I cannot believe what just happened. (Laughter.) I really had no idea what was going to be portrayed or done by Meryl. I thought we might get some extraordinary renditions of everyone from Aung San Suu Kyi to Indira Gandhi, a reprise of Margaret Thatcher. And it was quite astonishing because I’ve always admired her. And as she said, we do unfortunately throughout our lives as girls and women often cast an appraising eye on each other. I’m just glad she didn’t do a movie called “The Devil Wears Pantsuits.”(Laughter.)
But just as I marked various stages of my life by remembering what amazing role she was playing at the time, it is quite a humbling experience to have someone who I admire so greatly say what she said today. Because the work that I’ve done has been work that I felt drawn to for some of the same reasons that Meryl and I share these generational experiences, particularly these big-hearted mothers who challenged us to go as far as our efforts could take us.
So here we are at the end – it truly is the end – of the conference that has brought all of these women of the world, in the world, to New York. And I want to thank Tina Brown and her entire team that worked so hard to enable everyone to see what I get to see all the time. (Applause.) I just can’t thank them enough. (Applause.)
Because for me, it has not been so much work as a mission, it has not been as strenuous as it has been inspiring, to have had the chance throughout my life, but certainly in these last 20 years, to have the privilege of meeting women and girls in our own country and then throughout the world who are taking a stand, whose voices are being heard, who are assuming the risks that come with sticking your neck out, whether you are a democracy activist in Burma or a Georgetown law student in the United States. (Applause.)
My life has been enriched, and I want yours to be as well. I am thrilled that so many of you have taken the time out of your own lives to celebrate these stories of these girls and women. And of course, now I hope that through your own efforts, through your own activism, through the foundations, through your political involvement, through your businesses, through every channel you have, you will leave here today thinking about what you too can do. Because when I flag in energy, when I do recognize that what my friends are telling me – that I need more sleep – is probably true, I think about the women whom I have had the honor to work with. Women like Dr. Gao, who Meryl met, who is about – well, she’s shorter than the podium. She is in her 80s now. She did have bound feet. She became a doctor and she was the physician who sounded the alarm about HIV/AIDS despite the Chinese Government’s efforts for years to silence her.
Or I think about Vera, the activist from Belarus whom I met. She’s worked so hard to shine a spotlight on the abuses happening right inside Europe one more time – another regime that believes silencing voices, locking up dissidents, rigging elections, is the only way to stay in power. So she and her allies brave the abuse every single day to say no, there is another way.
Or Inez, who Meryl also mentioned, who I got to know during our efforts on behalf of the peace process in Northern Ireland. And she was reaching across all of these deep divides between the communities there, trying to forge understanding and build bridges. And like Muhtaren, the Pakistani young woman who had been so brutally assaulted for some absurd remnant out of an ancient belief in settling scores between families which should have no place in any country in the 21st century – (applause) – she was expected to kill herself. Well, of course; you’ve been shamed, you’ve been dishonored; through no fault of your own, you are now dead to us, so just finish the job. Well, she not only didn’t, but she is a living rebuke to not only those who assaulted her but to the government that did not recognize it needs to protect all of its girls and women, because without their full involvement in their society, there can never be the progress that is so necessary.
Now, I doubt any of these women would have ever imagined being mentioned on a stage by an Oscar-winning actress. I know I didn’t imagine I would be so mentioned on this stage. (Laughter.) But they are because they are special. We know about their stories. Somehow, we have seen their struggles break through the indifference and the resistance to telling the stories of girls and women who are struggling against such odds across the world.
But they also represent so much more. Because this hall – I know because I know many of you – are filled with women and men who are on the front lines fighting for change, for justice, for freedom, for equal rights. And there are tens of millions more who need our support. So what does it mean to be a Woman in the World? Well, I too believe it means facing up to the obstacles you confront, and each of us confront different kinds. It means never giving up – giving up on yourself, giving upon your potential, giving up on your future. It means waking early, working hard, putting a family, a community, a country literally on your back, and building a better life.
You heard from Zin Mar Aung, the Burmese democracy activist who spoke earlier. When I met her late last year when I, on your behalf, on behalf of our country, went to Burma, I discussed with her and other activists what civil society would now be able to do to further the political and the economic reforms that the people so desperately need. And we did honor her along with nine extraordinary other women as International Women of Courage at the State Department.
