Hillary Rodham Clinton

Remarks on International Women's Day - March 12, 1997

Hillary Rodham Clinton
March 12, 1997— Washington, D.C.
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We are gathered today to celebrate International Women's Day in the heart of the State Department. And we do, as Americans, have much to celebrate, starting with a Secretary of State who, yes, broke a barrier by virtue of her own gender, but who much more importantly is committed to defending the rights not just of Americans but of citizens around the world regardless of gender.

Not only has Madeleine Albright broken many a glass ceiling, she has brokered many a peace. Not only has she opened many doors, she has opened many minds. And since she mentioned it, I would say that in my last conversation with Mrs. Roosevelt (laughter) she told me how please she was that her husband had appointed the first woman to the Cabinet in United States history, and how pleased she was that my husband had appointed the first woman Secretary of State. (Applause.)

I thank Secretary Albright for her leadership, her courage and, on a personal note, her friendship. And I am delighted that she has agreed to serve as the new chair for the President's Interagency Council on Women, ably assisted on the issues by Teresa Loar and Tim Wirth and others of you here.

We all know that countless responsibilities face our new Secretary of State and all of us. Our foreign policy does not lack for challenges. We must continue to reduce weapons of mass destruction. We must realize the century's dream of a wholly united, democratic and peaceful Europe. We must work to capture new opportunities in Asia, to seize opportunities for peace in the Middle East and other areas that are strategic not only to the United States but to the entire globe. We must work with our partners in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere to build an inclusive and expanding global economy. We must safeguard our people from the threats of terrorism, extremism, international crime, drugs, and environmental degradation.

While all of these require our attention and commitment, today I have come to advance a simple idea. That is the seamless inclusion of girls' and women's needs in American foreign policy. Despite the work they do, the families they raise, the communities they hold together, too many of the world's women, particularly in developing nations, live on the outskirts of opportunity and equality. But let me be clear: This challenge is not confined to the developing world. We still have plenty of work to do here in the United States and in other advanced economies of the world to ensure that women have a full stake in democracy. One goal in every country should be to see that all citizens, regardless of race or gender or ethnicity or religion, have a full place at their society's table.

If you'll forgive just a slight diversion yesterday I was in Arkansas. I visited people who had been hit by a terrible tornado in the morning. Even before that disaster struck, these were people already working overtime to build good lives, to reach their aspirations. The full benefits of American society were still a long way away for them. After this tornado, all that they had worked for, all they had hoped for seems lost.

Later that day I spoke at an event that helps raise funds to send single parents, primarily women, to college or vocational school. I heard stories from five women who told us what it had meant that their society, in the form of those who had raised these funds, reached out and told them that they could make something of their own lives, they could go to college, they could support themselves and their children. They had heard the message that is even still too often conveyed in America: that they weren't worth very much, that nobody really cared too much about them.

As one young woman said, five years ago I was in a battered women's shelter in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I had nothing. I not only didn't have a car, I didn't have a driver's license, and my face looked as though it had been run over by a truck. All of a sudden there were people there who convinced me that I could make something of myself and care for my nine month old son. I thought to myself, how can these people believe in me, that I could go to college that I could support myself? How could these people care about me when my own husband didn't care about me?

Those stories, as I heard them, reminded me of stories that I have heard around the world. As women in Bangladesh or India or Nicaragua or Chile stood up and told me what it meant to them to have someone believe that they, too, could make a living for their family; that the skills they had would be valued in the marketplace; that their children, especially their daughters, could have a better life. The women last night were helped to return to school. And today they are citizens of the United States in the fullest sense of that word.

Whatever disparities of wealth exist in our country and around the world means that people are left by the side of the road, detoured off the Information Highway, unable to take advantage of democracy's opportunities. What America must do for its own sake, as well as for the sake of its leadership in the world we are in today and that we are entering tomorrow, is to promote democracy and civil society in every nation, so that all citizens every man, woman, and child can live up to their God given potential.

But one may ask, well, it's fine for me to care about the women of Arkansas, but why should I or any American care about women in developing countries and around the world? Why should women, as Secretary Albright just eloquently explained, be a concern of ours and our foreign policy here in the United States? Well, what the Secretary said and what this administration believes is that if half of the world's citizens are undervalued, underpaid, undereducated, underrepresented, fed less, fed worse, not heard, put down, we cannot sustain the democratic values and the way of life we have come to cherish.

If as a nation Americans care about opening foreign markets for American goods and services, if we care about making our country secure in the face of new threats, if we care about widening the circle of peace and prosperity, then we must address the conditions and circumstances of the world's women.

