Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Remarks to Organization of American States (OAS) Ministerial on Women's Issues
Organization of American States
Washington, DC, April 27, 2000
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Good morning, Foreign Minister de Avila, Minister Chandarpal, Ambassador Ostria, Secretary General Gaviria, Assistant Secretary General Thomas, Senora de Chavez, Ministers and Heads of Delegations, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am honored to address the first -- of what I hope will be many -- OAS ministerial meetings to discuss strategies for the advancement of women.
It is appropriate that we meet here at "La Casa de las Americas." The OAS's Inter-American Commission of Women, CIM, has been working since 1928 to protect women's rights and give women and girls greater choices and opportunities. And I applaud CIM's current Plan of Action on the Participation of Women in Power Structures and Decision-Making.
One sign of progress in this hemisphere is that there are now more women in positions of responsibility in politics and government than ever before. For instance, since her election as President of CIM, Dulce Maria Sauri Riancho, has also become chair of Mexico's PRI.
In January, I was in Oaxaca and had a press conference with my Mexican counterpart and good friend, Rosario Green. A reporter asked a question to "Madame Secretary" --- and Rosario and I weren't sure which one of us was supposed to answer. For once, the confusion was a definite sign of progress.
I would like to say I am so thrilled to be here with my friend, the Foreign Minister from El Salvador, because we are members of a very exclusive club -- the Women Foreign Ministers of the World -- and I am proud to say that 6 of the 15 are from this hemisphere. So we are making some progress.
Just before I went to Oaxaca, I was in Panama, where I met with President Moscoso, who is her country's first woman president, and currently the only female head of state in the Americas. President Moscoso is a courageous trailblazer, and I hope that before long there will be other women across our region who will follow in her footsteps.
Before Panama, I was in Cartagena, where I met with Ana Teresa Bernal, Ana Mercedes Gomez, Fanny Kertzman and other Colombian women who are risking their lives to work for human rights, the rule of law and national reconciliation.
I have had similar meetings with female NGO leaders in other countries across the hemisphere, including in El Salvador and Guatemala. These women are an inspiration to all of us who believe that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And that for every woman cabinet minister, there are literally millions of other women working in villages and barrios, classrooms and courtrooms, to promote opportunity and justice for women.
Thanks to President Clinton, I am by no means the only woman at the upper levels of the US foreign and trade policy. For seven years now, I have had the pleasure of working alongside Hattie Babbitt, who as you know was the US Permanent Representative to the OAS and is now Deputy Administrator of USAID. Charlene Barshefsky has been leading our effort to expand free markets, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas. And under President Clinton, women have filled six of the top nine positions in the Department of State.
We have found no insurmountable obstacles to conducting diplomatic business with our counterparts anywhere in the world, including conservative Arab states -- where we have made it a point to include the rights of women on our agenda.
But to say that there are no obstacles is not to say that gender makes no difference. After 63 male Secretaries of State, I have been determined to make a difference.
At President Clinton's request, I am serving as Chair of the White House Interagency Council on Women, which is working to implement the commitments the United States made in 1995 at the UN Women's Conference in Beijing.
And in tandem with Ambassador Babbitt and others at USAID, I have made efforts to make the status of women and girls part of the mainstream of our foreign policy. Today, our overseas programs include many projects designed to expand the ability of women to succeed economically through legal reforms and access to education, credit and health care.
These initiatives make sense, and they are making a difference. Economists have found that, especially in the developing world, income controlled by the mother is many times more likely to be used to promote the health and education of children than income controlled by the father.
When women have the knowledge and power to make our own decisions, whole societies benefit. For this is how the cycle of poverty is broken, birth rates stabilized, environmental awareness increased, the spread of sexually-transmitted disease slowed, and socially constructive values most readily passed on to the young.
At the Summit in Miami six years ago, the elected Presidents and Heads of Government of our hemisphere recognized that "Strengthening the role of women in all aspects of political, social and economic life is essential to reduce poverty and social inequalities and to enhance democracy and sustainable development."
