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First Lady Listens to Vital Voices

By Nora Boustany

Wednesday, February 16, 2000; Page A19

As far as power huddles go, yesterday's at The White House was miles away yet very close to home, important enough for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to interrupt her Senate race and give sisterhood a hand in finding its voice.

She hosted 15 female leaders, along with 150 other big kahunas from Washington (including a handful of men), at a White House gathering called to shore up an initiative to boost Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's drive for the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy objective. Clinton said the effort, the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, began at a conference three years ago in Vienna, organized by then-ambassador Swanee Hunt.

"I remember one woman from Lithuania who got up and talked about how, when she was first running for office, a famous male doctor told her that he knew quite a lot about women's hormones and could assure her that there was nothing for a woman to do in politics," the first lady said. Thankfully, she added, the Lithuanian woman did not accept the diagnosis and was elected to Parliament. She challenged the Vienna parley to ensure that "the vital voices of women must break this silence."

At a retreat over the past few days at Airlie House near Warrenton, representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Cambodia and India started a conversation about trafficking, Clinton told her guests. "They talked about how their women and girls were being lured away from their countries with the promise of economic opportunity, shipped like drugs by an international crime network and sold into slavery. Others talked about what it's like to be a destination country, home to sweatshops, prostitution rings, and domestic bondage that steal the freedom and dignity of women and girls," she added. "What became clear during the dialogue was that this is a global problem, that the U.S. and every country has a role to play."

Other countries represented were Haiti, Ghana, Bulgaria, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Colombia, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Ireland and the United States. Among the guests was Vasundhara Raje, a former foreign minister of India and currently its minister for small scale and agro-industry, who is also state minister for atomic energy and space technology. In preparation for President Clinton's scheduled visit to India next month, Raje held a bilateral meeting yesterday with her American counterpart, Aida Alvarez, administrator of the Small Business Administration, a cabinet level post.

Clinton emphasized that women in public office are necessary to raise their voices for "economic empowerment and social justice." No country can move ahead if its girls and women are left behind, she added. She recalled the voice of a Somali woman who worked to convince young militia members to turn over their weapons in exchange for education and training and a Haitian cabinet member who was shot at, but decided to run for political office again because she felt heartened by the inspiration she got from Vital Voices.

Clinton invited two women to the podium, Ekaterina Geniyeva, president of the Open Society Institute in Russia, and Lubna Qadhi, a university professor from Kuwait and a strong advocate for democracy and woman's suffrage in her country. Geniyeva talked about the sad dream of conflict resolution in the northern Caucasus where women and children are fleeing places like Chechnya. Qadhi, wearing a black scarf, said she was returning home "richer in strategies. . . . What you have done is create bridges."

Clinton announced the Vital Voices group will now have a permanent home, as a nonprofit organization created by the private sector. Confided one male ambassador to the other: "I feel intimidated."

Border Concerns

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who addressed the permanent council of the Organization of American States last Friday, said in a brief interview over dinner at the residence of Canadian Ambassador Raymond Chretien that Canada is concerned about noises in Congress about beefing up controls along the two countries' border that could hamper the $1.5 billion worth of daily trade. "What we are concerned about is that this very carefully developed trade and border of cooperation after 150 years will be short-circuited," he said. "I can't tell you how many people look at the U.S.-Canadian border as a model to get along."

Killings Mar Talks

Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev told Washington Post editors and reporters Monday he and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, were close to a deal on Armenia's disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory last October following encounters in Washington, Geneva (twice), Yalta and another spot along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Since the assassination of Armenia's prime minister and seven other leaders in an attack last Oct. 27 in the Armenian parliament building, progress has stopped.

"These discussions were developing in a very positive direction. In October when we met, we almost had an agreed deal," he said. The attack, carried out by a splinter group of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation was "not essentially aimed at disrupting the negotiations," Aliyev said, but after that things were not the same.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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