Remarks at the 10th Annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Kennedy Center
Washington, DC
April 12, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good evening. Oh, welcome to one of my favorite nights of the year, and especially this extraordinary 10th anniversary of the Global Leadership Awards and the Vital Voices Gala. I want to thank all of you for supporting the work that is done, and particularly the individuals who do it.

We come together this evening to celebrate seven extraordinary individuals who have devoted their lives to bringing peace, freedom, justice, and opportunity for people who are often on the margins, who are forgotten, who are considered second class, disposable.

Tonight we honor an entrepreneur from Afghanistan who provides job training for women; two peace activists from Israel – one Arab, one Jewish; a rescuer of trafficked women and girls in India; a presidential candidate from Cameroon; a longtime member of the United States Senate; and the leader of the democracy movement in Burma.

Now, each hail from different cultures and parts of the world. But they share important values and attributes. They each look for ways to make systemic change – to lift the lives of thousands, even millions of people. They each have paid a price for their work in arrests or abuse or ridicule, insults, and isolation. Their courage has inspired others to stand with them despite the risks and the consequences – to believe in the possibility of a better future and their own ability to help build it.

And of course, they are all women. Because at a time when millions of women worldwide are still denied their rights, still excluded from the public debates in their societies, still subjected to violence inside and outside of the family, still barred from schools, courts, markets and public squares, it is even more remarkable that tonight’s honorees have accomplished all that they have.

And it is even more critical that their work continue, because they are protecting and improving the lives of women and girls. And we must support them. We must proclaim to the world, clearly and as one, that these women are heroes, their work is valuable, and their voices are vital.

Now, during these past 10 years of the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, no matter where I have been in the world, I have always come back to Washington because this organization and its mission are very close to my heart.

As many of you know, Vital Voices began as a government initiative during the Clinton Administration at another time of great change in the world. Many countries were emerging from conflict and repression, beginning the transition to democracy. Former Secretary and my friend, Madeleine Albright, and I, along with others at the State Department and the White House, believed it was critical that women have a role in shaping the futures that they would inhabit. And we believed that if women were brave enough and strong enough to challenge the status quo and participate in politics, civil society, the economy, that we should help them.

So what began in a small office at the State Department as the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative has grown into the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an NGO with more than 1,000 staff and partners worldwide. Vital Voices has supported the work of 10,000 emerging women leaders in nearly 130 countries. And those women have, in turn, mentored more than half a million women and girl leaders worldwide.

Everywhere I go in the world, somebody from Vital Voices comes to see me. They’ll talk about a training program or a visit, an opportunity they had to learn more about what they could do. And thanks to Vital Voices, we know the multiplying effect we achieve when we invest in women. It actually initiates a positive chain reaction that quickly acquires an energy of its own.

We’ve seen women make unique and critical contributions. They often see problems that others overlook. They are able to reach populations that others either cannot reach or do not care to do.

We’ve seen how, in places that are struggling with conflicts, women are very effective peace builders. They bring people together to support negotiations, to ensure that accords signed in official ceremonies actually are going to be implemented and help individuals reach their own aspirations.

Vital Voices not only celebrates the achievements of women and not only produces positive impacts for them and for us, but it offers women in lonely and dangerous circumstances a community of support. I have heard from so many who often feel hopeless, exhausted, that this community keeps them going. And we have therefore a direct and powerful way to support progress and justice.

I carry the lessons of Vital Voices with me every day. At the State Department, we are working hard to embed support for women’s rights and advancement as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Melanne Verveer, the co-founder of Vital Voices, is leading that effort as our Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. And we’re urging parties to listen to the voices of women and to support the democratic rights of women and men together.

Now, on this night, we honor Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who endured years of isolation from her family and the world with unfaltering grace and the strength of steel. I call again for the Burmese authorities to allow her and her party to participate in Burma’s political process and that they be granted freedom of movement, expression, and assembly. (Applause.)

And we hold up the ethnic women of Burma who are fighting against the systematic use of rape by the Burmese military, and we continue to urge the regime to release more than 2,100 political prisoners, including some very brave women.

Now, in our lifetimes, the world has come a long way in protecting and advancing freedom and opportunity for women. But make no mistake about it: We have a very long way to go. The women who are honored tonight remind us of that, but also inspire us to continue.

This is not only an urgent foreign policy challenge for me. It is not simply a social justice issue, the most important in my view for the 21st century. But it is a personal mission as well. And I am deeply honored that we stand here in this great opera house once again to say thank you to those women who are on the front lines across the world who maybe make each of us dare a little more, risk a little more, do a little more.

So for all those reasons, we are grateful that you are here to support the work of Vital Voices. Thank you all. (Applause.)

PRN: 2011/580