Remarks at Female Heads of State and Foreign Ministers Luncheon

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York, NY
September 24, 2009

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you so much. I was stuck in traffic because so many heads of state and heads of government are leaving to go to Pittsburgh, so I was at the United Nations for a meeting and just – all traffic stopped, so I saw several of the (inaudible) that are on their way to this lunch standing there also.

So (inaudible) go ahead and get started so that – I know everyone has a busy schedule. This has been an extraordinary week already with all of the work that has gone on, and I particularly appreciate the commitment that the United Nations is showing now to women’s issues not just as a marginal issue, not just as an add-on issue, but as a core issue, both in how the United Nations is organized and in the priorities that we choose to pursue.

The history of this lunch goes back to 1993, when my friend – oh, please, (inaudible), come in – when my friend and colleague, Madeleine Albright, hosted the first women’s lunch for the women permanent representatives of the United Nations. There were six women at that time. And then as the years went by and Madeleine became Secretary of State, she expanded it, and then Condi Rice continued it, and now we have a much bigger group of heads of state and governments as well as foreign ministers.

I am so pleased that we would have this chance just to visit together for an hour in our very busy schedules, and there’s a lot that I think we have to share. We have some of the people from our government, our Permanent Ambassador to – our Permanent Representative to the United Nations is Ambassador Susan Rice. Our government’s first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues is Melanne Verveer. Esther Brimmer is our Assistant Secretary for International Organizations. Please, come in. Anne-Marie Slaughter is the Director of Policy Planning in my office in the State Department. Maria Otero is the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs. So these are some of the women who are in positions of responsibility in our foreign policy area, our national security area.

So I’m delighted that we could have around this table so many distinguished women from all over the world. Some of you I’ve known for a long time, some I’m just meeting for the first time, but I hope you all feel very welcome and not too worn out by the pace of the United Nations General Assembly if this is your first experience of it.

I wanted to just mention a few issues. As many of you know, I have advocated for many years that women are the key to progress and prosperity around the world. I believe that. I know that many of you do as well. And the evidence increasingly supports that assertion. We know that investments in women yield very big dividends, and we want women to be given the tools so that they can make the most out of their own lives – run for office to be president or prime minister, work your way up to be appointed to a position of foreign minister, so many opportunities, because we know there is so much talent.

But what I have concluded over the years is that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And in many places, opportunity is still out of reach for women, no matter how smart they are, how hard they work, how much encouragement they might be given even by their own families, that it is still a very difficult task.

Yet there are so many wonderful examples of women leaders like yourselves and organizations around the world that are making a real difference. And women’s voices are now heard in every debate that is going on, in the public sector, of course, but increasingly in the civil society and in the private sector. I’ve seen examples on every continent of women banding together, organizing themselves, using microfinance, fighting to get an education, working to get healthcare, protecting their daughters, doing what is necessary to build a better future.

And I would very much like us to have some time today in this limited period we have to explore what we can do together, how we can support each other, but more importantly, how we can make girls and women a top priority.

And next week at the Security Council, we’re going to be taking steps to improve the United Nations’ response to sexual violence committed during armed conflict. I will be speaking next Wednesday on behalf of a U.S.-sponsored resolution to better implement the commitment that we should have to the role that women and girls should play in their lives, in their communities, and their countries, and in particular, to appoint a special representative of the Secretary General to lead, coordinate, and advocate for efforts to end sexual violence in armed conflict. I think we have to elevate that no matter what country we’re from. Those of us who have traveled, as I think all of us here have done, have seen the consequences, and some of you have lived the consequences and your families have suffered the consequences as well.

So we intend to make this a centerpiece of my term as Secretary of State. There are people who say, well, women’s issues is an important issue, but it doesn’t rank up there with the Middle East or Iran’s nuclear threat or Afghanistan and Pakistan. I could not disagree more. I think women are key to our being able to resolve all of those difficult conflicts, as well as provide for a better future.

So let me just conclude and – please, come in, how are you? So glad you’re here. Welcome. Let me just conclude and ask each and every one of you to think about any ideas you might have, any concerns you have that you would like to share before all of us. But mostly, let me just thank you for being here and for being in the positions that you are in and making a difference by setting an example and providing the role-modeling that is so necessary for not only girls and women to see, but for boys and men to understand there have to be changes in attitude, not just in policies and in law, in order for us to achieve the kind of equal rights and equal responsibilities that is our birthright.

I think they’re going to begin to serve, and what we want to do now is, if I could, impose upon my friend and the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has been literally on the front lines of making difficult change and as an advocate and an activist, as a person involved in politics, and now serving her country after years of conflict.

PRN: 2009/T12-17