Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development

John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters
Washington, DC
September 8, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Anne, thank you. Thanks so much for that terrific introduction. Most importantly, thank you very, very much. You are a spectacular, powerful, wonderfully dedicated, and extraordinarily – I’m lucky to have an extraordinary advocate like you as a cohort in this endeavor. Ladies and gentlemen, she does a spectacular job as (inaudible). (Applause.)

I am especially pleased to be able to share this moment with the – with my fellow members of our government’s delegation to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. You are as unruly as you were then. (Laughter.) Nothing has changed. (Applause.) And by the way, no one looks any older, right? (Laughter.) It is great to see so many familiar faces. I’m really happy to be here with you. Thank you for being a part of this.

I remember leading that delegation to Cairo, back when there really was a conspiracy of silence on family planning, sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights. And a lot of folks back then were very frightened. They were still afraid to talk about the connections between women’s empowerment and women’s rights and development, let alone to think that we could actually turn the tide.

Since Cairo – the commitments made by 179 governments – it is clear the tide has, in fact, turned. But it’s not a done deal, and we all know that – that there are places pushing back, that there is a tide of resistance to modernity. And we see it playing out not just in the context of women’s rights, but we see it playing out in every single respect with respect to opportunity and dignity and the ability of people to be able to share fully in the choices about their lives.

We’re now, as a result of the efforts that we’ve made, saving more lives and providing more opportunity to people than ever before. I tend to see Cairo as a real demarcation point with respect to that effort. And I think all of you will agree there are no greater exemplars of the power of persuasion with respect to this issue than the leaders who are here gathered here this evening.

All of us share in our special respect for my former colleague and friend – still friend – Tim Wirth. (Applause.) I have to tell you, without any question whatsoever, Tim was really the driving force behind our preparations for Cairo as he performed the functions of the first Under Secretary for Global Affairs. He reached out and he enlisted women’s rights leaders, foundations, NGOs, health professionals, environmentalists – all of them – and brought them together in a common cause. And in his work at the UN Foundation for years since leaving the United States Senate, he has underscored to all of us the growing implications of our concerns about health, education, housing, sanitation, water, food, and energy security, and all of it in the way that it affects women particularly and children. We are, all of us, profoundly grateful for Tim Wirth’s persistence and determination and commitment. Tim, thank you so much for everything you’ve done. (Applause.)

I also want to recognize Nafis Sadik, who insisted that NGO representatives be included on every UN delegation. Believe me, that was a lonely fight for a very novel idea. But the years since have proved the wisdom of Nafis’s vision: Diplomats and activists can and must work together to drive change. And that’s the way she made it happen, and thank you so much, Nafis, for that. (Applause.)

And of course, he’s already been introduced, but I want to thank Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin for his leadership as the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund. He has spent a spent a lifetime working to prevent and address early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and HIV/AIDS. And his indefatigable efforts are making a difference, and we thank him profoundly for that leadership. Thank you, sir. (Applause.)

So let’s be clear: We’re not here tonight just to have a reunion, as nice as that is. And we’re not here tonight just to sort of celebrate good things that have happened, because every single one of us here understand how long and sometimes lonely the road ahead is. What we’re doing here is not hypothetical. It’s real. And it’s real lives that we are saving.

Fatima is a young woman who went to work in a small community in Guinea. This was a community a long way from the closest clinic, and many of the women there suffered unsafe, painful, and prolonged deliveries. Many children were put at risk, some died. And Fatima had heard about the suffering and so she went to the village and she taught the women and the men about family planning. She showed them how to spot the signs of a difficult pregnancy so that they could actually get to a clinic before it was too late. And the women then started to have much healthier children, and child mortality plunged.

But that’s not all. With the spacing of births, the women then had more time to invest in their own futures. They started a co-op; they made soap, which the women sold at a nearby village market. They built a women’s center and they learned how to farm. After five years, no children had died of measles. The whole community was now better nourished, the village was richer, and the other villages saw the success and what had taken place and they wanted it for themselves.

Fatima and the women of this community are the human faces behind the story of just how far we have come in the past 20 years. And the lessons of this are really clear.

