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Women’s Vital Voices

Program 9901
January 5, 1999


Dulce Maria Pereira, President, Fudacion Cultural Palmares, Brazil

Rosa Varlosky, Vice President, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Argentina

Carolyn Jenkins, President, League Of Women Voters, USA

Carmen Aribary, President, International Association Of Women Judges, Argentina

Lidia Soto-Harmon, Deputy Director, President’s Interagency on Women, USA

Dame Eugenia Charles, Former Prime Minister, Dominica

Hillary Clinton, First Lady, USA

Various Other Women From Latin and Central America

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

DULCE MARIA PEREIRA: Especially where in the countries where we had a strong and difficult military regimes, women did play an amazing important role in all different ways and in all different places of society, to get us back to democratic order.

DAVIDSON: Democracy has been sweeping the Americas in recent years. And women have been an integral part of the change. This week on Common Ground, we’ll hear from some of these vital voices.

ROSA VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] I don’t ever use the word “democracy.” I say that we have a constitutional government; that we have a government chosen by the people, but that our democracy is still in diapers.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

??: We’re going to keep it simple today. [A translator repeats the phrase in Spanish.] We’re going to assume we’re doing a mayoral debate.

DAVIDSON: Sitting around a small meeting room in Montevideo, Uruguay, women from across Latin America are learning the nuts and bolts of running a debate for political candidates. Many of these women live in newly emerging democracies where political debates and free speech have been almost unheard of.

ESTHER SKIVONNI: My name is Esther Skivonni and I am from the Judicial Party and I have a very new proposal. [A translator speaks in Spanish.]

SKIVONNI: The lady in the first row? Your name please.

UDENE MARITO: Yes. Udene Marito And I want to know what candidate number one will do to prevent the reoccurrence of corruption in the mayor’s office.

[people at the meeting laugh out loud]

DAVIDSON: This mock debate is being conducted by the US-based League of Women Voters. The League’s president, Carolyn Jefferson Jenkins, explains how they’ve been working with women around the world on participatory democracy.

CAROLYN JEFFERSON JENKINS: Kay Maxwell just came back from Bosnia where we were instrumental in helping to formulate the first televised debates for their elections. So the League of Women Voters did the training there. We also have several projects in many of the Latin American countries.

DAVIDSON: And they request that you come and tell them how you do it?

JENKINS: Actually they do, because we have 78 years of experience working on debates. And the League has the integrity and as a non-partisan organization is well-respected. For the fact that not only can we train people on how to do debates, but we can actually facilitate debates in a non-partisan way and then maintain the integrity of that process.

DAVIDSON: And is it generally on how to hold debates? Or what is the range of topics that you’ve been asked to address?

JENKINS: We have a wide range of topics. Everything related to civic participation and civic education and knowledge. So we do training for people who are potential candidates. We do training on how to run debates. Training on actually how democracy works. And that’s our forte.

DAVIDSON: What are the issues you stress in your training around the world about how you do things? What are some of the most important elements in an organization like yours, in being able to effectively carry out candidate debates.

JENKINS: The most important element is that democracy only works if people participate. And that’s a message that resonates regardless of the training that we’re doing. And what we need to do is get people again connected with their elected officials and also holding their elected officials accountable.

DAVIDSON: Marta Juana Lopez Bateen, a Mayan woman from Guatemala, came to this workshop in Uruguay because she wants to learn what more she can do in helping her country recover from its 36 years of civil war.

MARTA JUANA LOPEZ BATEEN: [via a translator] It’s very important to be at this meeting because as a woman it helps broaden my view of things and how the world works. It also helps us understand that it is possible to achieve things when we work together.

DAVIDSON: Have women in Guatemala had much opportunity to participate in the political life?

LOPEZ BATEEN: [via a translator] No. The people in general have not had an opportunity to participate. Women least of all.

DAVIDSON: What are some of the major issues facing women in Guatemala today?

BATEEN: [via a translator] The rights of indigenous people. Defining clear mechanisms for exercising those rights. Particularly mechanisms that provide space for women to participate. These are topics which we discuss continually. We know that these are dangerous waters to go into and we have to open a lot of minds to carry on this work.

