Full democracy requires the full participation of women," says Swanee Hunt, United States ambassador to Austria. "When women are integrated into the democratic process, everyone benefits."
To encourage women's integration in the newly emerging Eastern European democracies, Ambassador Hunt organized a conference in Vienna, July 9-11, called "Vital Voices: Women in Democracy."
Three hundred professional women - 150 from Eastern Europe and 150 from Western Europe and the US - participated in discussions, workshops, and plenary sessions. The conference culminated in a final session that featured speeches by US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The conference was divided into three tracks: politics, law, and business. Each track started with a workshop of approximately 100 women, then broke down into smaller groups that wrote 54 strategies for solving specific problems, such as how to get more women elected to parliament, how to write laws against sexual harassment, and how to encourage foreign investment in women's businesses.
The conference was action-oriented, Hunt insisted. "We must focus on solutions, not problems." All 54 strategies were compiled in a package and given to each Eastern European delegate to take home and use in making an action plan for her own country.
The US embassy in that country will offer assistance, and the US government may provide funds for some of it. And to maintain connections in the future among delegates, a special "Vital Voices" Web site is being created on the Internet.
Hunt and the delegates hope all the effort and communication will strengthen the position of women in Eastern Europe. "Democracy is very hard work," Mrs. Clinton said in her address. "The work of democracy is never finished."
Nor is the work of women. As the delegates headed home, Hungarian Edit Herzon put "Vital Voices" in a hopeful perspective: "The conference is a start, not an end."