It is a wonderful pleasure for me to be back in Ukraine. This country has always had a special place in my heart. I bring greetings from Secretary Clinton, who will be traveling to Ukraine herself very soon.
I would like to thank my friend, Natalia Karbowska, and the members of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund for inviting me to this anniversary conference, and I want to congratulate the Fund on its ten years of support for women-run NGO’s who are advancing economic, political, and social progress across Ukraine.
I want to acknowledge Mariella Tefft, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and an expert in women’s health issues. I hope you will get to know her.
It is fitting that we come together during the 15th anniversary of the UN 4th World Conference on women that took place in Beijing. The conference sparked a movement that made a call to action out of women’s right to participate fully in the political and economic life of their societies; to have access to education, healthcare, and credit; to be free from violence; and to enjoy legal rights. We are all part of that movement. 189 countries adopted a platform for action – including the U.S. and Ukraine. It is an ambitious blueprint for women’s equality against which we still measure our progress. To fully realize the dreams and potential of Beijing, it is up to us to write the next chapter.
It was in Beijing that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in her keynote address said “It is time to break the silence, it is time to say here and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
She concluded with the proclamation that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” Women’s rights are not something separate from human rights law, but part of it.
The new position that I hold in my government is an unprecedented demonstration of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s deep commitment to incorporating women’s issues into all aspects of U.S. foreign policy. These are not marginal “women’s issues” to be pulled off to the side, but among the pressing issues to be addressed.
We recognize that the major challenges of our time – economic, security, governance, and environmental – cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society. It is a simple fact that no country can prosper if it leaves half its population behind. The stakes are high for this country and all countries.
As Secretary Clinton has often noted, “A nation’s progress depends on the progress of women, the strength of democracy depends on the participation of women, and the vibrancy of economies depends on the contributions of women. When women’s potential is not tapped, our societies are short-changed.
You know all too well that there are those who still dispute the importance of women to their country’s progress and its governance. Yet the evidence is irrefutable. There is a mountain of data today that shows that investments in women correlate positively to a country’s prosperity, poverty alleviation, and economic growth; moreover, according to the World Bank, at the country level, higher rates of female participation in government are associated with lower levels of corruption. Investing in women is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.
During the few days that I have been here in Ukraine, I have once again seen firsthand the positive differences the women’s movement continues to make.
At a maternity hospital, I saw how dedicated health practitioners are working in partnership with USAID to improve maternal and child health to dramatically decrease maternal mortality, poor health outcomes, and the consequences of HIV/AIDS infections.
At an IOM rehabilitation center, I saw how a nationwide NGO network, IOM, the U.S., and other partners are working to return and reintegrate victims of trafficking through psychological, legal, and medical assistance and employment support. I met with several trafficking victims and heard how NGO’s enabled them to get the vital assistance they are receiving. I was also impressed by the work to educate religious leaders about trafficking, its warning signs, and the services so they can better counsel women. I know how important the government’s national action plan has been and will continue to be.
It was Ukrainian women who first told then-First Lady Hillary Clinton about the scourge of human trafficking, how criminals were promising young women good jobs only to kidnap and trick them and subject them to a nightmare of slavery. It was because women leaders like those here in Ukraine told us about the terrible situation that my government passed a comprehensive law in 2000 and has been working with the government and civil society in Ukraine and other countries to address what is nothing less than modern-day slavery.
Yesterday, I had a good meeting with Deputy Minister Tolstoukhova. We discussed the need for continuing government leadership on this issue, collaboration with NGO’s, ensuring that perpetrators get stiffer sentences, more effectively confronting corruption, and working to strengthen and support services.
And you have also done so much to stop violence against women, including your efforts to raise awareness among men that violence against women is not acceptable and helping women understand it is not normal. It is criminal. Ensuring that victims are protected, educating police, and punishing perpetrators require sustained efforts here and around the world. Again, government is an important partner in prevention, protection, and prosecution.
I also had the chance to speak with this year’s impressive rising voices of Ukraine – the young women from across this country who are participating in the “First Steps to Success” program, which is part of this program and whom many of you are mentoring and supporting. Several alumnae of the program are here and they are truly the leaders of tomorrow.
All of these efforts are representative of your vibrant civil society. Yet the promise of Ukraine – the promise of a strong democracy, women’s equality, and economic prosperity – is a work in progress. Your efforts to advance economic, social, and political progress are critical.
Let me end with a call to action coming out of this conference:
First, do not be disillusioned. Democracy is a messy business. It requires patience, hard work, flexibility, and acceptance of imperfection. In my own country, we’ve been working to perfect our democracy for over 200 years and we know that we cannot slacken our effort. Human behavior is often hard to transform. Democracy requires constant nurturing and vigilance.
Civil society has a central role to play. Recognize the role that women like all of you have played and must continue to play. Learn from each other, work to overcome obstacles, be strategic, and work together. Work in solidarity with each other. You have more in common with each other than what divides you.
Second, be agents of change. The story of women around the world is not solely about what women have to endure. It is even more importantly how women are transcending their situations and changing their world. They are not settling for things the way they are; they are catalysts for the way things should be.
Third, recognize your vital voice. Your voices need to be heard in the Rada, in the ministries, in the oblasts, in local offices, and throughout civil society. Progress for women and democracy go hand and hand. Women’s perspectives and experiences are crucial for sound policy development and governance. Without women’s engagement, important decisions that affect them, their families, and societies are made without their having a voice. A democracy without the participation of women is a contradiction in terms.
Fourth, engage with government, even when you may not agree on many issues. Work with key offices on your important priorities to advance progress and improve the lives of people.
Fifth, be effective. Help women to become more successful political candidates by addressing the range of challenges they confront. And it’s not enough to be elected or appointed to government service. Women must also have the ability to exercise responsibilities effectively once in office. Capacity-building for governance is critical. Develop networks and alliances to help women surmount barriers and work to break down the stereotypes that keep women from excelling in politics. Your advocacy should speak to people’s needs and aspirations.
In sum, you must be the bridge-builders across divisions, the problem-solvers, the strategic activists, the glue that brings communities together for progress, the voices for democracy. You have shown your commitment and courage to stand up for the values of democracy and you inspired the world.
I am confident that you will be the change you want to see in Ukraine and the world. Women’s rights are human rights. We cannot settle for anything less.