You in this room know better than anyone else that our world is in a time of great transformation, heralding ever more democracies, leading, we hope, to ever more peace. But the great promise of this time is not without its challenges. Global competition, the information revolution, the rapid pace of change all create pressures on every society, from governments down to families. And these pressures pose unavoidable questions for us as we approach the 21st century. How do we figure out ways to balance individual and community rights and responsibilities? How do parents raise children in the face of the influences of the mass media and consumer culture? What do we make of what seems to be a conflict in many instances between personal identity and the work available in an age of globalization and high technology? What about the roles of women in society? How will people preserve their ethnic pride and value their national citizenship? And how will nations protect their sovereignty while cooperating regionally and globally with others?

Thinking about these questions and how a free nation like ours will respond to them, we may need to be reminded that democracy is not just about legally protected rights, elections, or free market economies. It is about the internalization of democratic values in people's hearts and minds. It is about how, in the absence of either hot or cold wars, democracy is rooted in people's everyday lives.

Given the changes that are going on around us, we can no longer gauge our interests around the world solely through power blocs and vast arsenals. Across the globe, here at home, at the end of the Cold War, we have been free to focus on issues that edge right up to our own front doors. How do we educate our children? How do we ensure that families have proper health care? How do we ensure that democracies and free markets produce citizens, not just consumers?

I have said before that at this time of challenge around the globe, we know we will continue to cope with what is often thought of as the traditional balance of power among countries. But I would also argue that we must now add to that balance of power equation, often called realpolitik, the idea that real-life politick may be just as intimately connected with whether or not democracies survive and flourish.

These issues that we speak of today should not be considered women's issues. But certainly it is fair to say that women often, by necessity, become the world's experts on the hazards and vicissitudes of life. And they, therefore, often understand and appreciate more clearly that they have a vested interest in ensuring that their societies and governments address these real-life challenges.

I have seen for myself on continent after continent the solutions that women are forging new mothers in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, who gather every week to learn about family planning and better nutrition for their children; doctors and nurses in Belarus and Ukraine who are caring for the children of Chernobyl; women from Santiago to San Diego who are working on issues as diverse as education, crime, and the environment. These issues are central to our global democratic interests. For what distinguishes democracy is fair and genuine participation in every aspect of life.

It should be too obvious to point out, but unfortunately it isn't, that giving women a stronger voice and fuller say over their futures is intimately related to the health of democracies because women are the majority in most countries and the world over.

America's credo should ring clearly: A democracy without the full participation of women is a contradiction in terms. To reach its full potential, it must include all of its citizens. Clearly, whether we succeed in strengthening democratic values around the world is of special consequence to women, who in our country and elsewhere are still striving to attain, and even define their rightful place in government, the economy, and civil society, and to claim their rightful share of personal, political, economic and civic power.

Raising the status of women and girls and investing in their potential means insuring that they have the tools of opportunity available to them. Education, health care, credit and jobs, legal protections and the right to participate fully in the political life of their countries. And that is why the United States must continue its bipartisan tradition of supporting initiatives that move our world closer to these goals.

Today, more than 600 million women worldwide are denied the opportunity of an education. Women make up two thirds of those who can neither read nor write. Yet the single most important investment any developing nation can make is in the education of girls and women. We are discovering that in country after country the benefits of educating women go far beyond the classroom and the schoolhouse. They go to stronger families, better health, nutrition, wages, and levels of political participation.

I have seen how the support of the United States for the education of women and girls worldwide is paying off. I have seen how similar social investments, also many supported by the United States, can make a difference in countries as diverse as Brazil, the Philippines, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Certainly, as I travel around the world and as many of you do likewise, we have seen with our own eyes that investing in girls and women helps to transform communities which in turn can transform societies. Women will not flourish and neither will democracy if they continue to be undervalued inside and outside the home.

I have had many experts in economic development around the world say to me that women's work is not part of the economies of countries that women do not participate in the economic markets of countries. And yet I have seen with my own eyes as I've traveled through urban areas and remote rural ones that women are bearing often the bulk of the load of the work that must be done to plant crops, to harvest them, to make it possible for small enterprises to flourish in market stalls. So I know that women are working. Their contributions may not be counted in the gross domestic product of their societies, but they are of value. I fall the women in the world tomorrow said they would not work outside the home, the economies of every country would collapse. And it is time (applause) it is time that we honored and counted the contributions that women make, both in the home and outside.

Investing in women also means investing in their health and, in turn, in the health of their families. I am especially pleased that the United States has provided assistance through the United States Agency for International Development to assure that women, children, and families have access to a full spectrum of low-cost, high yield health care services from safe birthing kits for expectant mothers, to basic immunizations for infants, to oral rehydration therapy to treat children suffering from diarrhea.

I want to say a special word about family planning and its importance in this larger effort. Family planning is fundamental to letting women take responsibility for themselves and their children. Right now, however, roughly 100 million women worldwide cannot get or are not using family planning services because they are poor, uneducated, or do not have access to care. Some 20 million women will seek unsafe abortions. Of these women, some may become disabled for life, some will have other health problems, but fundamentally, the rate of unsafe abortions is in itself a tragedy. High abortion rates do not represent women's equality; they represent a failure on all our parts to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place. If we really care about reducing abortions and fostering strong families, we must not back away from America's commitment to family planning efforts overseas. (Applause.)

