In a speech Friday at the UN in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton identified equality for the world’s women and girls as the central challenge that will determine the peace and progress of the 21st century.
She underscored the links between economic development, ending poverty, improving health, safeguarding the environment, and the continued enhancement of the status of women. “Women’s progress is human progress, and human progress is women’s progress,” she said.
Those words were clearly meant to echo Secretary Clinton’s own words 15 years ago when, as the US first lady, she told the World Conference on Women in Beijing: “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”
Clinton’s speech not only marked the anniversary of her 1995 Beijing speech, but also wrapped up events for International Women’s Day, which took place March 8. Those events included meetings of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women.
The past 15 years, Clinton said in her speech, have included some remarkable advances for women globally – including heightened attention to women’s health and economic issues, particularly in developing countries. Women’s participation in their country’s political life and their election to national parliaments have also increased, she said.
Clinton noted that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first woman elected to lead an African country – has been instrumental in promoting not only her country’s postconflict reconciliation, but also education and advancement for Liberian girls and women.
But women also encounter harrowing new challenges in some regions, including a spike in politically motivated sexual violence, Clinton said. Meanwhile, other crimes against women – including what she called “gendercide” and forced childhood marriages – remain dark blots on the world.
She cited the case of a 10-year-old girl in Yemen who recently went to court to demand – and eventually receive – a divorce from a forced marriage. But she also cited a recent Economist cover story that explains how years of gendercide, primarily across a swath of Asia from China to India, means that the world has 100 million fewer girls than it should.
State Department officials offered a preview of Clinton’s theme earlier in the week as they recognized a group of “international women of courage,” named as part of International Women’s Day celebrations. Those women include Ann Njogu, a Kenyan who has faced threats and violence to fight against corruption and for constitutional reforms in her country; and Jestina Mukoko, who took her case of abuse all the way to the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe – and won.
“In many ways, we are seeing a pandemic of violence against women,” said Melanne Verveer, the US ambassador at large for global women’s issues, at a briefing Thursday. Citing cases of mass rape used as a tool of war and the continued infanticide targeting baby girls, she added, “This is illustrative of the lack of worth, the low status of women, the view of women still, in too many places, that clearly needs to be addressed.”
In her 1995 speech, Clinton declared, “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” She went on to offer a litany of abuses of women that she said were a “violation of human rights,” including bride burning, slavery, and killing of babies “simply because they are born girls.”
Now, Clinton said that both she and President Obama are working from the perspective that the “subjugation” of women anywhere is a “threat to the national security of the United States, and ... a threat to the world.”