U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged women world leaders Monday to reach out to the new emerging democracies in the Middle East and North Africa and help ensure that the women who demonstrated, blogged and put their lives on the line are included in their country's democratic future.
If women are left out of the democratic transformation, she said, the country "will not be a true democracy."
Clinton spoke at a high-level U.N. event Monday to promote greater political participation of women at all levels of government. According to a 2010 U.N. report, women hold an average of 17 percent of the seats in parliament, and only seven of 150 elected heads of state and 11 of 192 heads of government are women.
Clinton called the global effort to give women a much greater voice in public life "one of the great pieces of unfinished business in the 21st century."
"If we want a safe, secure, prosperous, peaceful future," she said, "women must be equal partners and free to realize their own God-given potential."
Sitting beside Brazil's President Dilma Roussef, with other former and current women presidents on the panel and in the audience, Clinton said "clearly as someone who tried to be a president, it is very encouraging to see those who actually end up as a president."
The audience of several hundred women and a scattering of men applauded the former Democratic presidential candidate who lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
Clinton, who has been a leading global campaigner for women's equality, said it wasn't enough for the women leaders at the U.N. to just continue their own work at home.
"It's also important that we reach out to the new emerging democracies and societies, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where women have marched and demonstrated, blogged, and put their lives on the line for a future that includes them, their families, their communities, and their countries," she said.
In Libya, where women hid fighters, ran guns and even fought, Clinton said one women talked of being president or a mayor, "a thought that had never crossed her mind anytime before."
She commended Tunisia for requiring gender parity on lists of election candidates in its new electoral code.
Clinton said many leaders were also working in Egypt "to ensure that women who played a decisive role in carrying out Egypt's revolution are not left out of the democratic transformation."
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative, said that while traveling in Tunisia and Egypt, it was wonderful to see how women are engaging, but "it's very, very important we support them financially as well as politically."
When she became the EU foreign policy chief, she recalled being asked how she felt looking out at a room of 27 male EU foreign ministers.
"What does it matter, I'm in charge," she replied, to laughter in the audience.
Ashton said two EU foreign ministers, from Spain and Cyprus, are now women, but "we have a long, long way to go."
Roussef, Brazil's first woman president, said that much remains to be done in her country to expand women's political participation.
"But the important thing is that we are making progress," she said, noting that 10 ministries are headed by women.
Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first woman to chair the 54-nation Commonwealth comprising Britain and its former colonies, said she would like to see women comprising half of all legislatures, local governments, state boards and private sector boardrooms.
"We must ensure that our generation leaves a legacy of 50 percent of women in political and other spheres of decision-making, and delivers tangible policies and action programs aimed at improving the lives of women and girls," she said.
Clinton, Ashton, Roussef and Persad-Bissessar signed a statement affirming "that women's political participation is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace" and urging all states to take steps to "promote women's equal right to participate in all areas and at all levels of political life."
The head of UN Women, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and the head of the U.N. Development Program, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, also signed and other women leaders were expected to add their names.