DAVIDSON: Marta, the League of Women Voters, and 400 other women from across the Americas and the Caribbean, gathered in Uruguay this past October for a conference sponsored by the US government and the Inter-American Development Bank. It was titled, “Vital Voices of the Americas: Women in Democracy.” Participants came to share their knowledge and expertise in such areas as the legal system, politics, and business. The State Department says vital voices demonstrate Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s commitment to integrate issues affecting women into US foreign policy. The Inter-American Development Bank hopes to see women more integrated into the development process in Latin America and the Caribbean. Dulce Maria Pereira, who heads a Brazilian foundation for women and is an alternate senator, came to the conference to see what she can learn from other women about dealing with problems such as poverty lack of education, domestic violence, and more political representation.

DULCE MARIA PEREIRA: Democracy now means, above all, having a full participation of people of different ages, of different ethnic origins, definitely men, women, people of different sexual options, participating in—not just producing wealth, but also in administrating wealth. It may be cultural, economical, or political wealth.

DAVIDSON: Latin America has been generally hailed as a success in democratization. Do you share that view?

PEREIRA: I do share that view if you compare what was our reality a few years ago, especially if you compare the very, very severe unfair systems that we have overcome. Especially the military systems. But we do have to deepen, not just our concept but our democratical practices. And that means changing and including the excluded.

DAVIDSON: With the democratization that has swept through Latin America, do you think women played an important role in that?

PEREIRA: Especially where in the countries where we had a strong and difficult military regimes, women did play an amazing important role in all different ways and in all different places of society, to get us back to democratic order. And even in countries—I should say where there was not, there was not this type of aggressive action, it’s obvious that in the United States, in Canada, and even in Europe, women have been extremely important in promoting a more, we should say a real scenery for democracy. We have been seeing that. Women’s values in politics have been more and more having a space. And it means going towards a true democracy, as we say. So it’s a fact that women, especially at the end of the century, have played an important role in democratizing the social systems, administrative systems, in our nations.

DAVIDSON: How do you think women got to this point?

PEREIRA: Because women have been struggling for too long. Because we women don’t accept any more the idea that we belong to certain private places in life. We do know that the place for women is everywhere and that we have to be everywhere, not just with a reference of our fathers, of our sons, of our husbands, or of a political male mentor, but with our own beliefs and above all with our own efficiency in administrating.

DAVIDSON: Many Latin American countries are still dealing with past traumas. For six years, beginning in 1976, Argentina was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship. An estimated 30,000 people disappeared in that time, the victims of a state terrorist system that kidnapped, tortured, and exterminated those considered enemies. Carmen Aribary, who is today President of the International Association of Women Judges, was one of the regime’s victims.

CARMEN ARIBARY: I don’t think I was determined to become a judge before that. But that really, really, showed me that I wanted to be a judge and to be in a position to help others, and that because I was a political prisoner for nine months during the military dictatorship. It was from the 24th of March—that was when the military coup started—to the December the 23rd. And so there was nine months. They said it was really like, like a born-again child. And I say, “Well, it was ?? to that I get

DAVIDSON: And you were held without charge, without trial?

ARIBARY: Without trial, without charge, for nine months. As, the same as they put me in prison without telling me what have I done. And on December the 23rd they told me, “Well, you are out. You can go.” “I’m very pleased to meet you!” And so on. Then I went to, for a, I’ve got some problems with my health, of course, to my being in prison. So I took three months, sort of vacation. We made a trip around Europe. And in France and Spain I have got a lot of friends that told me, “Well, you must stay here because it’s a difficult time for Argentina coming. And you are already known to the sort of people.” Well, I choose to go back to Argentina. It was, I think it was my family, my friends and my things, my place, my place to fight.

DAVIDSON: So it was after that that you were inspired to be a judge, I guess.

ARIBARY: Yes. I was already decided to be a judge. But this, this time make me more and more sure that I wanted to be one.

DAVIDSON: Why are you here at this Vital Voices conference?

ARIBARY: Because I am going to be, as I told you, the International President of the International Association of Women Judges. And we are developing a program of judicial education to enforce the international covenants on discrimination against women. And violence against women, and the children’s rights. This program is sort of seminars and workshops to prepare judges to use this as local laws. This is so new that a lot of judges haven’t realized that they must enforce this international conventions.

DAVIDSON: These are conventions that their governments have signed on to?

ARIBARY: Yes. And over the local laws, of course. And we are trying this educational program in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador.

DAVIDSON: And you are working with men and women judges?

ARIBARY: Yes. We are working all together. Because I think we are half the, half of the world are women, but the other half are men. And we need, both of us need the other. I don’t think we can’t say we are not needing men anymore. I don’t think so. [laughing]

DAVIDSON: The title of this conference is “Vital Voices: Women in Democracy.” And it would seem, coming from the experience of your country that democracy must mean something very special to you.

