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February 16, 2000: Column on Vital Voices Event at the White House

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February 16, 2000

It was five years ago that the principal of a school I was visiting in India handed me a poem that one of her students had written. In it, the young author wrote eloquently about the power of women's voices and why they must be heard.

Here is how it begins:
Too many women in too many countries speak the same language -- of silence.
My grandmother was always silent -- always aggrieved.
Only her husband had the cosmic right to speak and to be heard.
They say it is different now. But sometimes, I wonder.

It concludes:
We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak.
I seek only to forget the sorrows of my grandmother's silence.
This week, I welcomed 15 courageous women leaders -- women from Russia, Haiti, India, Ghana, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Colombia, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Ireland and the United States -- to the White House. Each of them is working to break the silence -- lifting their voices for economic empowerment, social justice, peace, democracy and progress.

The women traveled to Washington to participate in a program called Vital Voices. Knowing that democracy can never flourish without the full and equal participation of women, I helped create a program that would give women not only a voice, but also the skills, resources and tools to empower themselves, their communities and their countries.

In the last three years, at Vital Voices meetings in Austria, Northern Ireland, Uruguay, Iceland, Italy and Turkey, I have met women who once stood on opposite sides of bloody civil wars, but are now sitting down at the same table to create a better future for their children. I have met women from the former Soviet Union who once lived under the shadows of communism, but are now starting their own businesses. Every one of these leaders is part of a growing chorus of women who are raising their voices, and encouraging others to raise them as well.

Dr. Lubna Al-Kazi is a professor of sociology at Kuwait University. A strong advocate of democracy, Dr. Al-Kazi is a tireless crusader for women's suffrage in her country. Disappointed last November when a bill giving women the vote and the right to stand for office failed by just two votes, this week's meeting has given her fresh optimism. "We can learn from the experience of others," she explains. "We can take home new strategies that will help us in the future."

Oksana Horbunova has been working to end trafficking in Ukraine for the past seven years. But it wasn't until July of 1997, when she participated in the first Vital Voices conference, that she had any contact with other women or groups working on the same issue. Four months after I met Oksana that summer, I traveled to Ukraine to speak out against trafficking. Oksana credits her international partners with the success she's had finding and returning women and children to their homes. She sums it up simply: "Vital Voices is vital to us."

Dr. Yekaterina Geniyeva is a pioneer among women leaders in Russia. A key Vital Voices participant, she is the president of the Open Society Institute in Russia, which, she announced, has just pledged $3.5 million to fund Vital Voices projects in her country. Before she left the White House, she gave me a lovely Valentine's Day gift. Inside a beautiful box, I found two tablecloths made by Vital Voices participants. Two identical plates symbolized the equality between men and women. And a tree made of semi-precious stones foreshadowed the future, when, she predicted, "One day, we'll have an entire forest of Vital Voices trees."

If women are to become full and equal participants in their countries, they need skills training and opportunities to network, share information and develop strategies together. They need help changing laws, and changing the attitudes that teach girls that their dreams don't matter, that their rights don't exist, and that violence against them is an acceptable part of life.

Finally, they need partners -- the kind of partners that Vital Voices can offer. Later this year, we will launch a new non-profit Vital Voices organization. Called the Vital Voices Global Partnership, it will continue and expand on the work being done around the world.

Today, more than at any other time in history, women have the opportunity and the responsibility not only to raise their own voices, but to empower others to raise theirs as well. It is time for the silence to end.


Note to Hillary Clinton/"Talking It Over" Editors: Please note that the reference to "Ukraine" in the eighth paragraph is correct. It should read "Ukraine" and not "the Ukraine."

Thank you for your attention -- Creators Syndicate, Inc.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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