She, as you could see, came out of prison not embittered, although she had every right to be so, but determined, determined to make her contribution. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself, to worry whether her hair was the right shade or the right length. She got to work. And because of her, she’s founded four organizations, she’s working with young people and women to build civil society and citizenship. She raises funds for orphanages, she helps the families of political prisoners trying to re-enter into society, and she is one of those watering the seeds of democracy.
Or consider the young Nepali woman Suma, who sang so beautifully for us. (Applause.) You know what her story was. Six years old, sold into indentured servitude, working under desperate conditions, not allowed to go to school, not even allowed to speak her own native language. But then finally rescued by an NGO, an organization supported by the United States State Department, your tax dollars, called Room to Read, helped her enroll in a local school. We’ve helped 1,200 girls across India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka complete their secondary education.
So there is much we can do together. And I have to tell you, I thought it was exquisitely appropriate as I woke up and was getting ready this morning to open The New York Times front page and see Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel there. (Applause.) I know both of them, and I think they are worthy of our appreciation and admiration, because boy, do they have hard jobs. Christine, who was here, is demonstrating not only her leadership at the IMF but also sending a message that there is no longer any reason that women cannot achieve in business, finance, the economy. And Chancellor Merkel is carrying Europe on her shoulders, trying to navigate through this very difficult economic crisis.
Now, I also heard a report of the call to action and the passion that Leymah Gbowee, our Nobel Peace Prize winner, along with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia summoned you to. Now, for those of you who have seen the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” you know what happened in Liberia in the spring of 2003. But for others of you who may not yet have seen it, I urge you to do so, because thousands of women from all walks of life – Christians and Muslims together – flooded the streets, marching, singing, praying. Dressed all in white, they sat in a fish market under the hot sun under a banner that said: “The women of Liberia want peace now.”
And they built a network and they delivered for their children and for future generations. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. (Applause.)
And when the peace talks finally happened in Ghana – not in Liberia – they went to Ghana. They staged a sit-in at the negotiations, linked arms, blocked the doors until the men inside reached an agreement. So the peace was signed, the dictator fled, but still they did not rest. They turned their energies to building an enduring peace. They worked to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became the first woman ever elected president of an African country. And in January, I had the honor of attending her second inauguration, where she represented the future not the past. (Applause.)
I just saw my good friend, President Jahjaga of Kosovo. She’s a very young president, but already her life is a testament for what women can do to promote peace and security. She was still a student when the war started. She saw so much suffering. She wanted to help. So after finishing her studies, she became a police officer. She worked closely with international troops to forge a fragile peace. She rose through the ranks and eventually became the leader of the new Kosovo police force. And then just last year, she became the first woman elected president anywhere in the Balkans. (Applause.) And she has worked to bring her country together to promote the rule of law, ethnic reconciliation, regional stability – all the while standing up for the rights and opportunities of women and girls.
You can look around the world today and you can see the difference that individual women leaders are making. Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who’s now leading UN women. They carry an enormous load for the rest of us, because it is hard for any leader – male or female. But I don’t fear contradiction when I say it is harder for women leaders. There are so many built-in expectations, stereotypes, caricatures that are still deeply embedded in psyches and cultures.
When I sat down alone for dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi back in November, it really did feel like meeting an old friend, even though it was the first time we’ve had a chance to see each other in person. Of course, from afar I had admired her and appreciated her courage. I went to the house where she had been unjustly imprisoned. Over dinner, we talked about the national struggle, but we also talked about the personal struggle. How does one who has been treated so unjustly overcome that personal sense of anger, of the years that were lost, families that were no longer seen, in order to be a leader that unites and brings people together? Nelson Mandela set such a high standard, and he often told me how going to prison forced him to overcome the anger he felt as a young man, because he knew when he walked out that prison door, if he were still angry, if he still was filled with hatred, he would still be in prison.
