Ambassador Remarks for the Special Talent Exchange Program Leadership Conference for Women with Disabilities

Huma Chughtai
Atif Sheikh
Abia Akram and the rest of the STEP team
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Assalamu Alaikum.

It is an honor to join you today at this leadership conference. Thank you Atif for the kind introduction and for organizing such an impressive event. I’m so pleased that we had the opportunity to hear from Judy via video. She is an inspiration to us all and a valued member of our U.S. foreign policy team. Judy’s tenaciousness in her work to improve human rights conditions for disabled people around the globe is so impressive.

Since I arrived in Islamabad almost five months ago, I have had the privilege to meet and listen to Pakistanis from many regions and walks of life.  From Karachi to Peshawar, I have consistently been impressed by the talent, ambition, and achievements of the women I have encountered. Still, women remain underrepresented in many aspects of society, and women with disabilities even more so. While many dynamic women are already using their talents to better their communities, many more are awaiting an opportunity.

Countries and communities require the full participation of all people – especially women — in all aspects of society to develop completely.  As Secretary Kerry said, “women’s progress represents human progress, because no society can succeed if it leaves half of its population behind.” That’s true in America, in Pakistan, and worldwide. My own life, perspectives, and accomplishments have been shaped by countless strong women, from my former bosses, Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, to those closer to home.

In my own family, my grandmother’s generation of women was the first to gain the right to vote. And it was only during my mother’s generation that women in America began to attend college at rates comparable to men. I still remember as a child in the 1960s hearing my mother complain – quite loudly, incidentally – that her bank required my father’s approval for her credit card application, even though it was her money.

In my lifetime and through the experiences of my own family, I have seen the strides my country has made towards equal rights for women. We are proud that we have made progress, but humble about the fact that it has been a long road and we are not nearing its end yet.

The same can be said of the struggle for equal rights and greater inclusion of disabled people in all areas of life. The path to equality in America has taken time and effort and is by no means complete. As we continue our own work for equal rights for people with disabilities and women in the United States, we are proud to support the Pakistani government and civil society as they work to ensure the rights of Pakistanis are promoted and protected.

Together, we have worked to improve girls’ education through such programs as Let Girls Learn, our exchange programs, and our university partnerships. We support programs to increase women’s political and economic participation, to train police and prosecutors about women’s rights, and to provide greater support to survivors of violence.

Secretary Kerry has been a strong supporter of equal rights for persons with disabilities. He said it best when he was a senator: “fair treatment for persons with disabilities is a human rights issue like any other.” This is why the America has also focused on supporting women with disabilities, as these women often face additional challenges to achieving full participation in society.

Our partnership with STEP focuses on raising awareness about resources for women with disabilities, providing training to increase their participation in the workforce, and educating the general public about the rights of people with disabilities. We have been pleased to send STEP representatives on exchange programs to America to develop new perspectives and plans to promote the rights and empowerment of women with disabilities.

Last year, America celebrated the 25th anniversary of the landmark “Americans with Disabilities Act.” It protects disabled Americans against discrimination, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and requires accessibility to public facilities for the disabled. While Pakistan is still working on such legislation, I have seen that so many Pakistanis like you have the political will to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. Your work and your voice led to Pakistan’s ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I hope today’s conference will help you, the leaders of the disability rights movement, build on this political will and formulate recommendations to implement disability policies in Pakistan effectively.

We are proud to work with STEP, and we look forward to seeing the positive outcomes of this conference. We are committed to continuing to work with the Pakistani federal government, provincial ministries and commissions, and women’s parliamentary caucuses in support of women of Pakistan as they strive to reach their full potential. Ensuring equal participation by women with disabilities is a work in progress everywhere; it is a challenge we can and must tackle.

Today, we recognize the women leaders and activists of the past. But our work on this front is continuous, to the benefit of both men and women.

Thank you.