In September 1995, I joined representatives from 189 countries for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. That event still stands out as one of the great honors and highlights of my life.
That 1995 historic gathering brought together people of all backgrounds and beliefs to voice our support for women’s rights and put women’s issues at the forefront of the global agenda. Together, we outlined a Plan of Action to improve the condition of women and girls worldwide.
In the years since Beijing, advocates, activists and governments around the world have used that plan to advance opportunity and progress for women. The good news is that we have accomplished a great deal. More girls are enrolled in school, more women hold political office, and more laws exist to protect vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, we have a long way yet to go. Sometimes by custom, sometimes by law, millions of women worldwide are still denied their rights. They are excluded from public life in their societies, subjected to violence or barred from getting an education, taking a job or driving a car.
This is morally wrong. It offends our basic sense of justice and fairness. But it is unacceptable for another reason too — because it keeps countries from making real progress in creating jobs, sparking economic growth and giving all their people an opportunity to create a better future. No country can advance when half its population is left behind.
But when women are empowered to exercise their human rights and afforded equal opportunities, amazing things happen. The benefits don’t stop with an individual woman. They spread to entire communities and countries. Simply helping girls stay in school longer, for example, has a powerful effect. Birth rates drop. So does the number of young children who die. HIV infections, domestic violence and female cutting all decline. And, in nations divided by violent conflict, the chances for lasting peace go up when women are part of the solution. Women play important roles as peacekeepers, as they did in Northern Ireland and Liberia. In short, women around the world sustain families, build communities and knit the social fabric together.
At the State Department, we believe elevating the status of women and girls in their societies is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. Women and girls are often a community’s greatest untapped resource, which makes investing in them a powerful and effective way to promote international development and our diplomatic agenda.
We’re working to address the issues that impede women’s progress and putting critical tools into women’s hands. For example, a cellphone can transform a woman’s life by giving her a way to safely deposit her savings or receive payments through mobile banking, or by helping her connect to markets outside her village. Yet many women lack access to cellphones and the benefits they offer, so we launched the mWomen partnership to reduce the gender gap in mobile technology. And the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is providing a standard for safe, efficient, nonpolluting stoves to women. Clean cookstoves will improve the health of women and their families, the quality of the air they breathe, as well as their economic conditions.
Every time I travel, I meet extraordinary women who are driving change in their communities, often in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Women like Nasim Baji in Pakistan, who only needed a $10 microfinance loan to start a jewelry-making business that today employs 30 women in her community. Or women like Sina Vann, a Cambodian who escaped sex slavery to become a freedom fighter for thousands of girls — some as young as four — who are held and sold against their will. I visited the rescue center that Sina runs in 2010, and I was deeply touched by the courage and resilience I saw in those little girls.
This book tells Nasim’s and Sina’s stories, and those of other women leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, educators and politicians leading change in their communities.
Women in the World Today shows how far we have come since 1995. Each chapter reflects one of the 12 points in the action plan we developed in Beijing. It also explores what we need to do now, so that all countries can fully benefit from the wisdom, compassion and energy women bring to every aspect of society.
I hope the stories you read here inspire you to take action in your community and help move us closer to that goal. It could be as simple as sharing stories of the women in this book and in your own life with others. You could volunteer with a women’s organization in your hometown or start your own project. Above all, you can make sure the girls in your life grow up feeling safe, valued and powerful.
In Beijing, we envisioned a world where women and men have equal access to opportunities — a world where women’s voices would be recognized and respected. We are still pursuing that vision, with more energy and enthusiasm than ever. Together, we can realize a future where women’s rights are unquestionably, unshakably and permanently recognized as full and equal human rights.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State