Now, Aung San Suu Kyi, like Nelson Mandela, would have been remembered in history forever if she had not made the decision to enter politics, as he did as well. So there she is at, I think, 67, out traveling in an open car through the heat of the countryside, meeting crowds of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, absorbing their hopes that they are putting on to her. She knows that when she crosses into politics, even though it is ultimately the way change is made that can last, she moves from being an icon to a politician. I know that route, very well. (Laughter.) And I know how hard it is to be able to balance one’s ideals, one’s aspirations, with the give and take of any political process anywhere in the world.
Now, we can tell stories all night and we can talk about the women who have inspired us. But what inspires me is not just who they are, but what they do. They roll their sleeves up and they get to work. And this has such important implications for our own country and for our national security, because our most important goals – from making peace and countering extremism to broadening prosperity and advancing democracy – depend to a very large degree on the participation and partnership of women.
Nations that invest in women’s employment, health, and education are just more likely to have better outcomes. Their children will be healthier and better educated. And all over the world, we’ve seen what women do when they get involved in helping to bring peace. So this is not just the right thing to do for us to hold up these women, to support them, to encourage their involvement; this is a strategic imperative.
And that’s why at the State Department, I’ve made women a cornerstone of American foreign policy. I’ve instructed our diplomats and development experts to partner with women, to find ways to engage and build on their unique strengths, help women start businesses, help girls attend school, push that women activists will be involved in peace talks and elections. It also means taking on discrimination, marginalization, rape as a tactic of war. I have seen the terrible abuses and what that does to the lives of women, and I know that we cannot rest until it is ended.
In December, we launched a U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which is our roadmap for how we accelerate and institutionalize efforts across the United States Government to advance women’s participation. And we’re taking on some really tough problems. We’re trying to build local capacity. We’re giving grants to train women activists and journalists in Kenya in early-warning systems for violence. We’re supporting a new trauma center for rape victims in Sudan. We’re helping women in the Central African Republic access legal and economic services. We’re improving the collection of medical evidence for the prosecution of gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
And that’s just the beginning, because from around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Sudan to the new transitional democracies in the Middle East and North Africa, we’re expecting our embassies to develop local strategies to empower women politically, economically, and socially.
But we are watching carefully what is happening. We are concerned about the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. They held so much promise, but they also carried real risks, especially for women. We saw women on the front lines of the revolutions, most memorably in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They marched, they blogged, they tweeted, they risked their lives alongside their sons and brothers – all in the name of dignity and opportunity. But after the revolution, too often they have found their attempts to participate in their new democracies blocked. We were delighted that our great Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went on a State Department-sponsored trip to Egypt and Tunisia. And while there, she rightly said the daughters of the Middle East “should be able to aspire and achieve based on the talent God gave them and not be held back by any laws made by men.” (Applause.)
Just a few weeks ago in a town hall meeting in Tunis, a young woman wearing a headscarf stood up and talked about her experience working in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in a program that we call Bridge to Democracy. She said that often people she met were surprised that a young women wearing a hijab would work with Americans, and that we would work with her. Gradually, she said, these preconceptions broke down and increasingly people are just eager to find new partners to help build their new democracy. I told her that in America, in Tunisia, anywhere in the world, women should have the right to make their own choices about what they wear, how they worship, the jobs they do, the causes they support. These are choices women have to make for themselves, and they are a fundamental test of democracy.
Now, we know that young woman in Tunisia and her peers across the region already are facing extremists who will try to strip their rights, curb their participation, limit their ability to make choices for themselves. Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and our own bodies. (Applause.) Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world. (Applause.) And it seems clear to me that to do that, we have to live our own values and we have to defend our own values. We need to respect each other, empower all our citizens, and find common ground.
We are living in what I call the Age of Participation. Economic, political, and technological changes have empowered people everywhere to shape their own destinies in ways previous generations could never have imagined. All these women – these Women in the World – have proven that committed individuals, often with help, help from their friends, can make a difference in their own lives and far beyond.
So let me have the great privilege of ending this conference by challenging each of you. Every one of us needs to be part of the solution. Each of us must truly be a Woman in the World. We need to be as fearless as the women whose stories you have applauded, as committed as the dissidents and the activists you have heard from, as audacious as those who start movements for peace when all seems lost. Together, I do believe that it is part of the American mission to ensure that people everywhere, women and men alike, finally have the opportunity to live up to their own God-given potential. So let’s go forth and make it happen. Thank you very much. (Applause.)