UN 4th World Conference on Women – Plenary Session
In 1995, Hillary Clinton served as the Honorary Chairperson of the US delegation to the Fourth World Conference. She addressed the Women & Health Security Colloquium, which was sponsored by the WHO. She spoke of many issues faced by women around the world, including (but not limited to) problems faced in the United States. Her address covered everything from government enforced silence of women to forced prostitution as the only option for income. Her main goal was to “give voice to women everywhere.” Her speech focused on the past and future of women, and how they can find a place of equality in the world.
…Gertrude Mondella, for your dedicated work that has brought us to this
point. Distinguished delegates and guests, I would like to thank the
Secretary General for inviting me to be part of this important United
Nations 4th World Conference on Women.
This is truly a celebration, a celebration of the contributions women make
in every aspect of life – in the home, on the job, in the community, as
mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, learners, workers, citizens and
leaders. It is also a coming together, much the way women come together
every day in every country.
We come together in fields and factories, in villages markets and
supermarkets, in living rooms and board rooms. Whether it is playing with
our children in the park or washing clothes in a river, or taking a break
at the office water cooler, we come together and talk about our aspirations
and concerns. Time and again, our talk turns to our children and our
However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us, than
divides us. We share a common future and we are here to find common ground,
so that we may help bring new dignity and respect to women and girls all
over the world. And in so doing, bring new strength and stability to
families, as well.
By gathering in Beijing, we are focusing world attention on issues that
matter most in our lives, the lives of women and their families. Access to
education, health care, jobs, and credit, the chance to enjoy basic legal
and human rights, and to participate fully in the political life of our
countries. There are some who question the reason for this conference. Let
them listen to the voices of women in their homes, neighborhoods, and work
There are some, who wonder, whether the lives of women and girls matter to
economic and political progress around the globe. Let them look at the
women gathered here, and at Wyrow. The homemakers and nurses, the teachers
and lawyers, the policy makers, and women who run their own businesses. It
is conference like this that compel governments and peoples everywhere to
listen, look, and face the world’s most pressing problems. Wasn’t it, after
all, after the Women’s Conference in Nairobi ten years ago, that the world
focused, for the first time, on the crisis of domestic violence?
Earlier today, I participated in a World Health Organization forum. In that
forum, we talked about ways that government officials, NGOs, and individual
citizens are working to address the health problems of women and girls.
Tomorrow, I will attend a gathering of the United Nations Development Fund
for Women. There, the discussion will focus on local and highly successful
programs that give hard working women access to credit, so they can improve
their own lives and the lives of their families.
What we are learning around the world is that, if women are healthy and
educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence,
their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as
full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish, and when
families flourish, communities and nations do, as well. That is why every
woman, every man, every child, every family and every nation on this planet
does have a stake in the discussion that takes place here.
Over the past 25 years, I have worked persistently on issues relating to
women, children and families. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve had
the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women in my own
country, and around the world. I have met new mothers in Indonesia who come
together regularly, in their village, to discuss nutrition, family
planning, and baby care. I have met working parents in Denmark, who talk
about the comfort they feel in knowing that their children can be cared for
in safe and nurturing after school centers.
I have met women in South Africa, who helped lead the struggle to end
apartheid, and are now helping to build a new democracy. I have met with
the leading women of my own hemisphere, who are working every day to
promote literacy and better health care for children in their countries. I
have met women in India and Bangladesh, who are taking out small loans to
buy milk cows or rickshaws or thread in order to create a livelihood for
themselves and their families. I have met the doctors and nurses in Belarus
and the Ukraine who are trying to keep children alive in the aftermath of
The great challenge of this conference is to give voice to women
everywhere, whose experiences go unnoticed whose words go unheard. Women
comprise more than half the world’s population, 70% of the world’s poor,
and two-thirds of those are not taught to read and write. We are the
primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly, yet, much
of the work we do is not valued. Not by economists, not by historians, not
by popular culture, not by government leaders.
At this very moment, as we sit here, women around the world are giving
birth, raising children, cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning houses,
planting crops, working on assembly lines, running companies, and running
countries. Women, also, are dying from diseases that should have been
prevented or treated. They are watching their children succumb to
malnutrition caused by poverty and economic deprivation.