ARIBARY: I think so. Because, you know, if you can’t live in a democracy, I think your life risk is very, very high. And so you can’t really live. You’re just surviving or something. And you can’t do anything for other people. And then what’s the sense of life if you can’t do anything for others.

DAVIDSON: Rosa Varlosky de Rosingly is also haunted by Argentina’s past. Her daughter was disappeared by the military over 20 years ago. Rose is now Vice President of an organization called The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. These women have been demonstrating in the capital city every week since just after the 1976 coup that brought the military junta to power.

ROSA VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] All the members of The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have children and grandchildren who disappeared. We call ourselves the Grandmothers because we are now looking for our grandchildren. Many times during the military dictatorship, not only our children disappeared but also our grandchildren were imprisoned along with their parents. In some cases our daughters who were pregnant were taken to concentration camps and their children were born there.

DAVIDSON: And to this day the grandmothers do not know what has happened to the children and the grandchildren?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] The organization of The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo is now 21 years old and we have already found 59 of our grandchildren. Of course, early in our search we found some of the children when they were six, seven, eight years old. Now we are looking for adolescents who are 18, 19 years old.

DAVIDSON: And you, are you still looking for members of your family?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] Yes. I know I have a grandson who was born in a concentration camp called “Esma,” which was also a school for army mechanics. It’s possible that today he is living with one of the repressors, a member of the armed forces. I know that my daughter gave birth at this concentration camp because other prisoners who were present at the birth and later freed, testified that she gave birth to a boy.

DAVIDSON: Your daughter?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] I don’t know anything about my daughter to this day. After 20 years I cannot expect to find her alive. But I am not going to give the state of Argentina the satisfaction of knowing that I think she is dead. Because the state took her away and they have to be held accountable for her life. I want the state of Argentine to tell me about my daughter. I want to know who took her, why they took her, who convicted her, and where she is. Because we have already found 59 grandchildren. I expect to find my grandchild. Since we have found others why can’t I expect to find mine?

DAVIDSON: Is the government of Argentina today helping locate these children?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] It’s all relative. During the government of President Alfonsin, the first constitutional government after the dictatorship, there was a law passed to help locate these children. The law led to the creation of a genetic data bank that would help us positively identify the children based on the DNA?

DAVIDSON: In your experience with the children who have been located, are they happy to be reunited with their biological families?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] It’s a very complicated question because the child’s reaction is often one of confusion. It’s a very traumatic situation. Because after living under a lie for so long thinking that you were the son or daughter of the couple who took you, to find out the reality is very hard. It’s often very sad for the child. But little by little, with psychological help and a whole support system, slowly but surely they begin to adapt and reestablish their identity.

DAVIDSON: The title of this conference is “Vital Voices: Women in Democracy.” Do you feel women played an important role in bringing about the change in, from military rule in Argentina.

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] Definitely. The mothers and the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have played a vital role. The dictatorship never imagined that we would keep going for so long. They thought we were lazy and after 15 or 20 days we’d get tired and go back home and forget about it. But they were wrong.

DAVIDSON: With so many children still missing in Argentina, would you call Argentina a democracy now?

VARLOSKY DE ROSINGLY: [via a translator] I don’t ever use the word “democracy.” I say that we have a constitutional government; that we have a government chosen by the people, but that our democracy is still in diapers.

DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break, and when we return we’ll continue talking to some of the women who participated in the “Vital Voices: Women in Democracy” conference this past Fall in Uruguay. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a range of programs meant to provoke thought and dialogue on world affairs. Transcripts and cassettes are available of this program, and at the end of the broadcast I’ll give details on how you can order.

DAVIDSON: The US government, along with the Inter-American Development Bank, were the principal organizers of the “Vital Voices” conference. Lidia Soto-Harmon is Deputy Director of the President’s Interagency Council on Women.

LIDIA SOTO-HARMON: The US government and the Inter-American Development Bank felt that it was very important that we empowered women in this hemisphere to start taking—and continuing to take—the leadership roles that women should be having.

DAVIDSON: And what was accomplished at this particular meeting?

SOTO-HARMON: The conference had three major themes: economics and business integration, Lie ?? and leadership, and politics and public life. And what we accomplished in this conference was to start a hemisphere-wide initiative to women in our hemisphere address the issues that are affecting us and our families in these three areas.

