Event hosted by the Government of the Netherlands
New York City, NY
September 25, 2009
I want to start by saying something that I believe with all my heart, and, obviously, those of you who are here believe it also, that the issues related to girls and women are not an annex to the important business of the world and the United Nations, they’re not an add-on, they’re not an afterthought; they are truly at the core of what we are attempting to do under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is the guiding message of this organization and what each of us in our own countries is called to do on behalf of equal opportunity and social justice.
So for me, this is a tremendous opportunity to speak about an issue that has basically been relegated to the backwaters of the international agenda until relatively recently: violence against girls and women, and particularly today, violence against girls.
I wish that we could transport ourselves into a setting where we could be in the midst of girls and women who have been suffering from violence, but we don’t have to because it’s all around us. It is in the home, it is in the workplace, it is on the streets of many of the countries represented here, including my friends Maxine and Celso. And it is in the places that make the headlines from time to time, and then in the very bottom paragraphs, there’s a reference to the violence that is a tactic of war and intimidation and oppression to prevent girls from going to school by throwing acid in their faces, by raping girls as a way of intimidating them and keeping them subjugated and demonstrating power.
So this, for me, is one of the most important events that I’ve done at the UN. I worked this week with President Obama on our agenda, on everything from nonproliferation and the threats posed by Iran to the P-5+1, to the ongoing challenge of the Middle East, and so much else. But oftentimes, my press – I’ll only speak for the American press – will pose a question that goes something like this: "Why are you spending so much time on these issues that are less important or not as significant as the ones that are really at the heart of foreign policy?"
And I usually patiently explain, for about the millionth time, that this is the heart of foreign policy. Because after all, what are we doing? We’re trying to improve the lives of the people that we represent and the people who share this planet with us. And we do it through diplomacy, and we do it through development, and occasionally we have to do it through defense. But violence against any one of our fellow beings is intolerable. And when it is part of the cultural fabric of too many societies, when it is an assumption of the way things are supposed to be, then it is absolutely a cause for our action collectively.
As some of you know, I traveled to Goma in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last month. I went to a refugee camp that is home to 18,000 people in a very small plot of land; in fact, land that is covered by lava from a volcanic eruption. And it was a stark reminder of a conflict that has left 5.4 million people dead since 1998. And walking through that refugee camp was, as I’ve often felt walking through camps in other places, both the best and the worst of humanity: the worst because of what drove these people to this extreme measure of fleeing their homes, leaving their fields, running from danger; and the best because of the international response.
But the people leading me through the camp – they had a man who was the president, a woman who was the vice president – were talking about what life was like day to day, because the camp provides no security. You are there, but if you venture out, as too many of the girls told me, for water or firewood, or literally just to breathe because you’re living arm-to-arm with thousands of other people, you put your life at risk. Something like 1,100 rapes are reported each month in the Eastern Congo; that’s an average of 36 women and girls raped every day.
I heard a lot of terrible stories. A 15-year-old girl who looked younger than her years, who was fetching water from the river, when two soldiers – she wasn’t sure who they were, were they irregulars, were they militias, were they the Congolese army. They were just soldiers who told her if she refused to give in to them they would kill her. They beat her, ripped her clothes off, and raped her.
I met one of the nine-year-old girls who was nabbed by two soldiers, who put a bag over her head, and raped her repeatedly in the bushes; and a woman who was eight months pregnant when she was attacked, and after being so brutalized and losing her baby, she was no longer accepted in her own home.
And then I met a woman who was about my age, who had four children and a husband. They were farmers from one of the small holding farms that so many of the world’s poor try to survive by. And she called them bandits. They took her husband out, shot him. Two of her children ran out to try to help their father, shot them, came into the house, shot the other two children all in front of her, and then repeatedly gang-raped her, left her for dead. And she told me she wished that she had died.
Well, these are the most extreme examples, but there are so many that we could point to. And since I believe that the progress of girls and women holds the key to sustainable prosperity and stability in the 21st century, this is a matter of great concern to me and to my country. When women are accorded their rights and accorded equal opportunities in education and healthcare and employment and political participation, they invest in their families, they lift them up, they contribute to their communities and their nations. When they are marginalized, when they are mistreated, when they are ignored, when they are demeaned, then progress is not possible, no matter how rich and well-educated the elite may appear.