The Miami Summit generated a series of initiatives designed to advance the status of women across the hemisphere -- including penal code reform, electoral code changes, anti-discrimination measures, and increased educational opportunities for women and girls. And I was very pleased to listen to the Secretary General's comments on all this.
The Plan of Action developed at the Santiago Summit in 1998 has led to further progress, including greater attention to the role of women in the development at the IDB; tougher measures against child prostitution; and efforts to elect more women legislators.
And here at the OAS, the United States strongly supports the proposal to establish an Inter-American Program on the Promotion of Women's Human Rights and Gender Equality.
Through these initiatives, we are sending a clear message from Alaska to Argentina -- which is that if you are fighting to advance the status of women and girls, wherever you may be, you are not alone.
This message is crucial because we live in an age of networking, and the network supporting women's rights is growing stronger and broader every year.
Evidence of this is provided by the Vital Voices Global Democracy Initiative, which was launched with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong leadership three years ago. Power comes from knowledge, and at the Vital Voices Conference in Montevideo in 1998, more than 400 women leaders from this hemisphere gathered to share knowledge about how to reform laws, win elections, grow businesses, acquire new skills and shatter glass ceilings. Last year, Caribbean women came together and organized their own Vital Voices conference.
As the Vital Voices initiative reflects, there is a growing awareness about the need to assure the protection of women's basic human rights, not only in law, but also in policy and practice. Through concerted action before and after Beijing, we have achieved much. But this remains an uphill fight. In too many parts of the world, the habit of treating women as second-class citizens is deeply ingrained.
This habit can show itself through such actions as domestic abuse, sexual assault, honor crimes, dowry murders, and even the killing of baby girls. There are those who suggest these practices are cultural, and there is nothing anyone can do about them. I say they are criminal and we all have a responsibility to stop them.
In 1994, the US Congress enacted the Violence against Women Act which changed how my government treats crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking of women. We are now working with Congress as it considers a similar piece of legislation to fight the trafficking of women and children. And we enthusiastically support the efforts of other OAS member states to enact legislation to combat these problems.
President Clinton, Attorney General Reno and I have made the fight against trafficking a special priority, both at home and overseas. Our strategy is to educate the public, assist the victims, protect the vulnerable and apprehend the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, the buying and selling of women and children is one of the fastest expanding criminal enterprises in the world. It is now the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, trailing only drugs and guns.
And to one degree or another, this trade afflicts virtually every nation, including the United States. Tens of thousands of people are trafficked into my country annually, including from Latin America.
Since coming into office, I have raised this issue at every opportunity with heads of state and my fellow foreign ministers, yielding some hopeful results. And I look forward to working with all of you in the future as we continue this fight.
In recent years, I have had the privilege of meeting women from every part of this hemisphere and every corner of the world who are championing the causes of equal rights, economic opportunity, representative democracy and tolerance among people of different races, cultures and creed.
Some of these are women who have been repeatedly beaten back, beaten down or beaten up, but they have never been defeated because their pride is too strong, and their faith in their cause unshatterable.
The women's movement endures, in country after country, not because it is trendy, but because of the underlying power of its central premise, which is that every individual counts. This basic idea of valuing each person fairly is what has united our movement across the boundaries of geography and ethnicity, vocation and generation.
It is what gives us faith that the day will come when every girl, everywhere, will be able to look ahead with confidence that her life will be cherished, her individuality respected, her rights protected and her future determined solely by her own ability and character.
This philosophy is not based on any illusions. Advocates of social progress have seen far too much of hardship and frustration to indulge in sentimentalism. But we live in a world that has been enriched beyond measure by those who have overcome enormous obstacles to build platforms of knowledge and accomplishments from which others might advance.
I believe that of all the forces that will shape the world of the 21st Century, the movement to recognize and realize the rights of women will be among the most powerful.
To me, that is good news not only as a woman, but also as a citizen of this hemisphere who cares deeply about improving the prospects of our security, prosperity and freedom.
For all of our countries will do better as the creative and productive capacities of women are progressively unleashed. This is an appropriate goal for the OAS, and for each of us as well. Thank you all very much.
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