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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 11, 1998
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                           AND THE FIRST LADY 
                      ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

The East Room

2:47 P.M. EST

MRS. CLINTON: Thank you and welcome to the East Room of the White House for this very important occasion. The President and I are pleased to be joined by so many people who have worked tirelessly to lift up the lives of women and girls here and around the world.

There are so many of you, I wish I could acknowledge every single one of you. I'm unable to do that and so let me just acknowledge a few of you. In addition to those who have already been introduced, I'm delighted that Secretary Shalala is here, accompanied by her counterpart, the Russian Minister of Health, as part of their continuing negotiations; Administrator Browner; Administrator Barshefsky. And we're pleased to have two members of Congress, two others were unable to stay, but I'm delighted that Congresswoman Pelosi and Congresswoman Millender-McDonald are here. And we're sorry that Congresswoman Lofgren and Morello were unable to stay. But thank you both for coming.

The Administration of USAID, Brian Atwood; Deputy Secretary of Labor Kitty Higgins; USIA Director Joe Duffy; VOA Director Evelyn Lieberman; Ambassador Linda Tarr-Whelan; Theresa Loar who is the senior coordinator for International Women's Issues and Director of the President's Interagency Council on Women. And we're also pleased that we're joined by the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette.

In addition, I look out at this audience and see so many of you who have been advocates and workers in the trenches and on the front lines on behalf of human rights and women's rights for many, many years. And we are grateful that you could be here today in honor of International Women's Day.

We have come together this afternoon to celebrate what we have done and what we must still do to ensure that all over this Earth women's rights are protected, women's voices are heard, and women's full participation is guaranteed.

Next week, the United Nations Human Rights Commission will gather in Geneva to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and honor all who are helping to fulfill its promise. Woven into that document are timeless beliefs that must always set the standard for how we treat each other in every part of the world. The Declaration puts it simply: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and right. All human beings -- not just men, not just those particular skin colors or religions. And on International Women's Day, we want to commit ourselves to expanding the circle of human dignity to encompass all human beings -- men and women, boys and girls.

At the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women, I remember very well looking out at delegates from 189 different countries, all united by a common vision. And look at the progress we have made in fulfilling how that vision became an agenda and then acting on that agenda. Even in the short time since Beijing, governments, nongovernmental organizations and individuals have made tremendous progress.

I have met women all over the world, as many of you have, who are working to end domestic violence, who are working to bring microcredit into every village that can be reached. I have seen women who, all of a sudden, are for the first time in their lives able to access health care. And I've heard and seen many eloquent women and men speaking out on the importance of recognizing women's rights.

I've also been very impressed by those of you who have worked to remind us of how much we have yet to do and how much our country, the United States, can contribute to the unfinished agenda. Our nation's assistance and leadership is essential. I have visited women's health care clinics that we have helped open in Central Asia. I have talked with refugees from war and genocide who are rebuilding their lives in Rwanda and Bosnia, thanks to our assistance. I have learned about a joint campaign to warn women and girls in Ukraine about those who might exploit them through trafficking. All because our government, universities, hospitals, businesses, NGOs, citizens, all are committed to expanding that circle of human dignity to every woman.

So we may celebrate today, but we also should challenge ourselves, for there is much more to be done. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is going to keep its promise to all women, then all women must hear that message and be empowered to act on it.

One of the most moving experiences I had was in New Delhi, when I met a young Indian woman who gave me a poem she had written. And in it she said: Too many women in too many countries speak the same language of silence. There must be freedom if we are to speak, and, yes, there must be power if we are to be heard. We must give voice to women in Afghanistan, where women are brutalized and silenced by the Taliban -- (applause) -- where girls are barred from school, where thousands of women cannot go to work, leave home alone or get the health care they need. And where those who don't follow every rule of attire or conduct are punished with beatings, whippings, even death. We must give voice to the more than one million women who are trafficked every year in the former Soviet Union and all around the world. (Applause.)

These women and girls are desperate for economic opportunity. They think they're applying for jobs as babysitters, waitresses and sales clerks. Many think they are following their dreams and, instead, they find themselves in a nightmare, sold as part of an international trade in human beings and forced into modern day slavery. Imprisoned by employers, they are often not seen, let alone heard. Lured by organized crime operations, they represent an international problem that, like drug trafficking, requires an international solution.

We must give voice to women plagued by violence in all its forms. It doesn't matter if it's by law or custom, ignorance or inaction. It doesn't matter if it's in war or peace, in our homes or our streets. No woman should ever be degraded by violence. And violence against women must never again be pushed aside as trivial or explained away as cultural. Let us call it what it is. (Applause.) Violence against women is a violation of human rights. (Applause.)

And as we work to give voice to all women, let us judge ourselves not only by what we choose to say, by not only what we choose to see, but by what we choose to do in our nation and around the world.

And few people have done more for women and girls than our next speaker. Through her words, her deeds and hear leadership, Secretary Madeleine Albright has ensured that the issues affecting women are exactly what they should be -- a part of American foreign policy and an international priority.

Please join me in welcoming Secretary Albright. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much, Doctor. And to all our distinguished guests here today, let me welcome you and say that I have rarely enjoyed anything in this room as much as I have what has already happened.

