Talking It Over
November 22, 2000
At times, over the past week, as I traveled with my family in Vietnam, I was overcome with emotion. Thirty years ago, when our countries were at war, I never could have imagined I'd see Vietnamese and Americans working side by side at an excavation site, searching for the remains of an American pilot. With us at the site were the pilot's two sons, looking on and hoping that, after all these years, they would finally bring their father home. It is a moment I will never forget.
I will also never forget the welcome that the Vietnamese people gave us when we arrived, stopping their bicycles and mopeds, smiling and waving as we passed by. We can never erase the past -- nor will we completely erase the pain felt by so many men and women on both sides. But we can strive together to make a brighter future for all the people of Vietnam.
This will no doubt be one of our family's very last trips overseas while my husband is President. I wanted to join him on this historic visit to help strengthen relations between our countries, and to see firsthand the role that women are playing to build a more prosperous Vietnam.
When we landed in Hanoi and drove in from the airport, I saw women working in beautiful green fields. And in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, I visited many successful women-run businesses. One woman I met was the head of one of the first State enterprises to be privatized and listed on the new Vietnam Stock Exchange. She represents the promises of the new economy, and yet, it took over a year for her to convince her colleagues that privatization was the way to go. Today, the size of her workforce has more than tripled, and stock values have multiplied by 20.
In 1995, when I spoke at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the NGO Forum in Hairou, I was impressed by the large Vietnamese delegation, made up of women from every walk of life. They joined 50,000 others from around the world, all determined to improve the lives of women. We spoke different languages and came from different countries and communities. But with one voice we proclaimed that, in this century, economic progress depends on the progress of women. Political progress depends on the progress of women. Women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights.
This week, I listened to the women of Vietnam calling for change -- just as I have listened to so many others around the world.
In a village outside of Hanoi, I listened as several women talked excitedly about the small loans that had changed their lives. One woman borrowed $20 five years ago to buy a tofu machine. She has since borrowed -- and paid back -- much more. She couldn't conceal her pride as she demonstrated her tofu-making techniques, and explained that she and her husband have saved enough to build a new house -- all because of that first $20 loan.
All over the world, I have witnessed the changes that women like this can effect in their own lives and in the lives of their families, if only they are offered the same rights, respect, education and economic independence as men. No country will prosper in the new century if women are denied equal rights and responsibilities; when they are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, and subjected to violence or trafficking.
Soon I will be closing an extraordinary chapter in my life and beginning another that I'm sure will be just as full of promise and challenge. When I take my seat in the U.S. Senate, I will remember the women I have met around the world -- women whose determination, struggles and triumphs have transformed the lives of so many. It is up to all of us to speak out when these women are blocked from owning or inheriting property or having custody of their children. We must speak out when women are stopped from organizing NGOs and freely expressing their views.
We must speak out in the face of human rights abuses or a muzzled press; when religious freedom is suppressed or political expression denied. Every leader must remember that there is no greater influence on whether a family, a community or a country succeeds than whether its women and girls have access to education. The free market holds no promise when millions of a nation's children cannot read or write.
When I was in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Women's Museum displayed the winning posters in an art contest called "Toward Gender Equality in the Year 2000." One of the pictures, drawn by a 7 year old, shows a young girl driving a car full of other girls -- girls who are doctors, teachers, nurses and students. I will carry this image with me into the Senate, for this is the future we must promise not just our daughters, but our sons as well.
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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