Speech by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton at the Women's Rights Forum in Tripoli

Brussels, 12 November 2011
A 450/11


Speech by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton at the Women's Rights Forum in Tripoli

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an enormous pleasure and privilege to be here in Tripoli.

When I last came to Libya I went to Benghazi and I had the pleasure of meeting with some of the women represented here today and indeed some of the men. And I said that the next time I came I hoped to be able to be in a free Tripoli and a free Libya and today I am here with you.

I know the sacrifices that so many people in this country have made, not least the women. You have fought, you have organized, you have helped, you have healed and you have started to build a new country, your country. Your courage deserves recognition across the world. After 42 years of violence and intimidation, your country is free. Along with the women that I have met in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, you are an inspiration to me and to the women of the European Union and I salute you.

I have come today to listen as much as to talk.

It is not for Europe, or for me or any other outsider, to offer you ready-made solutions. Democracy and freedom are built from the inside, not imported from abroad. What we want to do, what I want to do, is to help. The European Union has stood by the Libyan people from the beginning, protecting the population, offering humanitarian assistance, and calling consistently for Gaddafi to go.

We never opened a Delegation in Libya during the 42 years of darkness under Qaddafi. But today, I will open a Delegation.

When I leave this event I will go to inaugurate our new offices, a symbol of our commitment to you, to the people of Libya and to the long term future of this country. Like you I am aware of the many challenges that lie ahead. I met a young human rights activist in Benghazi and he told me: "being in prison was not the worst: the biggest crime was that Qaddafi tried to kill our spirit and our dreams".

Well, he never succeeded that is clear. But turning the dreams into the future, into the democracy and the future that you want is not going to be fast and is not going to be easy because it never is.

You have to restore security. You have to build the kind of administration that will work for you the people. Transition needs to get underway; you will have elections, a new Constitution… and much more.

I call this building Deep Democracy because it is about building the institutions and ensuring the rights of everyone. That includes freedom of expression, freedom of religion, respect for minorities. It means putting in place the different building blocks of your country. Independent rule of law, an administration that is not corrupt and works for you. And I believe that gender equality is an essential component of building this democracy. And I am determined that the support of the European Union should focus on civil society and women's rights.

When I went to Egypt and I met the young people in Tahrir Square, I spoke to a young woman and she said: "The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go, but now that he is gone, they want me to go home".

I say to them and I say to you "Do not go home!" You have been crucial in the changes in your country. You need to continue to lead in defining the way ahead. The "Voice of Libya" and this conference are extremely good examples of how to gain influence and to show that you have come together to plan your future; the future of your country, the future that you will hand down to the generations who will follow. It is a long road. Actually none of us have yet completed the journey on human rights and gender equality. I do not say this only in Tripoli but also in Brussels and everywhere I go. Women and girls account for 2/3rds of those across the world who live below the poverty line; who cannot read or write; who are refugees and displaced; and who are kept out of school.

Leaving aside the moral principle and the injustice of all of this, gender equality is also about empowerment, democracy, and economic development. We all know about the talent that is wasted and the wisdom that is lost when a society refuses to break with inequality. A tragedy for the individual but a loss for society at large. All those engineers and scientists, and doctors and dancers, and artists and musicians. All of those wonderfully talented girls and women who never got the chance to fulfil their potential; a loss for them but a loss for all of us. So democracy and women's rights go hand in hand. The aspirations of your country to have a strong economy and a bright future go hand in hand with the aspirations that says everyone should have the chance to reach their potential, everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to the life of their society and everyone has a responsibility to make this country live in the future and to remember with respect those who made the ultimate sacrifice to get us all here.

We need to make sure that you have free and fair elections. We need to make sure that women are part of the whole process and we need women to believe in themselves to understand that they can get involved in building this democracy. It is what we are doing here today. Discrimination should have no place in the new country that you build.

The European Union wants to be with you on this journey. To try and help overcome the political and social barriers, to help ensure your role in shaping your future.

To ensure that your place in society, and capacity to lead, is recognised in the community, and in family, in public and in private life.

Let me stress two particular points:

1. The first is to make sure that your new Constitution enshrines women's rights, to make sure that women are a part of the process; words turning into action from the very beginning.

2. The second is to recognize that laws are not enough you need to find ways to turn law into practical reality and that means offering support to meet the challenges that women face every day.

Education is critical and the first step. Empowerment - women becoming leaders and demonstrating to other women the possibility of becoming leaders.

Women have to have what we call the ladder down approach; when you manage to get into a position of leadership you have a choice, you either pull up the ladder you have climbed on up and prevent women from coming after you or you put the ladder down and reach out to other women . Every woman in this room is already a leader; you are here at this conference, you are demonstrating your commitment and your leadership today. I hope that you, like me, will keep the ladder down and make sure that many, many other women will follow.

And that means some practical things that we need to put in place in politics and in society. It means educating women on their rights. It means business training for women to make sure that the best entrepreneurs who, by the way were always women, are able to come forward. It means making sure that the media (newspapers, radio, TV) reflect women….that women's roles are showing. And it means support for those women who need help, sometimes shelter and safe houses. Those too are available.

In all of this, the EU will help you. We have taken a critical step in our cooperation. We want to continue to step up our support to women across the region but especially today in Libya. And that means making sure that the organisations from which you come get help to become stronger and grow and develop. Making sure that we assist with micro-credit schemes and helping to support and enforce rights.

We are going to launch a programme for women’s empowerment with capacity building and education and put €10 million to work on developing civil society. We also as you know helped facilitate the participation of women from 12 different Libyan cities in the elections in Tunisia and they now have set up the Association for Election Observation based here in Tripoli.

These are practical ways in which women can get involved and help others to get involved. So we want to continue to engage with you. The future is yours. No one can do this but you. You were at the heart of this revolution and you need to stay the heart of the transformation that is following.

And I am absolutely confident, having the pleasure of meeting some of you, that Libya in general and the women of Libya in particular, have the drive, passion and ability to make this transition successful.

I am extremely proud to be here today. This is a day I will remember. This conference is one that I am privileged to have taken part in because it brings together these groups for the first time in Libya's history to make recommendations on women's rights.

And when I continue with my meetings today with Chairman Jalil and Prime Minister Al-Keib, I will say to them too how important it is that all those who are privileged to be in a leadership position in this country at this time need to listen to the voices of this conference. I wish you every possible success and I promise you we will be there to help you and to support you.


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