here’s the thing: For all the efforts we’re making, we simply cannot do this alone.  The struggle for women’s rights is rooted in solidarity.  International Women’s Day was founded in honor of the women from all backgrounds, all walks of life, who came together to demand equality.  Garment workers protecting unfair pay – protesting unfair pay and horrific working conditions.  Russian mothers striking for bread and peace and the right to vote.  Eleanor Roosevelt advocating in the United Nations for women’s full participation in the life and responsibility of global affairs.  Side by side, these great leaders with women from around the world – that includes Hansa Mehta of India, who changed the phrase “all men are born free and equal” to “all human beings are born free and equal” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We see that same spirit of solidarity today – women around the world driving solutions to the challenges of our time, of our moment, from climate action to health security to internet freedom.  So for me, this is an opportunity to come by and say, simply, thank you.  Thank you for your extraordinary leadership.  Thank you for your exploratory partnership.  We will continue to listen to, to learn from, to work with each and every one of you because the reality is we have a lot more work to do.   But the energy in this room, and not just from Geeta’s team – (laughter) – makes it clear that nothing is going to get in our way.

Now, the three of us have been the opening act for our main attraction because I want to turn it over now to an incredibly valued partner, one of the Department of State’s 2024 IWOC awardees, a tremendous human rights advocate, Volha Harbunova.  (Applause.)  After the fraudulent 2020 elections in Belarus, Volha was imprisoned by the Lukashenka regime for organizing women’s rights marches.  She is now one of the leaders of the Belarusian democratic movement, where she’s working to secure the release of political prisoners and to support them upon their release.  This is truly a woman of extraordinary courage, extraordinary conviction, and extraordinary leadership.  Thank you.  The floor is yours.

MS HARBUNOVA:  (Via interpreter) Greetings, everyone.  It’s a great honor for me to be here.  Also, receiving this award and being here is a source of great pride.  I’m also immensely grateful to you because you recognized that I was a courageous woman way before I did.  I’m still getting used to that thought.  (Laughter and applause.)

Two years ago today I was in a pretrial detention center, having been detained for taking part in peaceful protest.  I was put in a cell for six months only for speaking out.  There, I was subjected to violence, to torture, and they threatened to take my parental rights from me.  They tortured all of us with cold, with lack of medical care.  I didn’t receive a single letter from my daughter, even though she wrote to me every single day.  Political prisoners in Belarus are made to wear a yellow tag like this, like the one I’m wearing.  It’s not a badge.  Five people have already died in custody.  Six people have disappeared; we don’t know where they are.  They are held incommunicado.

After an unfair trial, I was sentenced to three years of house arrest.  In fear of further criminal prosecution, I was forced to leave my home.  I was desperate.  I feared for my life, and saying goodbye to my family was extremely difficult.  In the middle of the night, I had to climb over a tall fence at the international border between Belarus and Lithuania and ask for political asylum.  It made me very angry, and I did not give up.  I became the representative for social policy at the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, which is working in exile.  Every day I work to help political prisoners and their families.  Every day I look for work – for ways to secure their release. 

I am extremely happy to meet all of you, and I’m very happy to have met my fellow awardees, my dear sisters.  During this time we’ve gained so much energy from each other, so much knowledge, so much new – so many new contacts. 

During this program we’ve discussed the issues that our countries are facing.  We look for solutions.  We discussed different options.  You are my inspiration.  Because of you I am not going to give up.  You shine like a diamond in my heart.  (Applause.)

Women and girls in Belarus often think, “I am not anybody.  I am not anything special.  There are people who are more worthy than me.  I don’t deserve any award.”  This is how we’re being brought up by patriarchy and dictatorship in Belarus.  We’re taught that we’re nobody.

For them, March 8th is just about celebrating the spring and beauty, and women are considered a mere decoration at a workplace and just homekeepers.  We’re never told that we should fight for our rights.  They never talk about equal opportunities and equal rights.  They never let us be heard.

There is no law against domestic violence in Belarus.  There is a list of 88 jobs that women are banned from holding, and currently there are at least 187 female political prisoners in custody in Belarus, where they are subjected to torture and violence. 

I am not the first woman from Belarus to receive this prestigious award.  There was Nasta Dashkevich before me and Maria Kolesnikova.  They have both been subjected to persecution, and Maria Kolesnikova, a 2021 IWOC awardee, is now in custody and is being held incommunicado.  For over a year, her family have not heard from her.  She has been deprived of an attorney, of a right to receive letters and visits, and we must do everything to find out where she is and to secure her release and the release of all political prisoners.  (Applause.)

Since 2020, over 8,000 women have been put through detentions and unfair trials; 1,033 of them have faced criminal charges, and repressions do not stop.  Courage for women in Belarus is not a manifestation of bravery.  It’s a necessary condition of survival in a totalitarian and patriarchal country. 

Two years ago today, they shut down a shelter for domestic violence victims that I had worked at for over 20 years.  We helped thousands of women who were beaten, sexually assaulted, persecuted online, sold into slavery, and had their children kidnapped from them.

But the Lukashenka government keeps turning a blind eye to this issue.  Moreover, in the last two years, over 1,500 NGOs have been shut down, and thousands of women and girls have been left without any support.  He threw the most courageous and rebellious among us in prison – Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, Halina Dzerbysh.  They kicked the most unpredictable and resilient among us out of the country – Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Svetlana Alexievich.  And they still can’t find the most cautious and daring among us, because we’re everywhere.  We’re in every city, town, and village in Belarus.  (Applause.)

I know that all political prisoners will be released and we will all return home, and I will return home.  Belarus will be free, and there will be true gender equality there.  (Applause.)  Thank you and Happy International Women’s Day to all of you.  (Cheers and applause.)

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS