Women in the World Stories and Solutions Summit

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Hudson Theater
New York City
March 11, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Hello, everyone. (Applause and cheers.) Thank you, thank you. Oh my. Well, I have to confess that I think the evening could and probably should end after hearing from Dr. Hawa and her daughter and her other daughter who is here as well about what she’s doing in Somalia and, as Melanne Verveer pointed out, what that tells us about what needs to happen around the world.

But I promised Tina I would speak, and since I really don’t want to disappoint Tina – (laughter) – who has organized this event and who devoted, despite the cover, the first issue of Newsweek under her tutelage to talking about women and where women are in the world today and what lies ahead of us, which I deeply appreciated, Tina, because I happen to think that this conference, what you, what Diane and others are doing, is really cutting-edge. It is not just something nice to talk about. It is absolutely central to whether we will have the kind of peace, security, stability, opportunity, equality that we seek in the world.

So I want to thank all of you who have put together this extraordinary gathering here – women in the world, women of the world, women for the world, and women who come together to support other women. And Dr. Hawa Abdi is a perfect example of the kind of woman who inspires me and who I want to do even more to support.

Now, there are a lot of people in this audience tonight who are friends, who have been colleagues and advocates for the cause of women and what we hope will be increasing progress in the 21st century to resolve one of the great unfinished businesses of human history; namely, the full emancipation and equality of women. And I am struck from time to time when people question whether it’s a challenge that is equivalent to the fight against slavery in the 19th century or the fight against communism and fascism in the 20th century. And I believe it is. I believe that women’s roles and rights are at the forefront of everything we should care about and need to be doing in our own lives and certainly in the life of our country.

But sometimes it’s good to be reminded why it’s important to have women and girls at the forefront of American foreign policy. And there is so much evidence of this. But I just want to, for the sake of laying the predicate and for any who are still wondering, a 2008 report commissioned by Goldman Sachs found that educating girls and women leads to higher wages, a greater likelihood of working outside the home and therefore having lower fertility, reduced maternal and child mortality, better health and education outcomes. And it’s not only felt by the women themselves, but it improves opportunities for future generations. And narrowing the gap in employment between men and women in emerging economies could raise incomes as much as 14 percent by 2020, and 20 percent by 2030.

And the World Bank has documented that women tend to invest a much higher part of their earnings in their families and communities than men do. They spread wealth. They create a positive impact on future development.

On the other hand, when women are forced to the margins and denied economic and social advancement, their societies stagnate. In the landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report, it was found that Arab women’s political and economic participation was the lowest in the world, and concluded, “Society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productivity potential is stifled, resulting in lower family incomes and standards of living.”

And the 2005 report on the Arab world called women’s empowerment a “prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparably and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world.”

So the data is in. The case has been made. It’s made over and over again. But we still face so many barriers around the world. And what we find is that where women do not have the opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potentials, it is far less likely that democracy and prosperity go hand-in-hand; it is far less likely that peace and security are present.

So tonight we are meeting at a historic moment that could be – could be – the beginning of another great triumph of freedom. But for these democratic dreams to be realized, women must be equal partners in the work ahead. This won’t be easy. It never is.

In Cote d’Ivoire this month, we have seen thousands of women come together, marching arm-in-arm in the streets, calling for a return to democracy and for Laurent Gbagbo to respect the results of the recent elections and give up power. Cote d’Ivoire actually has a long history of women at the forefront of change. They helped win independence and build a new nation. Now they are standing up for their rights and for their future. But last week, Gbagbo’s thugs turned their machine guns on the peaceful marchers, and at least six women were killed. But the women of Cote d’Ivoire did not give up. They returned to the streets with signs that said, “Don’t shoot us,” and they kept right on going.

Two years ago, the world was shocked by images of a young woman named Neda murdered in the streets of Tehran because she tried to exercise her universal right to freedom of expression. Iran has imprisoned more than 100 women just for their political views. Many of them have not only been arrested, but tortured and subjected to lengthy detentions without charge. And their family members have been harassed and sometimes even jailed as well. But despite it all, Iranian women took to the streets once again this week, in greater numbers than anyone expected.

The world was shocked anew in January when a 23-year old Egyptian woman named Sally Zahran was clubbed to death in Tahrir Square. But nothing could stop the people of Egypt – women and men – from claiming their rights and taking control of their destiny.

So in recent weeks we have seen women on the front lines of progress in Egypt and Tunisia. Some of the earliest organizers of the April 6 Youth Movement and other Facebook and Twitter campaigns that helped galvanize Egypt and Tunisia were smart, wired, and committed young women. And you have heard from some and will hear from others during the course of this conference.

The people of Egypt and Tunisia inspired millions around the world. And now they have a big job ahead of themselves. Next week, I will travel to Cairo and Tunis to meet with the transitional leaders and to talk directly with representatives of Egyptians and Tunisians. I will bring the best wishes and the strong support of the Obama Administration and of the American people.

But I will also bring a clear-eyed view, without any illusions, about what lies ahead. Transitions to democracy are fraught. Jobs and economic opportunities do not materialize overnight. Democratic dreams can be dashed by new autocrats or ideologues who use violence or deception to seize power or advance an undemocratic agenda. Elections only work if their results are respected and if they are embedded in a durable democratic framework of strong institutions, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, and human rights protections for everyone.

I recently participated in an online dialogue with young Egyptians, and they raised with me the full social and political partnership of women. As I said then and have said many times before and since, respect for the rights of women and minorities is not an American idea. It’s not a Western value. It is a universal principle. And women’s empowerment is no stranger to North Africa.

In Tunisia, women have long enjoyed more rights and opportunities than many of their peers across the region. I saw this for myself when I visited in 1999 and I met with women entrepreneurs and civil society leaders. Some of the women I met then went on to help organize the protests and are now working to support the transition to democracy.

Over the decades, Tunisian women have achieved success in businesses and professions. They represent more than a quarter of the country’s judges and lawyers.

Women in Egypt have also made progress. They’ve seen new laws passed giving women divorce rights, raising the legal marriage age to 18, banning female cutting, and allowing mothers to pass citizenship on to their children in cases where the father is not identified. But Egyptian women have also long had high rates of illiteracy and unemployment and low rates of political involvement.

Unfortunately, in both countries now, there is a very real danger that the rights and opportunities of women could be eroded in this transition period.

In Tunisia, only two women have been appointed to the transitional government, far fewer than served in the cabinet of the ousted president Ben Ali. And there is even talk of rolling back the country’s historic Personal Status Code that has protected women’s rights for half a century.

In Egypt, the women who marched for freedom in Tahrir Square are now shut out of the committees and the councils deciding the shape of Egypt’s new democracy. The Constitutional Committee has not a single woman member. And when women marched on Tuesday to celebrate International Women’s Day in their new democracy, they were met by harassment and abuse.

Now, the women of Tunisia and Egypt are working hard to ensure that these developments do not derail the transition to democracy. As one leading women’s rights activist in Cairo recently said, “We will have to fight for our rights. It will be tough and require lobbying, but that’s what democracy is all about.”

Egyptian women have launched a petition urging the Constitutional Committee to add a female legal expert to help guide the formation of the new government. More than 60 Egyptian organizations representing hundreds of leading women have now joined this effort. Plans are underway to create a volunteer force to protect against harassment.

And in Tunisia, a network of women business leaders organized a peaceful march last week to call for greater economic opportunities and an end to political violence. And women were joined by men in defense of the Personal Status Code.

So going forward, we will watch this very closely. The United States will stand firmly for the proposition that women deserve a voice and a vote. And they deserve to be sitting at every table in their society. And they should run for office and serve as leaders, legislators, even someday president. (Applause.)

But as we look across this region and see everything that’s happening, we know the foundations are being shaken. In December in Doha, I warned that the region's foundations were sinking into the sand. The transitions to democracy in Egypt and Tunisia have the potential to change that story. But that promise could be squandered if the heat and pressure of revolution instead fuse that sand into a new glass ceiling. It is not enough to liberate societies without liberating and empowering every individual.

This is not just a story though about Egypt and Tunisia or Cote D'Ivoire. It is a story about so many of the countries that we are working with around the world. We’ve heard about Somalia and we’ve heard about the alternative to what is too often the only story coming out of Somalia. I have long believed that working in small groups to achieve peaceful civil society serves as a model and an example.

But when I look at other countries where the struggle is just beginning, I have to remind myself how long it took us, how long it took so many other societies to make the progress that we now take for granted.

In Afghanistan, for example, women have shown remarkable resilience and determination through three decades of war. They risked their lives to run schools and health clinics and to stand up against the Taliban. In the post-Taliban era, Afghan women have gone to school, they’ve run for office, they’ve served in the government, they have worked to earn a living. In 2002 there were so few girls in school, and now that number has multiplied many times over.

But all of these gains are fragile and reversible. We are working to try to create the environment in which Dr. Hawa lives and works in Somalia in Afghanistan. We’re trying to help midwife, an Afghan-led political process, to split the Taliban off from al-Qaida. We’re looking for those red lines that are unambiguous, that people who wish to reconcile and reintegrate into society must renounce violence, abandon their alliance with al-Qaida, and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan, which guarantees the rights of women.

The United States supports the participation of women at all levels, but we have learned the hard way that without involving women in peace, the peace will not be sustained. As Melanne said, the United Nations passed a historic resolution, Resolution 1325, and we intend to do everything we can in Afghanistan to make sure that women are at the forefront of making peace.

I am often asked why on earth do I believe that women and girls are a national security issue. Well, I believe it because I know that where girls and women are oppressed, where their rights are ignored or violated, we are likely to see societies that are not only unstable, but hostile to our own interests.

So we must do even more to help the next generation of women leaders. And that’s why I’m proud to announce that the State Department is working with the historic “Seven Sisters” colleges to launch a new Women and Public Service initiative.

Together we will seek to promote the next generation of women leaders who will invest in their countries and communities, provide leadership for their governments and societies, and help change the way global solutions are developed. “The Seven Sisters” – Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and of course my alma mater, Wellesley – have a rich tradition of educating and inspiring women leaders from around the world for over 30 generations. As a first step, we will host a conference this fall bringing policy makers, public officials, academics, innovative thinkers together from around the world to build these new global partnerships, so that once we’ve brought attention to an issue or a leader, we will be able to continue to build and support the work that is being done.

Now, a lot of these women will not be known to many of us, but they are the ones who are making change on the ground right now. They are the ones who need our help. And we will stand with them. So starting right here tonight, in this room, we want to tap the extraordinary talent and energy represented here to support and expand the grassroots and nonprofit networks that give women voices and opportunities – everything from microcredit to start a first business, to political training needed to run for office. We will marshal the data, we will make the case, and we will never stop working.

I come away from listening to Dr. Hawa Abdi and her daughter even more encouraged and determined, because I often ask myself as I meet these remarkable women from all over the world, “How do they do it? How do they keep going?” And when you looked at the smile on her face, you know that that is a life well led, a life in the service of others, and a life that is making a real difference to the next generation.

Thank you all very much.

PRN: 2011/377