I've told this story before, but I feel just like I did the first time I gave remarks, a speech, as a public official. It was at one of these civic banquets, and it started at 6:00 p.m. in the evening. Everyone in the audience was introduced, hundreds of people -- except three people and they went home mad. (Laughter.) Five people spoke before me. I got up to speak at a quarter to 10:00, and the man who introduced me did not do nearly as good a job as our distinguished guest from Thailand -- he said, "You know, you could stop here and have had a very nice evening." (Laughter.) Well, we could certainly stop here and have had a very fine occasion.

Let me begin by thanking the Secretary General for being here. We've had a very good meeting, just before we came over here to talk about our shared goal of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and of securing Iraq's compliance with its obligations under the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Secretary General deserves the thanks of all Americans for securing the agreement with the Iraqi government to open all sites for inspection. (Applause.) The commitments made to him as well as last week's successful U.N. inspections in sites that had previously been closed are quite significant. They must be carried out. The last six days must be replicated in the coming six months. And the United States must remain vigilant to see that that occurs.

Let me say, since we're honoring women today, in case you all missed it and you want to be reminded what the stakes are in what is going on now, I commend to you the Op-Ed article from the distinguished British physician in the hometown paper here today, discussing the consequences of the use of chemical weapons.

Mr. Secretary General, your work is important, and we intend to see that you succeed. (Applause.)

Let me also say that the United Nations is an invaluable partner in an increasingly interdependent world where we have to work together on things, as evidenced by the presence here today of members of the Diplomatic Corps, the Russian Health Minister, our distinguished physician from Thailand, and so many people from the U.N., and those of you in NGOs who work around the world. If the United States expects to continue to exercise a leadership role in a way that benefits our own people in the 21st century, we have got to pay our U.N. dues and fulfill our responsibilities. (Applause.)

The Secretary General has supported the reform of the U.N. in positive ways, and I'm doing my best to get legislation through the Congress, which will fulfill our responsibilities to the United Nations, to the IMF, to the cause of U.N. reform.

I'm very proud to be here with all of you today to celebrate your progress and to chart our course to the future. I especially thank the members of Congress who are here and those whom they represent who couldn't be present for their support and leadership. I thank the First Lady, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General for the accomplishments of the last five years. I think it's fair to say that as long as I live, I will always look back on the First Lady's speech at Beijing as one of the high-water marks of our public service in this White House. (Applause.)

You know, we always say that human rights must be a central pillar of America's foreign policy, but that is meaningless if those rights are not fully enjoyed by half the people on the planet. Secretary Albright has already discussed our assistance to Afghan women and girls who have suffered much under the Taliban. Today I want to announce some further actions to advance your cause and our cause.

First, I'm instructing Secretary Albright and our AID Administrator, Brian Atwood, to expand our international efforts to combat violence against women. All too often, we know violence limits the choices open to women and young girls, damaging their health, disrupting their lives, obstructing their full participation in society. We will provide $10 million to strengthen partnerships with governments and NGOs to help them to fight violence against women everywhere. (Applause.)

Second, I am launching a variety of steps to combat the inhumane practice of trafficking of women. I've asked our Attorney General to make sure that our own laws are adequate to the task we face here at home; that trafficking is prevented, victims are protected, traffickers are punished. And we will use our consular and law enforcement presence in other nations to combat trafficking worldwide, to assist victims, improve legislation, train judges and law enforcement in other lands. We will step up our public education campaigns abroad in an attempt to stop trafficking at its source.

Secretary Albright has already discussed her partnership with the government of Ukraine to jointly develop a comprehensive strategy to fight trafficking to and from that country with the hope that our cooperation will become a model for other nations across the globe.

Finally, I have asked my Interagency Council on Women to convene an international conference to cast a spotlight on this human rights atrocity and develop new strategies to combat it. One important tool, as the Secretary General has reminded us, for making progress on these issues is the Women's Human Rights Treaty, the U.N. convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. It has the cumbersome acronym of CEDAW, but its message is very simple.

Again, I thank the Secretary General for his leadership. I ask you to think about this convention and its impact. It has a proven record of helping women around the world to combat violence, gain economic opportunity, strike against discriminatory laws. Its provisions are consistent with United States law, which already provides strong protections for women. It offers a means for reviewing and encouraging other nations' compliance.

Yet, because of our historic and often manifest allergy to joining international conventions, we remain alone in our hemisphere, alone among the industrialized nations of the world, apart from 161 other nations alongside nations like Sudan and North Korea in not ratifying this treaty.

This is not an issue of party, but of principle. Today, I am sending a letter to the Senate leadership asking them to ratify the treaty. And I ask the Senate -- (applause) -- I ask the Senate to do so this year. We signed this treaty in the late 1970s. Finally, after we took office, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted the treaty out of committee with a bipartisan vote in 1994. If we are going to be true to our own legacy of leadership in human rights, we must ratify this treaty. (Applause.)

When you look ahead to this new century and new millennium and you ask yourselves what you would like the story of the next 100 years to be, surely all of us want one big chapter to be about how, finally, in all nations of the world, people of all races and ethnic groups, of many different religious persuasions and cultural practices came together to guarantee that every young girl got a chance to grow up to live up to the fullest of her abilities and to live out her dreams. Let that be our mission as we leave today.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

END 3:24 P.M. EST