Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the following address to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, 25 years ago. Then the first lady of the United States, Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” while criticizing the Chinese government’s coercive family-planning policy and the hardships faced by women around the world. You can read her reflections about this speech upon its 25th anniversary here.
Below, the full text of Clinton’s speech as delivered.
Thank you very much, Gertrude Mongella, for your dedicated work that has brought us to this point. Distinguished delegates and guests, I would like to thank the secretary-general for inviting me to be part of this important United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. This is truly a celebration—a celebration of the contributions women make in every aspect of life: in the home, on the job, in the community, as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, learners, workers, citizens, and leaders.
It is also a coming together, much the way women come together every day in every country.
We come together in fields and factories. In village markets and supermarkets. In living rooms and boardrooms. Whether it is while playing with our children in the park or washing clothes in a river or taking a break at the office watercooler, we come together and talk about our aspirations and concerns. And time and again, our talk turns to our children and our families.
However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us. We share a common future. And we are here to find common ground so that we may help bring new dignity and respect to women and girls all over the world—and in so doing, bring new strength and stability to families as well.
By gathering in Beijing, we are focusing world attention on issues that matter most in our lives, the lives of women and their families: access to education, health care, jobs, and credit, the chance to enjoy basic legal and human rights and participate fully in the political life of our countries.
There are some who question the reason for this conference. Let them listen to the voices of women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
There are some who wonder whether the lives of women and girls matter to economic and political progress around the globe. Let them look at the women gathered here and at Huairou, the homemakers and nurses, the teachers and lawyers, the policy makers and women who run their own businesses.
It is conferences like this that compel governments and peoples everywhere to listen, look, and face the world’s most pressing problems.
Wasn’t it, after all, after the women’s conference in Nairobi 10 years ago that the world focused for the first time on the crisis of domestic violence?
Earlier today, I participated in a World Health Organization forum. In that forum, we talked about ways that government officials, NGOs, and individual citizens are working to address the health problems of women and girls.
Tomorrow, I will attend a gathering of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. There, the discussion will focus on local and highly successful programs that give hardworking women access to credit so they can improve their own lives and the lives of their families.
What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well. That is why every woman, every man, every child, every family, and every nation on our planet does have a stake in the discussion that takes place here.
Over the past 25 years, I have worked persistently on issues relating to women, children, and families. Over the past two and a half years, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women in my own country and around the world.
I have met new mothers in Indonesia who come together regularly in their village to discuss nutrition, family planning, and baby care.
I have met working parents in Denmark who talk about the comfort they feel in knowing that their children can be cared for in safe and nurturing after-school centers.
I have met women in South Africa who helped lead the struggle to end apartheid and are now helping to build a new democracy.
I have met with the leading women of my own hemisphere who are working every day to promote literacy and better health care for children in their countries.
I have met women in India and Bangladesh who are taking out small loans to buy milk cows, or rickshaws, or thread in order to create a livelihood for themselves and their families.
I have met the doctors and nurses in Belarus and Ukraine who are trying to keep children alive in the aftermath of Chernobyl.
The great challenge of this conference is to give voice to women everywhere whose experiences go unnoticed, whose words go unheard.
Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70 percent of the world’s poor, and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write. We are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly. Yet much of the work we do is not valued—not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders.
At this very moment, as we sit here, women around the world are giving birth, raising children, cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning houses, planting crops, working on assembly lines, running companies, and running countries.
Women also are dying from diseases that should have been prevented or treated; they are watching their children succumb to malnutrition caused by poverty and economic deprivation; they are being denied the right to go to school by their own fathers and brothers; they are being forced into prostitution; and they are being barred from the bank-lending offices and banned from the ballot box.
Those of us who have the opportunity to be here have the responsibility to speak for those who could not. As an American, I want to speak for women in my own country—women who are raising children on the minimum wage, women who can’t afford health care or child care, women whose lives are threatened by violence, including violence in their own homes.
I want to speak up for mothers who are fighting for good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean air, and clean airwaves; for older women, some of them widows, who find that after raising their families, their skills and life experiences are not valued in the marketplace; for women who are working all night as nurses, hotel clerks, or fast-food chefs so that they can be at home during the day with their children; and for women everywhere who simply don’t have time to do everything they are called upon to do each and every day.
Speaking to you today, I speak for them, just as each of us speaks for women around the world who are denied the chance to go to school, or see a doctor, or own property, or have a say about the direction of their lives, simply because they are women. The truth is that most women around the world work both inside and outside the home, usually by necessity.
We need to understand there is no one formula for how women should lead our lives. That is why we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family. Every woman deserves the chance to realize her own God-given potential.
We also must recognize that women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected.
Our goals for this conference—to strengthen families and societies by empowering women to take greater control over their own destinies—cannot be fully achieved unless all governments, here and around the world, accept their responsibility to protect and promote internationally recognized human rights.
The international community has long acknowledged—and recently reaffirmed at Vienna—that both women and men are entitled to a range of protections and personal freedoms, from the right of personal security to the right to determine freely the number and spacing of the children they bear.
No one should be forced to remain silent for fear of religious or political persecution, arrest, abuse, or torture. Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated. Even now, in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used as an instrument of armed conflict. Women and children make up a large majority of the world’s refugees. And when women are excluded from the political process, they become even more vulnerable to abuse.
I believe that, now on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words.
But the voices of this conference and of the women at Huairou must be heard loudly and clearly:
It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls.
It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution for human greed, and the kinds of reasons that are used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated.
It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.
It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.
It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes, by their own relatives.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation.
It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.
And among those rights are the right to speak freely and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the right to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure. It is indefensible that many women in nongovernmental organizations who wished to participate in this conference have not been able to attend or have been prohibited from fully taking part.
Let me be clear: Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize, and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions.
In my country, we recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It took 150 years after the signing of our Declaration of Independence for women to win the right to vote. It took 72 years of organized struggle before that happened on the part of many courageous women and men. It was one of America’s most divisive philosophical wars. But it was a bloodless war. Suffrage was achieved without a shot being fired.
But we have also been reminded, in V-J Day observances last weekend, of the good that comes when men and women join together to combat the forces of tyranny and to build a better world. We have seen peace prevail in most places for a half century. We have avoided another world war. But we have not solved older, deeply rooted problems that continue to diminish the potential of half the world’s population.
Now it is time to act on behalf of women everywhere.
If we take bold steps to better the lives of women, we will be taking bold steps to better the lives of children and families too. Families rely on mothers and wives for emotional support and care; families rely on women for labor in the home; and increasingly everywhere, families rely on women for income needed to raise healthy children and care for other relatives.
As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and out of their homes, the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.
Let this conference be our—and the world’s—call to action.
Let us heed that call so that we can create a world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity, every boy and girl is loved and cared for equally, and every family has the hope of a strong and stable future.
That is the work before you; that is the work before all of us who have a vision of the world we want to see for our children and our grandchildren. The time is now. We must move beyond rhetoric; we must move beyond recognition of problems to working together to have the common efforts to build that common ground we hope to see.
God’s blessings on you, your work, and all who will benefit from it. Godspeed and thank you very much.