DAVIDSON: Would you call most of the 400 participants here leaders themselves?

SOTO-HARMON: The women delegates that were at this “Vital Voices” conference in Montevideo represented every sector of society. We had indigenous leaders. We had the Afro-Caribbean women represented. We had women that were, that held positions of political power in their countries or in their cities or in their villages. We also had women that are small business entrepreneurs. We had incredible diversity in the women that we were able to bring together. And that was part of the richness of the conversations that we were having. Because it cut through so many different ways. The conference was designed to be for emerging leaders. What we tried to do is make sure that the women that were invited and that came to this conference would in fact be the new leaders of the hemisphere. So in some cases we invited very young people to come and be part of this.

QUESTIONER: [speaking at a meeting] . . . . The question is “what do you know now that you think you could give to these women today?” Sometimes the answers?? could help us a bit more I think in saying, perhaps if you know this now it won’t be so hard. Thank you. [applause]

DAME EUGENIA CHARLES: I think your second question, the answer really is being in touch with the people whom you’ve offered to represent. We have a lot of ideas, you know. The only ideas. . . .

DAVIDSON: Dame Eugenia Charles, is the former Prime Minister of the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. She led a workshop in Uruguay to promote the idea of older women serving as mentors for young women who are interested in politics.

CHARLES: It’s being able to work with other people.

QUESTIONER: What advice would you give to the young ladies whom you may mentor, as to achievements that they should aspire after before they enter politics? And whether their desires to have a family should be put at the forefront? Or what position would you put their desires in terms of their political aspirations?

CHARLES: First of all I think that I found it easier to be disliked in politics because I didn’t have a close family. I know, and I’ve spoken to other leaders, such as the leader from Aruba, who has children, and she says that it’s very hard on the family. Because every day on the television there was something against her being said. And the children say, “Momma, why do you have to be o the television every day?”, you know. And some mothers can’t take it. But I’ve seen others have families and are able to carry on.

DAVIDSON: First Lady Hillary Clinton received a standing ovation when she spoke to the crowd of 400.

HILLARY CLINTON: We’ve also brought together, and we have heard eloquently expressed today, from our panel, many who suffered under brutal dictatorships. Many who lost family members to terrorism. People who have been in the forefront of the struggles to end repression, protect human rights, and restore democracy. This is a critical moment in history. Because so many of you have struggled so long to bring us to it. I want to begin by thanking you. You have set an example, you have served as a model, and you have given heart to literally millions of people throughout the Americas. Because you have never given up on yourselves, and your future.

Yet I know that with the coming of democracy, with the spread of the global economy, we face new challenges. How do we ensure that democracy and free market economies produce better lives for all people, especially the poor and the marginalized. How do we create conditions in which women are equipped with the tools of opportunity to become full participants in their societies? How do we bolster civil society and its institutions? The countries represented here may be at different stages of political and economic development, but we are all searching for answers to basic questions such as those. And we share a common belief. 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. And that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, from one end of this hemisphere to the other. [applause]

So this hard fought for peace and stability, these democracies, these free market economies, they are an enormous step forward. But they are also not enough, if they do not give people the belief that they have a stake in the future and do not provide opportunities for participation. But think about some of the women who are here amongst us. Women who have pushed open the doors of political leadership. Some of them are known; so many others are unknown. But they lifted their vital voices when others were silent. They organized their workplaces, often at great risk to themselves. And they’ve been willing to run for office and accept appointed office when still there are so many attitudes against a woman doing that in public life. Their voices should inspire us. Today, more than at any other time in history, women have the opportunity and responsibility, not only to raise our own voices but to empower others to raise theirs as well.

The women gathered here, we are among the blessed. Even though many have suffered, the spirit was not broken. And you are here as testimony to resilience and determination. But think of the thousands and thousands and thousands of women throughout the Americas for whom no one speaks. Who believe they are not worth anything. Who have been denied education and sometimes even fundamental healthcare. What will we do to raise our vital voices for them? All of those women and their children need our voices. [applause]

DAVIDSON: First Lady Hillary Clinton, speaking at the conference titled, “Vital Voices of the Americas: Women in Democracy,” which took place in Montevideo, Uruguay this past October.

DAVIDSON: I’d like to wish all our listeners a fond farewell, as this is my final Common Ground broadcast. It’s been a pleasure to shine a little light on what happens in other parts of the world over the past thirteen years, and now it’s time to say “so long.” For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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