Benazir Bhutto appeared as a keynote speaker in the Republic of South Africa at the Women's Conference on " Women and Leadership: Against the Odds"
Johannesburg, August 7, 2001

Today, I travel to South Africa to speak with you at a difficult time for me, and my country. And in light of your bitter history of political repression, I would hope that you would open your hearts to the suffering of my people. This is a time of crisis and tragedy in Pakistan. History has sadly come full circle on the subcontinent. A military regime once again rules my homeland with an iron fist. The last vestiges of democratic institutions are being assaulted and dismantled. No Parliament. No state assemblies. No independent judiciary. No human rights. No free press. No independent labor organizations. Heavily controlled and regulated NGOs. Women are being thrown back into another era, into another century of repression and exploitation. We witness a tragic rise in exploitation of religion for political purposes.

A stalemate between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. An unsuccessful summit between the two nuclear-armed nations of South Asia only last month collapsing in shambles. It is not a pretty picture. It is a dangerous picture. This is Pakistan in the year 2001. The heirs to the dictator General Zia ul Haq who terrorized Pakistan with an iron fist for a decade, were resurrected with new names and new methods. To tighten their grip on political opposition, the President of our country was toppled. The power of the courts was usurped. Judges were sacked. Journalists were assaulted. Censorship was imposed. The rights of women were thrown back a generation. I know it has become the fashion both in the developed and developing world over the last decade, to destroy leaders' reputations by innuendo, allegation and rumour. This strategy now even has a name -- the politics of personal destruction.

This is true not just in Pakistan, but even in the most developed democracies. But the scale to which this was orchestrated in Pakistan against my party defied anything seen in the world. It was a relentless, devastating and overt assault on justice in an attempt to eliminate my leadership and to destroy me personally. My own husband was accused of even more ridiculous and scurrilous charges, including, the unspeakable slanders of murdering my own brother and trafficking in drugs. And his father was arrested to pressure him. My husband and father-in-law are still behind bars, hostages to my political career. The full extent of the plot against me was revealed through the extraordinary release of bugged conversations, proving beyond doubt that the charges against me were contrived.

Does it sound familiar, ladies and gentlemen? South Africa of the seventies. Pakistan today. The suffering is not of one person, not of one family, not of one political party, but of an entire nation. An edifice built without law collapses, just as a skyscraper built without a foundation will ultimately crumble. Pakistan is in turmoil and with it the stability in the region is threatened. Issues of poverty, gender equality and minority rights are calling for attention, as are the issues of unemployment and inflation. As the military junta rules, religious fundamentalists take up more political space at the cost of political forces. Pakistan could be threatened with an Islamic revolution. But this revolution would be nuclear armed. The "Talibanization" of Pakistan can literally threaten world peace.

After my overthrow and charges of corruption, the international community stepped back and foreign investment in Pakistan dried up. Businessmen clearly prefer stable economies and stable markets, in countries governed by the rule of law, where contracts are honored and commitments fulfilled. The absence of law also intimidated domestic investment as well. Martial law and economic development are mutually exclusive, they cannot exist together.

I welcome the Commonwealth's and the international support for democracy in Pakistan. Under that pressure, the Generals recently permitted local elections. My party supporters emerged as the single largest winners even though they fought without me on the ground and without the party symbol on the ballot. We proved against all odds that democracy is irrepressible, that ultimately the people will prevail.

Leadership is born of a passion, and it is a commitment. A commitment to an idea, to a people, to a land. For those in the feminist movement who say that woman can have it all simultaneously, I urge they look at my life. Women can have it all but Women have to make difficult choices, often choices that men are not forced to make. And we must live with the consequences, for better or worse. It is not always easy. But we do it for all the woman who came before us who gave us this opportunity. And most of all, we do it for all woman who will come after us -- the baby girls yet unborn! Thus, some are born to leadership, whilst others have leadership thrust upon them.

Many women leaders, particularly in South Asia, have been thrown into political waters. The assassin's bullet, the sound of boots or tragedy has thrust them into a role they might otherwise not have chosen. Yet they are more than extensions of the male members of their families. Each woman leader has had to win her badge of courage and recognition. As the Prime Minister of Pakistan I appeared before an historic Joint Session of the United States Congress in 1989. In that address, the most meaningful line to me was my simple message to the woman of America, my message to the women of the world. Three simple, powerful words: YES YOU CAN! Don't accept the status quo. Don't accept no for an answer. Don't accept traditional roles and traditional constraints. And don't think that leadership and being female are contradictory.

My victory was a victory for women everywhere. It broke the mind cast of the past. I was the first woman ever elected head of government in the Muslim world. Now four others, two in Bangladesh, one in Turkey and in Indonesia, have followed in my path. One more glass ceiling is shattered. But thousands are left to break.

The day is not far off when women will join even the Armed Forces of Pakistan, an idea that I discussed with my service chiefs in my last tenure. They already began the journey of joining the judiciary in my last term. The appointment of women judges is something I am very proud of, as well as the creation of a Women's Development Bank to make small loans to women entrepreneurs. Under my leadership of deregulation Pakistan integrated into the global economy becoming one of the ten emerging capital markets of the world. The International Labor Organization's data showed that the largest job generation in Pakistani history took place in the PPP government. The World Bank called our energy program a model to the entire developing world. The President of the World Health Organization gave me a gold medal in recognition of our efforts to improve the health of our children by eliminating polio and reducing infant mortality. We increased literacy rates by one third and secured women's rights by signing the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Beijing. We brought down the population growth rate whilst we took up the economic growth rate.

Despite the travails of the last four years, I am not bitter. In my father's last letter to me before he was murdered by one of Pakistan's many military tyrants, he quoted Tennyson: "Ah, what shall I be at fifty if I find the world so bitter at 25." He had then turned fifty and I twenty five. He asked me never to be bitter. I have honored my father's dying wish. I look at South Africa today and tears come to my eyes. My faith in humanity and my faith in God are strengthened by the miracle that has happened here. You-the people of South Africa - inspire and empower all of the oppressed, all over the world. My nation and I remain optimistic about the future, knowing in our hearts that time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.



Pakistan Press NewsWire