Keynote Address

United Nations Conference on Women

Conference Director Gertrude Mongella introduced First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to an audience of an estimated 1,500 delegates from around the world. After untold hours preparing for this moment, the First Lady described one aspect that she was unprepared for: stony silence.

“That was a curveball that I hadn’t anticipated: as I spoke, there was no response to my words, and I found it difficult to get into a rhythm or gauge the crowd’s reaction because the pauses in my English sentences and paragraphs didn’t coincide with those in the dozens of other languages the delegates were hearing.”
(Living History, page 304)

Sitting in the audience, Verveer reiterated: “It's not like an American audience, where you get applause if they like it and some grunts if they don't--just nothing. I remember Lissa [Muscatine] saying to me something like, ‘She's not delivering this right.’ It was just so tense.”

The First Lady then reached the core of her speech:

It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls.

It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution for human greed -- and the kinds of reasons that are used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated.

It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small. 

It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war. 

It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes by their own relatives. 

It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation. 

It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will. 

If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. 

Her concise litany of injustices against women broke the crowd’s silence. Applause and cheers reverberated throughout the hall. While China was not directly named, it was clear which violations she cited were a direct condemnation of its government. The Chinese government immediately cut her speech from the closed-circuit television in the conference hall and censored it nationwide.

[Transcript of Remarks to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women]