U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday launched the "100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges" on the eve of the100th anniversary of International Women's Day, which marks the economic, political and social achievements of women.
One hundred women from 92 countries gathered at the State Department to begin a three-week professional exchange program in the United States.
Secretary Clinton told them that investing in women is the right thing and can help alleviate problems like poverty and hunger. "For me, investing in women and girls is smart. It pays off," she said.
She called the women "pioneers" in business, academics, civil society and government, and she said their actions inspire her and others.
Clinton also recognized the achievements of some of the participants. "Raquel Fernandez from Paraguay connects with women and girls trapped in a life of servitude," she said. "In Sudan, Aisha Humad, where's Aisha? Aisha is empowering women by teaching them to stand up for themselves and to stand up for their own rights."
The women are taking part in the International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings 5,200 current and emerging leaders to the United States to engage with their American peers and to experience life in the United States.
Clinton has long worked to make women's rights a key U.S. foreign policy issue, when she was first lady in the 1990s and now as secretary of state. Monday was the first of a series of events that will be held during the coming year to highlight key foreign policy issues that directly affect women and girls worldwide.
Clinton called the women "ambassadors" for their countries. She said government relations are not the only way to deal with global challenges.
"Ultimately, I think it is people-to-people relationships that make a difference and that can really give you the strength to keep going through very difficult times," said Clinton.
After Clinton's speech, the women asked questions of Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale, Assistant Secretary of Education Ann Stock and Clinton's chief of staff Cheryl Mills.
One woman from Latin America left the panelists momentarily speechless.
"Do you think now that your country is ready for a woman as a president? I am not sure any of the three of us should answer that," she said.
Clinton's chief of staff Cheryl Mills said she does not think the U.S. is quite ready to elect a woman as head of state.
"I certainly think it is the case that our country demonstrated ably in the last election that they are more than willing to support women in a leadership role and more than willing to actually see a woman as their leader," said Mills. "But I think for getting over that final hurdle, I think we are a little bit away."
Secretary Clinton was a U.S. senator when she campaigned for president in 2008. She lost the Democratic Party nomination to her then-Senate colleague Barack Obama.
The 100th anniversary of International Women's Day is Tuesday. Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama will mark the day by honoring 10 women from around the world with the International Women of Courage Awards at a ceremony in Washington.