They are being denied the right to go to school by their own fathers and
brothers. They are being forced into prostitution, and they are being
barred from the bank lending offices and banned from the ballot box. Those
of us, who have the opportunity to be here, have the responsibility to
speak for those who could not.
As an American, I want to speak for women in my own country. Women who are
raising children on a minimum wage. Women who can’t afford health care or
child care. Women whose lives are threatened by violence, including
violence in their own homes. I want to speak up for mothers who are
fighting for good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean air, and clean air
For older women, some of them widows, who find, that after raising their
families, their skills and life experiences are not valued in the
marketplace. For women who are working all night, as nurses, hotel clerks,
or fast food chefs, so that they can be at home, during the day, with their
children. And for women everywhere, who simply don’t have time to do
everything they are called upon to do, each and every day.
Speaking to you today, I speak for them, just as each of us, speaks for
women around the world, who are denied the chance to go to school, or see a
doctor, or own property, or have a say about the direction of their lives,
simply because they are women. The truth is, that most women around the
world work both inside and outside the home, usually by necessity. We need
to understand there is no one formula for how women should lead our lives.
That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself
and her family.
Every woman deserves the chance to realize her own, God-given potential,
but we must recognize that women will never gain full dignity, until their
human rights are respected and protected. Our goals for this conference, to
strengthen families and societies, by empowering women to take greater
control over their own destinies, cannot be fully achieved, unless all
governments, here, and around the world, accept their responsibility to
protect and promote internationally recognized human rights.
The international community has long acknowledged and recently reaffirmed
at Vienna that both women and men are entitled to a range of protections
and personal freedoms, from the right of personal security to the right to
determine freely the number and spacing of the children they bear. No one
should be forced to remain silent for fear of religious or political
persecution, arrest, abuse, or torture.
Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated.
Even now, in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used
as an instrument of armed conflict. Women and children make up a large
majority of the world’s refugees. When women are excluded from the
political process, they become even more vulnerable to abuse.
I believe that now, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the
silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to
hear that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate
from human rights.
These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has
been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to
silence our words. But the voices of this conference and of the women at
Huairou must be heard loud and clearly. It is a violation of human rights
when babies are denied food or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken
simply because they are born girls.
It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the
slavery of prostitution for human greed and the kinds of reasons that are
used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated. It is a
violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire
and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.
It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their
own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a
tactic or prize of war. It is a violation of human rights when a leading
cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are
subjected to in their own homes by their own relatives.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the
painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation. It is a violation of
human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families,
and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized
against their will.
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be
that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,
once and for all. And among those rights are the right to speak freely and
the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in
the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and
democracy to thrive and endure. It is indefensible that many women in
nongovernmental organizations who wished to participate in this conference
have not been able to attend or have been prohibited from fully taking
Let me be clear. Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize,
and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree
with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from
their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them or denying them their
freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and
In my country, we recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of women’s
suffrage. It took 150 years after the signing of our Declaration of
Independence for women to win the right to vote. It took 72 years of
organized struggle before that happened on the part of many courageous
women and men. It was one of America’s most divisive philosophical wars.
But it was a bloodless war. Suffrage was achieved without a shot being
But we have also been reminded, in V-J Day observances last weekend, of the
good that comes when men and women join together to combat the forces of
tyranny and to build a better world. We have seen peace prevail in most
places for a half century. We have avoided another world war.
But we have not solved older, deeply-rooted problems that continue to
diminish the potential of half the world’s population. Now it is the time
to act on behalf of women everywhere. If we take bold steps to better the
lives of women, we will be taking bold steps to better the lives of
children and families too.
Families rely on mothers and wives for emotional support and care. Families
rely on women for labor in the home. Increasingly, everywhere, families
rely on women for income needed to raise healthy children and care for
As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere
in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed
last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and
outside their homes, the potential of the human family to create a
peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.
Let this conference be our and the world’s call to action. Let us heed that
call so we can create a world in which every woman is treated with respect
and dignity, every boy and girl is loved and cared for equally, and every
family has the hope of a strong and stable future. That is the work before
you. That is the work before all of us who have a vision of the world we
want to see for our children and our grandchildren.
The time is now. We must move beyond rhetoric. We must move beyond
recognition of problems to working together, to have the common efforts to
build that common ground we hope to see. God’s blessings on you, your work
and all who will benefit from it. Godspeed and thank you very much.