Vital Voices Women Empowerment Speech

This is such a wonderful occasion every year. It’s the 12th such gala event where Vital Voices, and the most successful financially, thanks to all of you, and it’s wonderful for me to be here because in all those years I’ve only missed one time last year and to be back again is such a great privilege and honor. I want to thank Dionne for her introduction, but much more than that for the wonderful work that she is doing on behalf of women and girls. I want to thank Vital Voices for honoring one of my dear friends and a personal heroine, you saw the short film about Inez McCormack. She never stopped working for peace and her legacy now stretches far beyond Northern Ireland inspiring people across the globe, and I’m so pleased that her beloved husband Vinnie and her right hand woman Claire could be with us tonight as we celebrate her life and legacy.

Well that’s also true for the honoree. You’ve already met some of them and more are still to come starting with that brave young woman who stood up to the Taliban and insisted that girls had a right to attend school; a doctor in Somalia who saved the lives of countless refugees and stood up against Al-Shabaab when they attempted to stop her and her daughters from doing their life saving work; an entrepreneur from Palestine who is helping women start and grow businesses; a crusader for land rights in Cambodia; a young woman who you just met who I had to call several times as Secretary of State to get out of prison because she stood up for a fundamental right that people everywhere should have – title to their homes, property rights that give them the same stake in the future that everyone deserves to have- and the police chief from Brazil who is developing new ways to stop violence against women and who we could tell from listening to her is determined that she will continue to make progress; and you will meet three brothers fighting human trafficking in India.

Now each of them is a remarkable example of how much can be achieved when courage and compassion meet so I’m particularly pleased that we are here at Vital Voices to recognize their efforts. And I’m delighted that Vice President Biden will be able to join us tonight. Vice President Biden and I have worked together on so many important issues and one that is particularly close to his heart, is the fight against domestic violence, and I know what a personal victory it was for him to see the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized last month.

Now looking around this room I know that it’s filled with friends and colleagues and advocates and extraordinary women and men who understand the importance of this work. Many of us have worked and traveled together for decades. We’ve shared struggles and successes and even some fox holes over the years. It’s a little bit like a family reunion, which is why it feels absolutely right for us to be honoring a woman who is like a sister to us all; Melanne Verveer.

You know, for more years than either of us care to admit, Melanne and I have had both a mutual admiration society and a mutual inspiration society. She has devoted her entire career to helping others live up to their own God-given potential, especially women and girls. She started as a student at Georgetown. As a staffer on the hill and at People for the American Way, her energy and intellect has been simply unstoppable, and Melanne has been at the heart of Vital Voices since the very beginning. She was there with me and thousands of rain-drenched activists in Beijing in 1995. The Chinese authorities didn’t want to hear what we had to say, but the voices of all those amazing women could not be denied human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.

Melanne nurtured this organization every step of the way, never tiring, always ready to board another plane, visit another country, meet another aspiring and inspiring leader, forge a new partnership, break another barrier.  More than one person, probably many of you, in this auditorium have wondered why does she do it? Why does she give so much of herself for all of us?. In other words, what make Melanne Melanne?  Well, I’ve watched it up close for years now and I don’t have the answer. I’m constantly amazed. I’ll say to her, ‘Melanne, we’re having a meeting on Monday about X,Y and Z, can you be there?’  She’ll pause and say, ‘Well, I’m going from Bangladesh to Sweden and then probably to Colombia, but yes I can be there.’ I remember when Melanne was my Chief of Staff in the White House, and we often had meetings in a place called the map room where FDR used to track the progress of our armies in World War II. We thought it was an appropriate place for the women of the White House to meet.  It occurred to me that maps can tell us as much about ourselves as about the world around us. Now you can look at a map of the world and see nothing but problems as far as the eye can perceive and that is especially true for those of us committed to the struggle for women and girls.

We see too many countries where women still face violence and abuse, too many political systems that treat women like second class or even worse, too many economies that deny women the chance to participate and prosper, but that’s not all the maps show. It’s not what Melanne and I see. When we look at the map, we do see progress because we know people who are making that progress against the most extraordinary odds every day everywhere. We see opportunities that are there to be seized. We see, we hear those vital voices. Melanne and I have always believed that women who lack opportunity whether it is the opportunity to go to school, own land, start a business, run for office, should not be viewed as societies’ problems, but rather as solutions, agents of change, drivers of progress, makers of peace. All it takes is for them to have a fighting chance. Our unwavering faith in the potential, the untapped potential, of women and girls is at the heart of the work we’ve done together over these many years.

So when I became Secretary of State I was determined to weave this perspective into the fabric of American foreign policies so that our diplomats and policy makers would see a map of opportunities as well as challenges. And I asked Melanne to serve as the first ever Ambassador At Large for Global Women’s Issues and I’m delighted that President Obama has officially made that high level position permanent, and that Cathy Russell will be carrying forward under Secretary John Kerry.

We were adamant from the start that it would not be enough to just preach to the choir. We had to reach out to men, to leaders who on the face of it might not have seemed all that receptive, and I’m pleased that Vital Voices has done the same because we knew we had to make the case to the whole world that creating opportunities for women and girls directly supports everyone’s prosperity and security. That is a case that can be made based on hard data and clear-eyed analysis so that’s exactly what we did. We relied on the economic research that shows that when women participate in the economy everyone benefits and when women participate in peacekeeping and peacemaking we are all safer and more secure. So we did put women on the agenda and made it a centerpiece of all that we did. We launched global and regional initiatives to translate our arguments into results and Melanne tirelessly traveled making the case.

People have always said that Melanne is indefatigable.  Well, her work and her travel have produced results. We promoted initiatives like the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program to provide access to training, markets, finance, and credit. We started something called mWomen, which is working to shrink the global gender gap in mobile phone access by 50% in just three years. And in the spirit of Vital Voices, Melanne spearheaded a launch of a new project to support women in public service. To focus our entire government on the contributions women can make, we created a national action plan on Women, Peace, and Security, and I’m thrilled Melanne will be continuing this work in her new role at Georgetown’s institute for Women, Peace, and security.

Now because secretaries and ambassadors come and go, we had to make sure that the importance of this issue did not leave with us and that’s why Melanne and I worked with colleagues at every level of the State Department and across our government and with President Obama and his team in the White House to ensure that it does remain a priority for the future. We both remain committed doing all we can outside of government to continue making this case.

So the next time you see a map of the world ask yourself, how would Melanne see it? Not as a set of intractable problems, but as a road map of opportunities to serve, to solve, to empower. So Melanne, thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for Vital Voices and for the women of the world. Thank you for showing us what leadership looks like and helping so many to find it in themselves.

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