Remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Before the Vital Voices Conference
U.S. Department of StateWashington, D.C.
February 16, 2000
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Thank you very much, Theresa, for that introduction and for the amazing job you have been doing and your team in making good on America's commitments to women and democracy.
Excellencies from the Diplomatic Corps, distinguished guests and friends, welcome. What a great audience. I really am delighted to have you all here and I am delighted to share this stage with thirteen women who are making their voices heard in such important ways around the world. We were just talking about sisterhood and there is great strength from that, as we all know.
As their presence illustrates, the Vital Voices Global Democracy Initiative is about women coming together, from different countries and cultures, to pursue common objectives and ideals.
This initiative carries with it a very simple message. And that is that if you are fighting to advance the status of women and girls, in whatever way in whichever country, you may be sure of one thing: you are not alone. The currents of change you engender are part of an ever-rising human tide, and the power of that tide is altering the world's social and political landscape day by day.
Whether you are an organizer, a teacher, healer, businessperson, mother -- or all of the above -- you are contributing to deeper democracy and a better world.
Power descends from knowledge. And through Vital Voices, we are sharing knowledge about how to reform laws, win elections, grow businesses, acquire new skills and shatter glass ceilings. Through Vital Voices, we are strengthening the bonds between public officials and non-governmental organizations, and across every boundary of race, faith, background and tongue.
This is crucial because we live in an age of networking; the more intricate the web, the stronger the whole. And our network is growing with every new friendship made, enterprise launched, and partnership begun.
So this afternoon, I want to thank all of you for your participation and support for the Vital Voices Initiative.
And I want to thank USAID and our Public Diplomacy professionals who have worked hard not only to start the Initiative, but also to follow up and see that promises made are promises kept.
And I want especially to recognize Swanee Hunt, our former Ambassador to Austria, who conceived this Initiative and who brought the first conference together back in 1997.
And, of course, I want to pay tribute to America's First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has inspired and driven this Initiative from day one. Her frequent presence, her eloquence, her example, and her commitment have shown us all the way.
The First Lady was also our leader at the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women five years ago. Vital Voices is an outgrowth of that Conference. It is a tangible way of implementing the Platform for Action, and of demonstrating the role that women play as dynamic agents of constructive change.
For the past three years, I have had the honor of serving as chair of President Clinton's Interagency Council on Women, with a mandate to implement the Platform for Action in the United States. And that has given me an extraordinary opportunity to mobilize -- some would say infiltrate -- the highest levels of government. And we have made the most of that opportunity.
Working with a variety of agencies and forward-looking NGOs, we have made tremendous gains. And if you go down the list of goals, from curbing violence against women to fostering participation in the global economy, the Council has pushed and America's women and their families have benefited.
Meanwhile, we have brought international women's issues into the mainstream of our foreign policy, which is right where they belong.
Through USAID, we are backing projects that expand the ability of women to succeed economically through legal reform and access to education, credit and health care.
We contribute to international family planning programs, because we want to reduce the number of abortions and make it more likely that when children are born, they grow up healthy and strong. And I just testified to this point in front of some of the people who didn't like that, as we went through our last Congressional session.
It's true that we've had a struggle with some of the people in Congress on this issue in recent years. But the President's commitment is reflected in his new budget, which calls for raising our funding for these programs back to the 1995 level. And that is what I was talking about this morning. We will fight to see that this money is provided without restrictions on free speech, and without being tied to any unrelated issues.
We are also working to equip women in emerging democracies with the skills they need to participate politically, whether as elected officials, or simply as citizens exercising what Susan B. Anthony called "the right protective of all other rights" -- the right to vote.
Finally, because we believe in helping every woman to have a fair chance in life, we have undertaken a major diplomatic and law enforcement effort to halt trafficking in women and girls. After all, if we believe in zero tolerance for those who sell illegal drugs, we should feel even more strongly about those who buy and sell human beings.
I am proud that the United States has been a leader in the effort to advance the status of women. But on one issue, we have been laggard. And so I will say to you what I said in my last testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week: "Mr. Chairman, the time has come for America to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women."
Six weeks ago, we crossed the threshold into a new century, and we did so with renewed determination. For we know that it is not enough to look back and complacently compare "now" with "then."
Our challenge is to look ahead, because the journey upward is just begun. Too many women in too many places still live surrounded by the four walls of poverty and ignorance, exploitation and discrimination. Too many have entered the new century shackled by the physical and psychological chains of the past.
Genuine democracies do not bestow their blessings on only a privileged few, but rather on all. Such democracies may be conceived and designed by dreamers, but they are built by doers. And I look around this stage and around this audience; all I see are doers.
And I ask you to join with me in vowing to make the twenty-first century an era of steadily increasing democracy for all people, and greater opportunity for women and girls.
We must strive to ensure that from the smallest village to the largest city, the vital voices of women will be heard at the ballot box and in legislatures, in classrooms and boardrooms, in counseling peace and building prosperity.
In so doing, we must also be sure to respect and value one another, understanding that although every woman wants freedom of expression, not every free woman will express herself in the same way. No country or culture has a monopoly on what is right for a woman to think or believe, or for that matter, to wear. Our goal is to help women everywhere to express themselves. Before closing, I must add that the work America does on behalf of advancing the status of women and girls requires resources. Unfortunately, the funds we have available for foreign policy today have not kept pace with our responsibilities. For years, our workload has gone up, while our budget has gone down.
People often don't believe me when I tell them what is true, that only one penny out of every dollar the Federal Government spends goes for international affairs. But in many situations, diplomacy is our first line of defense, not only in helping women, but more broadly in preventing war, defusing crises, countering terror, safeguarding the environment and fighting disease. Just remember that, one penny out of every dollar. A lot of people who think that it's 25 cents out of every dollar, but it is one penny.
So I hope very much that I have your support as we seek the resources we need to lead for women, for men, for families, and for all Americans.
Five years ago, in preparing for the Beijing Conference, I came upon a poem that reflected an old folk tradition. In the poem, a father says to his young daughter:
We keep a dog to watch the house;
A pig is useful, too;
We keep a cat to catch a mouse;
But what can we do
With a girl like you?
The Vital Voices Initiative is helping to answer that question loud and clear. Given the opportunity, there is nothing we can't do. And today our goal must be to see that opportunity exists for every girl and every woman, everywhere.
That is a big job, but there is no better time to embark on an essential mission than the start of a new millennium -- and no better group to launch one than the Vital Voices here and around the globe.
Thank you all very much, and welcome. And I'm thrilled to have this kind of an audience here.