The problem of violence against women and girls is particularly acute in conflict zones, but that’s not the only place we find it. The UN has done some excellent work in the last years in war-torn areas. And while boys are pressed into service as child soldiers and trained to kill, and often drugged to do so, girls are raped and often forced into becoming sex slaves. And this has happened to thousands and thousands of children. We also know that despite the best efforts of those of us in this room, all too often these acts of brutality and de-humanity do not just affect the individuals, they affect the fabric that weaves us together as human beings.
Next week, I will chair a Security Council session here in New York on the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls in conflict zones. And the United States will introduce a resolution to strengthen our efforts to curb these atrocities and hold all those who commit them accountable. We will call for a special representative of the Secretary General to lead, coordinate, and advocate for efforts to end sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict.
But violence against women and girls happens everywhere. You have not only domestic violence, but female feticide, dowry-related murder, trafficking in women and girls. It’s quite alarming that even among well-educated people in some countries, the rate of selective abortion against girls is alarming. There are millions – some estimate as many as 100 million – missing girls. And they are missing because they’re either aborted or they are still subjected to infanticide or they are denied nutrition and healthcare and allowed to die in alarming numbers before the age of five.
In Thailand in the 1990s, I met girls who’d been sold into prostitution by their fathers, when they were as young as eight. And by the time they were 12, many of them were dying of AIDS. I drove around the area in northern Thailand, and one of the people with me said, "You can tell which homes have sold their girls, because they’re the ones with the satellites" and that there’s a lot of peer pressure; it would go satellite, satellite, then you’d have no satellites, and then satellite, satellite.
So we know these statistics. A third of all women will face gender-based violence at some point in their lifetime. In some parts of the world, the number is as high as 70 percent. The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 so-called honor killings take place each year. Nearly 50 percent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls aged 15 or younger. And more than 130 million girls and young women have been subject to genital mutilation.
All over the world, you find a higher value on male children, girls being coerced into early marriages, denied access to schools, adequate nutrition and healthcare, and enslaved in forced labor. And so there are many stories. We have two young women with us today, and we have many more who they represent.
The problem is that very often there is no legal action taken against those who perpetuate this violence, even when they are members of a nation-state’s armed forces. We are pressing the government of the DRC very hard to bring to justice five officers of the military who have been implicated in either these actions themselves or in a permissive environment for them.
And there are many young women who are standing up and who need our support. The story of Mukhtar Mai, a young woman who I’ve come to know, who was gang-raped in 2002 on the orders of her tribal council in rural Pakistan because of something her brother had done. She was forced to walk home naked in front her village, and she was expected to kill herself. I mean, that’s what you do. You get humiliated, you get shamed, you get attacked. It’s your fault, you go kill yourself. And the crime, the best we could determine, was her brother was seen walking with a girl from an upper caste village.
So what happened to her? She refused to kill herself, and she refused to hide, and she refused to give in to the cultural milieu in which this attack had taken place. And her case became something of an international cause. And people began asking: What can we do for her? They donated money. She built the first school in her village. She herself enrolled in that school. And now, because of the money that has come in since she was courageous enough to speak out, the school has an ambulance service, a school bus, a woman’s shelter, a legal clinic, and a telephone hotline.
Now, she’s a remarkable young woman, but she’s not alone. And what we need to do is support those who are standing up. I have a friend here, Molly Melching, whom I first met and worked with more than 10 years ago in Senegal, where she very deliberatively began to build community rejection of female genital mutilation by going from village to village and making it a health issue, making it an issue that the tribal elders and the imams began to recognize was not in keeping with their views of themselves or of Islam. And this is possible. It takes time, and we can’t, can’t give up.
So let me just end with a call to action from the leaders of many religious faiths who came together last year to advocate for an end to violence against women, and here’s what they said: Each of our faith traditions speaks to the fundamental value of all human life. Violence against women denies them their God-given dignity. We cannot afford to remain silent when so many of our women and girls suffer the brutality of violence with impunity.
So this meeting could not be more timely or important. Now, we’ve got to follow up. And hopefully, in UNGAs to come, we will fill larger and larger rooms. We will have people making commitments. I know the Dutch Government is very intent upon trying to make sure that action follows. And we can work with our friends not only from Brazil, but I see many of my other colleagues here today. And I hope that we will be the voices for those women who will never appear before the Security Council, they will never leave Goma, they will never leave rural Pakistan, they will never leave their village in Latin America or anywhere else, to come and plead their case before us. So it falls to us to make sure their voices are heard.
Thank you very much.