SAM JONES: 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 this planet does have a stake in the discussion that takes place here.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked persistently on issues relating to women and children and families. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve 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 and safe and nurtured in after-school centers. I’ve met women in South Africa, who helped lead the struggle to end apartheid and are now helping to build anew 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’ve 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’ve 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 gathering is to give voice to women everywhere whose experiences go noticed, whose words go unheard. Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70% of the world’s poor, and 2/3 of those who are not taught to read and write. We are the primary caretaker for most of the world’s children and elderly. Yet, much of the work we do is not valued by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, and 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 are also dying from diseases that should have been prevented or treated. They’re watching their children succumb to malnutrition caused by poverty and economic deprivation. They’re being denied the right to go to school by their own fathers and brothers. They’re being forced into prostitution. And they are being barred from 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 cannot. As an American, I want to speak for those women in my own country– women who are raising children under 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 experience 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 a chance to realize her own God-given potential.
But we must recognize that women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected. Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated. Even now, in the late20th 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’s time to break the silence. It’s time for us to say here, 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 gathering 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 and set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small. 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. Finally, 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. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely and the right to be heard. 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’ve also been remembered, 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 inmost 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 the 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, 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, and not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside 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 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 a 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 blessing on you, your work, and all who will benefit from it. Godspeed, and thank you very much.