(photo credit: AP)
The way to tell advanced from backward nations is to look at how they treat women, President Shimon Peres told the closing session of the International Women's Leadership Conference for Sustainable Development.
Speaking on Thursday evening at Beit Hanassi to a gathering of more than 70 women leaders from around the world as well as several ambassadors of the countries represented by the participants, Peres said: "Nations that give equal rights and opportunities to women are advanced. Nations that discriminate against women are backwards."
Two of the worst things that happened to humanity, he said, were slavery and discrimination: "When you liberate women, you give the future to children." Peres explained that in backwards countries women are uneducated and marry at a very early age. They have no education to pass on to their children and the cycle continues into subsequent generations.
A nation that doesn't give equal rights to women is only half a nation, he said, because it cannot benefit from what women have to contribute.
While the 20th century saw a great deal of liberation, Peres conceded, women's emancipation was far from complete. "There are still women who are oppressed," he said, adding: "We shall not have peace until we have equality between women and men, Arabs and Jews."
Though much remains to be done, Peres was optimistic. "We live in a world where prejudices are disappearing," he said, noting that prejudices about race, color and sex are fast becoming obsolete.
He attributed this in part to demographic shifts. "Never in history was there such a demographic movement as there is today," he said.
Change is not only a matter of domicile but also of definition. "Democracy used to mean that everyone is equal," said Peres. "But democracy today means that every person has the right to be different."
The conference, a biennial event held by the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, was cosponsored by UNESCO and Mashav (the Foreign Ministry-operated official body for international cooperation).
UNESCO Deputy Director-General Prof. Marcio Barbosa expressed gratitude to the government of Israel for hosting such a major event and to the eminent women leaders who had participated with such great enthusiasm.
He extolled the Golda Meir Center and Mashav as examples of what Israel and other countries can do together in matters of shared interest, and said that UNESCO looks forward to enhancing its relationship with Mashav.
"Equality and sustainable development are two of the great challenges of our time," he said. "Women suffer disproportionately from poverty and environmental degradation. Progress for women means progress for all."
To clarify what he meant, Barbosa quoted the disturbing statistic that two thirds of illiterate adults are women. "UNESCO promotes women's empowerment and gender equality as a means of sustainable development," he said. "Sustainable development cannot be achieved without full and equal participation of all members of society - men and women."
Barbosa presented Peres with a UNESCO gold medal in recognition of "his unbelievable commitment towards peace."
The closing session was also addressed by Simone Gbagdo, Ivory Coast's first lady, who spoke with appreciation of the plurality of conversations and interactions and the high level of discussions.
Gbagdo stressed the importance of women's roles in fighting poverty while promoting peace and protecting the environment, and emphasized that national and international problems at all levels should be solved with the participation of women. Many friendships had blossomed at the conference, she said, and as a result, the seeds of cooperative projects were sown.
For her own part, she had found it extremely interesting to learn what happens in different countries.
At the conclusion of the session, Haim Divon, the head of Mashav, who was also the emcee, asked everyone to stand as the president left the room. But Peres had no intention of leaving.
He happily posed for group photos and some of the participants lost their composure as they jostled to stand next to him. Peres solved the problem by posing several times with different groups of women, some of whom were so infatuated by him that they put political caution to the winds. A participant from Algeria and another from Morocco - countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations - smilingly sandwiched Peres on either side without seeming to care if the photo found its way to their home countries.
Peres subsequently told reporters that the conference was one of great importance, considering the caliber of women that it had attracted and the fact that they were all willing to come to Israel.