It’s a great crowd. Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman, and greetings to all of you. It’s a huge honor for me just to share the front row for a half hour with these amazing women, you all are a total inspiration. It sounds like there are a few more hundred inspirations behind you out in the audience. I’m especially grateful to receive such a warm introduction from your distinguished senior senator. As you may know, just last month, this man, Robert Menendez, received an honor that made him the envy of all Washington – he was personally sanctioned by Russia for telling the truth about Ukraine. As a result, he will be prohibited from leaving the Garden State this summer to vacation in Siberia, Irkutsk, and Kamchatka – a punishment I expect he will survive.
But perhaps we should ask why – among all the legislators and high officials in our nation’s capital – your senator was among the very few singled out. The answer, I expect, is that Russia has learned what you already know: Bob Menendez is a fighter. He is a fighter for New Jersey, a fighter for democracy, a fighter for justice, and a fighter whom good people – whether at home or abroad – can count on. He is also the kind of son any mother would be proud of, and it’s a true privilege to be here at Senator Menendez’s alma mater this afternoon celebrating the legacy of Evangelina Menendez – who fled Cuba in 1952 because she wanted her children to grow up in freedom and who worked as a seamstress in order to provide her children with opportunity. Opportunity that her younger boy, Bob, her daughter, Caridad, and her other son, Reynaldo, took advantage of. And we are of course also celebrating today the accomplishments of this stellar group of modern day trailblazers and pioneers.
This is Women’s History Month, and so it is right for us to look back at the many accomplishments of women who broke through barriers of discrimination in the past. But what truly excites me is the history that is now being written by women of the caliber we are recognizing today – Kathleen Assini, Laurel Brennan, Danielle Gletow, Amy Mansue, Aida Marcial, Janet Mino – and the history that will be authored tomorrow by our daughters, our granddaughters, our nieces and our grandnieces. The world is changing and the evolving status of women and girls is a major driver of that change.
Consider that until the early 1970s, any woman serving as a diplomat in America’s Foreign Service who got married received along with her wedding bouquet a pink slip. She would be fired because, in the judgment of the powers that were, no woman could be expected to serve both a man and her country. At the time, and this was really not that long ago, the conduct of world affairs was a private club. I mean, women had all the great statues – Liberty, Justice, and Freedom – but men had all the best jobs. It wasn’t until 1997 – more than two centuries after our nation’s birth – that a woman finally took the oath of office as America’s secretary of state. And now they hardly ever make room for men in that job.
Yet today, it’s fair to say that – with the strong support of Senator Menendez and others in Congress – the empowerment of women has become part of the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy. Especially under President Obama, we have emphasized the importance of women in our democracy promotion activities, our pursuit of international peace and security, our support for microenterprise, our health care initiatives, our aid to refugees, our opposition to trafficking in persons, and our ongoing effort to defend and extend human rights.
The day has long since past when we can allow women in any country to be treated as if they were invisible or inaudible. Yes, the right to remain silent has its place in our legal system – but the right to speak freely and without fear belongs to all people in all places. And our unshakable goal is to bring into being a world in which every girl and every woman is able to go as far as her energy, character, and talent will take her.
This afternoon, I would like to discuss this epic quest, starting with its entry point – a subject Senator Menendez has naturally also touched upon – education.
Almost exactly 18 months ago, in Pakistan’s SWAT valley, a masked gunman boarded a school bus. Waving his firearm at the frightened students, he demanded to know: “Which one is Malala? Tell me or I will shoot you all.”
Following the telltale movement of anxious eyes, the gunman approached 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai and – at point blank range, as you’ve heard – shot her twice, with bullets piercing her head and neck.
For days this little girl was unconscious; part of her skull was removed to relieve the swelling; amid the pain, she became uncertain whether she was alive or dead; but in Malala’s own words later, she said: “I think death didn’t want to kill me. And God was with me…and the people prayed.”
Here in the United States, Americans have had more than our share of experiences with gun-related violence, including attacks on school children; often we characterize such tragedies as senseless, caused by inner demons, a personal grievance, or petty theft.
But Malala was shot for a reason. And that reason was fear – fear of change, fear of freedom, fear of truth, and fear of the power that knowledge and awareness convey to the human mind.
Years before that terrible morning, Malala had already become her country’s leading champion of the right of girls to attend school; when the Pakistani Taliban tried to deny her that right – she fought back with the only tools she had: her voice, a blog, and defiance of the repeated death threats lodged against her.
Young and brave, she was noticed and she was listened to. And as her message took hold, she got under the skin of the Taliban who recognized the danger that she posed to their ideology. So the Taliban tried to defeat her not by debating her ideas but through cold blooded murder. And in attempting to silence her, they have succeeded in amplifying her words far beyond the confines of Swat Valley.
The transformation Malala is asking the world to make is a necessary and long overdue transformation.
At the start of this century, acting through the United Nations, our leaders established what are called the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to ensure access to education for every girl and boy, no matter where they live. In the years since, we have made much progress but at least 57 million school age children still remain outside the classroom. Because of past and present discrimination, girls are well behind boys in access to secondary education, and more than sixty percent of young adults who lack basic literacy skills are women. This situation is even less tolerable than it might seem because an educated mother is much more likely to have a healthy baby and to be able to care for that child in its earliest years.
