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First Ladies Conference in Ottawa, Canada

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First Lady

Ninth Conference of the Spouses of Heads of State and Government of the Americas
Remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton

Ottawa, Canada
September 30, 1999

MRS. ALINE CHRÉTIEN: And now, it is my great pleasure to introduce our next speaker, Mrs.Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause)

MRS. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Thank you very much. I am delighted to join all of you again for this Ninth Conference of the Spouses of Heads of State and Government of the Americas.

Since we were last together, our hemisphere, particularly Central America and the Caribbean, have suffered greatly from the triple threat of the hurricanes Mitch, George and Floyd. And I know that all of us have been particularly concerned about helping our friends and neighbors in those areas that were so devastated to recover and move forward with the plans that—we know so well from the reports we have received—that they are undertaking on behalf of further progress in their countries.

I am very pleased to be back in Ottawa, a place that my husband and I have very fond memories of from our last visit here nearly five years ago.

I particularly remember ice skating with Aline on the Rideau Canal. And my piece of advice is: do not ice skate with Aline, who is a graceful, beautiful ice skater. But she does everything that way, and over the years I have come to admire and respect and have great affection for her and the way she discharges her duties. I appreciate very much the support and leadership that she has given to this endeavor and the excellent job that she has done in putting together this conference.

I also want to thank the government and people of Canada for supporting this conference, and particularly for inviting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to this meeting. So many of us have seen firsthand the work that NGOs do in our countries and throughout our hemisphere. We have seen the patient grassroots activism; we have seen the partnerships that are created among the public, the private and the NGO sectors.

Much of the progress we are discussing today, and hoping for for tomorrow, would not have been possible were it not for those partnerships and the particular role that NGOs play.
So I welcome the NGOs, and I hope that they will be a continuing presence in the conference and the meetings as we go forward.

These conferences have certainly proven their worth over the years. They have been an important meeting place to bring people together, to trade ideas, to share stories, and to resolve to work more cooperatively to meet common goals that will benefit all of the people of the Americas.

Five years ago, at the Summit of the Americas in Miami, our nations pledged to work together to meet our common challenges and to look towards the future as one hemisphere. As the leaders met, we convened a parallel conference to examine how the Summit agenda could address the challenges facing the women and children of our regions. Before we left Miami, we pledged to make the concerns of children and families a priority in our home countries and a focus for cooperation throughout the Americas.

We have continued our work at meetings in Paraguay and Bolivia, Panama, and last year in Chile. We have heard the follow-up report from Mrs. Labelle and the representatives from UNICEF, from Mrs. Wilkinson from the World Bank. And we have heard so many of the representatives and first ladies, as well, discuss what has been accomplished because of these meetings.

Today we need to renew our pledge to continue our work and cooperation. Over the past five years we have made steady progress on the goals that we set, including the three that were set in Miami. Today, because we pledged to reduce maternal mortalities, health ministries throughout the hemisphere are extending prenatal care to more women, upgrading delivery rooms, and fighting centuries-old ignorance about pregnancy.

Because we set a goal of eliminating measles by the year 2000, measles cases have fallen 76 per cent in our regions, and all across the Americas children in the most remote villages are getting their first immunization against that deadly disease.

Because we called attention to education reform, the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas was formed, and finance ministers, who once only looked at GDP numbers, are now looking at school graduation rates and searching for new ways to give all children chances to learn.

We have made a lot of progress, but with the 21st century just weeks away, I know that all of us hope to do more. Every two seconds another child is born somewhere in the Americas. Each of these precious children is a child of tremendous potential, potential that can be unlocked in the first years of life or locked away for a lifetime. How we empower these children and their parents, how we provide for their education and health care will not only shape their lives, but also shape the lives of our nations and our regions.

The theme today, "A Healthy Start: Investing in Children Ages 0 to 6,” is one of the most important themes we could choose. Now there are some who might argue that other meetings where the headlines are trade or security or other matters that finance ministers and presidents and prime ministers discuss are more important. But I think if we take a look at what will really matter in the 21st century—preparing our children, investing in and educating our children, making sure they have the health care they need—will determine every other issue we could possibly discuss.

So, therefore, raising awareness about early childhood development is a critical matter. It is one that many of us have worked on for many years. For more than 25 years as an attorney and advocate for children, I have tried to make clear that what we do for a young child today matters far more than what happens later. Because we can prevent problems and save money if we invest early instead of waiting for problems or crisis to occur.

It is such an important issue that in 1997, my husband and I held the first ever White House Conference on Early Learning and Childhood Development. We were looking for strategies that would enable our children—all of our children—to have a healthy start.

Now we were building on work that has been done in the United States before, work such
as Head Start, which is a critical program that has enabled thousands and thousands of young children to enter school better prepared. We have seen similar programs throughout the hemisphere, and I know how dedicated so many of you are to ensuring that these kinds of preschool, early learning programs are available as universally as possible.

We also know that a childhood free of disease and illness is basic to a healthy start in life. Every year, 12 million children under the age of five worldwide lose their lives to infectious diseases. Here in the hemisphere, it is 565,000 young children—and these diseases are largely preventable.

Through USAID, the United States has sponsored innovative efforts to combat disease throughout the hemisphere, but what we are finding today is a new challenge. Too often, the antibiotics used to treat disease in young children have been used inappropriately, and too many children, even in the very earliest years of life, have developed resistance to the medicines that could save their lives.

So I am pleased to announce today a new $2 million USAID grant that, with the Pan American Health Organization, will enable public health experts to determine just how antibiotics are being misused and to train doctors and pharmacists in the correct way to administer prescription drugs.

Through this grant, we hope that the medicines we have developed will be able to do the job they are supposed to do, and that is particularly important in two of the major killers of young children: diarrhea and respiratory infections.

As we look at the important challenges of health and education, I know that each one of us could, as we have already heard from our distinguished colleagues, provide many examples of what is working throughout our hemisphere.

What we have learned through these conferences is that good ideas can happen anywhere, and I have seen them everywhere in my travels. But too often, if we did not have conferences such as this, we would not know what was working in Chile or El Salvador or anywhere else in the hemisphere.

So I believe that this coming together is one of the important ways we can put our children first. We were successful in Miami, and then later at the Summit of the Americas in Santiago, in persuading our governments to pay more attention to the needs of children and women. But I believe that that is an issue that must be addressed constantly. We have to continually remind ourselves and remind our governments that they must put children first.

So on behalf of the 100 million young children of our regions, I certainly thank all of you for being part of this ongoing effort of the first ladies here, in this hemisphere, to bring attention to our problems and honestly discuss them.

I don't know how many conferences in the hemisphere would have leading citizens, such as the women around this table, stand before an open audience and talk about everything from incest to drug abuse to child abuse to domestic violence. But it is that kind of frankness and openness that will enable us to fully understand the problems we face and then work towards solutions.

So thank you very much for continuing to build on this. And working together, I know, we can make progress on behalf of the children who need that progress so much.

Thank you very much. (Applause)

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