First of all, if we’re going to make good on our post-2015 Development Agenda, coming into that critical moment as we get into next year, we need to recognize that no country anywhere can get ahead with half of its team on the bench. From Kabul to Kinshasa to Kuala Lumpur, I have seen with my own eyes the extraordinary difference that it makes when women and girls can decide if and when to have children; when they’re empowered, educated, and equipped to be able to contribute to a strong and a stable and a prosperous society.

Second, we need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination, violence, and human rights abuses against women and men. I was proud to lead the fight in the United States Senate on the International Violence Against Women Act. And now we need to develop a strategy to address the millions of adolescent girls who are simply too often vulnerable to discrimination, to violence, and exclusion. Gender-based violence, which Cairo first addressed and the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 took that head on and made it clear that violence has no place in the 21st century, period. And we’re going to continue to do everything in our power to stop it. Third – (Applause.)

Let me say what a real great pleasure it was for me to be able to work with William Hague, who has now given up the responsibilities as foreign minister of Great Britain, but he – as the foreign secretary. He was extraordinary in his leadership on violence within war and conflict, and really led the charge in helping to define the ways in which we can establish rules and hold people accountable. The impunity that exists is our challenge. We have to end impunity with respect to gender-based violence in so many places.

Third, we need to do more to incorporate HIV/AIDS prevention into our development approach. That means fully integrating family planning into HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

Finally, we need to do more to provide economic opportunity for this staggering youth population that is staring us in the face. In country after country, more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30; 50 percent of the population under the age of 21; 40 percent of the population is under the age of 18. And when you have that level – 40 percent of the world’s population as a whole is under the age of 25 – then we need to come together with a sense of urgency to present this growing number of young people with an alternative, with quality education, with sexuality education, and with services and jobs that allow them to be able to build a life and to build confidence in their countries.

I just want to remind all of you what happened in Tunisia that unleashed what became known as the Arab Spring – whatever you want to call it today – but then was not the result of religious extremism or even an ideology in the region. The young man who was tired of being slapped around by the police, by the corruption, who simply wanted to be able to sell his fruit and make money, earn a living, have dignity and respect, and help his family to survive. And he became so outraged and so frustrated by the lack of that opportunity and dignity and respect that he thought the only alternative left for himself was to light himself on fire as a protest. That’s what ignited what happened in Tunisia.

And in Tahrir Square it was young people – not the Muslim Brotherhood, not Salafists or some other group – but young people who texted each other, talked about opportunity and how they were being crushed in their aspirations, who came to that square again and again despite everything. And they’re the ones who brought about the revolution that then was co-opted by the process afterwards.

In Syria – people have forgotten. What’s going on in Syria today began as a protest of young people looking for this opportunity. And when the young people were hit over the head and beaten because they were demonstrating for that opportunity, their parents came out, outraged about what had happened to them, and they were shot. And that’s what ignited what was happening in Syria.

So no one here should forget these aspirations are universal, powerful, and they’ll never go away. And we need to make certain that we do not allow any governments in the world to act with impunity towards those aspirations anywhere. We’ve all seen the possibilities of what life can bring when you allow these differences – these possibilities to take hold.

Before Fatima arrived in the community that I just talked about, the chief’s wife said, “They only have time to have children, care for their children, and watch their children die.” When the women started practicing family planning, their neighbors were able to see the results – tangible. They asked, “How is it that your children are living beyond the age of five? How are your men back in the fields? How do you find the time to sell soap?” And the chief’s wife answered simply, “When you open the door, the smallest for a woman, she will put her foot through.”

My friends, that’s what Cairo was all about and that’s what this gathering here tonight is all about: opening the smallest of doors so that women and girls and young people around the world can seize even bigger opportunities. We all know that investing in women and youth isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a strategic necessity. It’s how you create stability, foster sustainable societies, and promote shared prosperity, because societies where women and girls are safe, where women are empowered to exercise their rights and move their communities forward, these societies are more prosperous and more stable – not occasionally but always.

So today we mark the miles that we have traveled, but more importantly we commit to the next miles of the journey. That’s what brings it here. And I feel very privileged to share it with all of you. I ask you not to stop marching, not to stop calling for change. We have work to do, miles to go, and there are too many people dependent on us and our freedom and our liberty and our ability to speak out, so we have to live up to that responsibility. And knowing the commitment of that group that went to Cairo – and you’re back here today – that’s exactly what we are going to do.

Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)