In my own home, I have two young children, and it is obvious that I want them to enjoy a first-rate education. My own mother is the single reason I am standing before you today and getting to go to work every day and sit in front of the placard that says “United States of America” at the United Nations. She brought me to America from Ireland when I was nine and worked overnight shifts in the hospital emergency room so that she would never have to turn me down when I asked her to buy me yet another book. But Malala reminds me – and us – that this dream to provide your daughter with an education is shared by families everywhere; it is every parent’s dream.
Earlier this year, when the United Nations asked people in 193 countries – all the countries of the UN – to name their number one priority for the future, their very top priority, almost two-thirds cited education. And the reason is no secret. Education is what opens all other doors.
Whether a woman lives in Nairobi or Manila, Jersey City or Buenos Aires, a high school or college degree can spell the difference between poverty and economic well-being; between chronic disease and health; between political marginalization and inclusion; and between legal impotence and the ability to fight back against the ongoing scourge of violence.
This matters because, according to our best estimates, at least one woman in three is victimized by violence at some point in their lifetimes. And our campaign to stop it is complicated by the fact that so much of the bullying is taken for granted. There remain many societies where domestic abuse and marital rape are viewed as male prerogatives, and where men routinely treat their wives as property and their daughters as chattel to be sold or bartered. Especially repulsive are crimes where girls are targeted for punishment precisely because they have been exploited by men.
In addition, roughly 64 million girls in the world today are both still children and already married. Compounding the tragedy of being a child bride is that girls often get pregnant quickly, threatening the life of both the teenage mother and her innocent child.
Now, I know that some commentators have cautioned us not to get too excited about such practices because they are, we are told, just a consequence of cultural difference to which we should defer. To that, we must reply that this debate is not about culture; it’s about wrong vs. right; cruelty vs. compassion; brutality vs. morality; and in that debate, we can have no doubt on which side of the divide we stand.
This year and next, the world will be negotiating a follow-on version to the goals I’ve spoken about, the so called Millennium Development Goals. The United States believes that women’s empowerment should be at the heart of the global agenda, at the heart of these goals. This means that we should commit ourselves to establishing ambitious targets on girls’ access to education, ending violence against women, equality in economic and political participation, and improved maternal health, and we should hold ourselves, and everyone else, to these targets.
It also means, more generally, that we need to recognize, encourage, and protect the role of women in civil society. Today, thanks to Senator Menendez, we are celebrating the work of some of New Jersey’s finest women leaders, women who have in common a commitment to building new platforms for progress on which other women and girls can stand.
That same effort is being made in every corner of the globe, often at grave risk and against great odds.
Last February, I met with civil society leaders in the African country of Mali, which, as many of you know, was almost two-thirds occupied by extremist groups and terrorist groups just a year and a half ago. Sitting around a small table, I got to know a remarkable woman: Madame Fatimata Touré. Madame Touré has worked in development through grassroots organizations for more than 22 years. In 2012, when the area in which she lived was seized by militant separatists, she moved quickly to assist the victims of gender-based violence.
When extremists attacked the local hospital, she reached out to the United States embassy for help in finding shelter for the patients. When her own home was under assault, she hid beneath her bed and kept working, using her mobile phone. She is not someone who gives up, and having survived, she currently serves as head of a Regional Forum on Reconciliation and Peace. She is pressing for women’s inclusion in the ongoing peace talks, and studies have shown that when negotiations bring women to the table, the peace that is forged through those talks is much more likely to stay.
And Madame Touré is far from alone. On every continent, women in civil society are taking history into their own hands. In Colombia and Haiti, they have pioneered new legal protection measures; in India, women have advocated laws to increase accountability for rape; in Kyrgzstan they achieved a ban on the kidnapping of young brides; in Zimbabwe, they carved out an enhanced role for women police; in Pakistan and Sierra Leone, they have sharply increased women’s participation in elections; and in Kenya, civil society has been deeply engaged in a five year campaign – endorsed by the UN – to enshrine the rights of women to own land, enjoy equality in marriage, and live free from the threat of violence.
Nearly every day, I, or one of my colleagues at the US mission to the UN, meet with women activists. Often they arrive with specific requests for help, for example, to ensure that women have a more prominent position in South Sudan’s political dialogue or to intensify pressure for the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance in Syria. But just as often, these women simply want to share with us what they are doing, so that we can pass that information on to their sisters in other countries who might benefit from these lessons.
We have grown accustomed to such contacts and we look forward to them because this kind of sharing has been going on now for many years. Stretching back to the earliest days of the women’s movement, we have been building networks – networks that cover every aspect of political, economic, and social activity – networks that cross every boundary of nation, race, creed, and color – networks that link the old and the young – networks that are changing our world for the better day-by-day, and step-by-step. And the truth is, we have only just begun to build.
Last July, only nine months after she was shot in the head, Malala Yousafzai spoke before the UN General Assembly – and in front of that global audience, she explained what she would like to see happen to the men who had tried to kill her.
She said that she prayed that the children of those men – all the children of those men – would receive an education.
That is how a new world is created. That is also what leadership is about. And it is why the women’s movement will continue to grow until its fundamental principles of fairness are embraced in every corner of the globe. Until the day comes when we can honestly say that every voice is being heard, every sign of discrimination is being exposed, every barrier to justice has been brought down, and every glass ceiling has been shattered.
In that quest, we invite all women and men to join us and we caution all women and men that they cannot stop us.
Thank you, Senator Menendez, for inviting me to join you here today, for all that you do on behalf of women, the American people, and human rights. And thank you, trailblazers, for honoring me by having me share in some very much deserved recognition. Thank you far all you do.
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