If we really care about making women equal partners in societies the world over, we must do everything in our power to fight violence against women, whether it is a hidden crime of domestic abuse or blatant tactic of war.

No single social investment is a panacea for women or for developing countries. Nor should every just cause of the world be America's to embrace.

But I do believe that as long as discrimination and inequities persist in a broad scale way against women, a stable, prosperous world will be far from a reality.

Taken together, our investments in social development are vital to strengthening free market interests, spreading our democratic ideal and enhancing our security.

Over time, America has learned that our ideals and interests cannot be divorced from the political, economic and social crosscurrents swirling around us. I hope we have also learned that engagement with the world represents opportunities at home as well as obligations abroad.

Let me just give you one modest example. I spoke recently at a conference sponsored by USAID called Lessons without Borders. At the conference, Baltimore's Mayor, Kurt Schmooze, told how government leaders from his city had gone to Africa to learn about simple, low-cost strategies used on that continent to encourage parents to immunize their children. Now similar programs are in place in Baltimore, with community clinics, vaccination van, door to door visits and the resulting higher immunizations rates for children under three.

We can learn from our neighbors around the world. And many of the lesson we can learn, we will find, are lessons that have been helped to be taught by our own foreign policy engagement less than one percent of our budget, yet countless lives can be improved and we can improve lives here at home.

Before I close, I want to say a word about my forthcoming trip to Africa. I was very honored to be asked to make this trip because I think that America's engagement in the world must include an engagement with sub-Saharan Africa. Contemporary history is a story that citizens and countries are writing. And there is a new story that must be told. Every region is contributing its own chapter.

Africa has a remarkable story if we will only pay attention to it. It is moving toward democracy. In the last six years, the number of democracies have jumped from five to 23. Africa is growing economically, moving from suffocating state controlled economies to open markets that can give full life and scope to human endeavor.

Last year, 30 countries reported positive economic growth. Africa is beginning to forge a new relationship with the United States one based not just on aid but on shared ideals, mutual responsibilities, integration into the world economy, and partnerships designed to resolve conflicts and to meet common challenges. To be sure, many of the African democracies are new and therefore fragile. Hope remains tenuous. Too much of the continent continues to be riven by disease, malnutrition, poverty, injustice, corruption, perilous conflicts and their terrible aftermath, refugee crises that trap women and children especially in lives that go from bad to worse.

And yet and yet, in spite of these challenges, for the first time, we can say that, at this moment in history, there are in Africa grounds for far more hope than despair. And with the support of the United States, we can solidify that hope.

I will be privileged to visit Senegal, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea. And I am pleased that so many of the ambassadors from those countries and other countries in Africa are with us today.

I hope to witness first hand and to highlight each country's efforts to build democracy and a strong civil society. I will focus particularly on grassroots initiatives and on efforts that affect women and children.

I hope this trip will give the American people a renewed sense of the importance of our commitment to Africa. I hope it will lay out exactly why we must do our utmost to support democracy and social investment in Africa and to strengthen Africa's place in the community of nations.

And I hope it will show that American engagement must be measured not just in aid dollars or humanitarian efforts in the wake of tragedy and crisis, but in the democratic values we reinforce, in the human rights we defend, and in the conflicts we help resolve preventively.

There are, to be sure, issues of America's national security at stake. Instability in Africa, whether it is rooted in war, in terrorism, in organized crime, in disease, in environmental degradation or poverty, it touches us too.

There are also economic issues at stake. Right now, the United States holds only 7 percent of the African market of 600 million people. By forging stronger economic ties with Africa, we will do much to secure the prosperity of our own people as well.

But finally, our greatest reasons for engagement with Africa are built on a positive foundation. Africa is on the move, with a new generation of leaders, the fresh air of political reform, and thriving multiethnic societies.

As we look at the future for America's engagement around the world, we can see that wherever we help to seed the ground for democracy, wherever we reach out to people out of mutual respect to help them help themselves, wherever we understand clearly that in this time of interdependence and interconnection that we all have a stake in the success of the other, we will make progress together. Whether it comes to assisting and working with our friends in the new democracies in Africa, or understanding the importance of our commitment to women and girls, America's interests are at stake.

But far more importantly, America's values are at stake. If we act upon those values, we will help to lead the world into the kind of new future we envision as possible for our children and all the children around the globe.

Thank you very much.

Clinton, Hillary. 1997. "Remarks by the First Lady on International Women's Day." The White House. https://clintonwhitehouse4.archives.gov/WH/EOP/First_Lady/html/generalspeeches/1997/africa.html.