UNITED NATIONS -- Fifteen years ago in Beijing, 189 countries adopted a "platform for action" that pledged to increase women's access to education, health care, jobs, and credit, and to protect their right to live free from violence.
On the final day of a special UN session on women's empowerment, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the progress the world has made toward meeting those goals, the work that is left to do, and the critical role that women play in achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States:
"Women worldwide are working hard to do their part to improve the status of women and girls," Clinton said at UN headquarters in New York on March 12. "And in so doing they're also improving the status of families, communities and countries."
In her speech, Clinton emphasized the sometimes unsung work of millions of women around the world who are running domestic violence shelters and fighting human trafficking, who are rescuing girls from brothels in Cambodia, who are campaigning for public office in Kuwait, who are healing women injured in childbirth in Ethiopia, who are providing legal aid to women in China, and who are running schools for refugees from Burma.
Though their efforts may not always be visible, she said, women are the real heroes during global calamities and upheavals. Clinton said women have proven they will seize opportunities to improve their own and their families' lives. Since the ground-breaking UN conference in Beijing, she said, some "real gains" have been made toward women's empowerment.
"Today more girls are in school, more women hold jobs and serve in public office," she said. "And as women have gained the chance to work, learn and participate in their societies -- their economic, political and social contributions have multiplied."
Clinton said in many countries laws that once permitted the unequal treatment of women have been replaced by laws that recognize their equality. Unfortunately, Clinton noted, in many countries existing laws that provide for equal gender treatment are often disregarded when applied to women.
Clinton pointed out that women are the majority of the world's farmers, but are often forbidden from owning the land they tend to every day. Furthermore, she said they are also prevented from accessing the credit lines they need to make those farms more productive.
The new target, Clinton said, is to equate women with progress. "We must declare with one voice that women's progress is human progress," she said. "And humans' progress is women's progress, once and for all."
Women In U.S. Policy
Clinton said there is compelling evidence that when women are free to develop their talents, all people benefit -- women and men, boys and girls. When women are free to vote and run for public office -- governments are more effective and responsive to their people. When women are free to earn a living and start small businesses, she said, the data shows that they become the key drive for economic growth.
The suffering of women and the denial of their rights, Clinton said, go hand in hand with the instability of nations. Afghanistan and Pakistan, she said, are two glaring examples.
"The women of Afghanistan have to be involved at every step in securing and rebuilding their country," Clinton said. "Our stabilization strategy for both, Afghanistan and Pakistan includes a 'women's action plan' that promotes women's leadership in both the public and private sectors."
The U.S.-sponsored plan also increases women's access to education, health, and justice in these two countries, and generates jobs for them, especially in agriculture.
Clinton also stressed that the principle of women's empowerment is at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.