National Democratic Institute's 13th Annual Awards
Acceptance Remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
September 23, 1999
Thank you very much. Thank you, Paul, for standing in for my friend and a courageous woman. I know that we all join in wishing Monica a very speedy recovery. When I heard that she had had to go immediately to the hospital for an appendicitis attack and then eventually an operation, I was not surprised to hear in the same report that she intended to be here tonight. (Laughter.) But I assured the member of my staff who passed that on that even for Monica, coming out of a surgery and coming to the NDI dinner would be a little bit of a stretch. But I keep expecting her to walk in. (Laughter.)
I'm very grateful for this tremendous honor. And I'm very pleased to be here at the same time that NDI would honor a very brave and courageous leader, indeed. We just heard from the President (Shevardnadze of Georgia) about his own personal journey and the journey of his country. And I am very pleased that he would share with us such personal reflections. Because I think more than anything else he could have said, it demonstrated to those of us here in this ballroom who support NDIwho support the work of NDIthe extraordinary price and the very difficult obstacles that stand in the way of those who seek to implant democracy around the world.
I am constantly amazed at the sacrifices that people makemen and womenwho believe what we say here in our country, who are committed to giving the gift of freedom to their people. We have lost some wonderful champions of freedom and democracy this past year. Paul read their names out and reflected on each. Of course, we all know the extraordinary contributions that Wayne Kirkland (ph.) made here in our country and around the world. The other two names that Paul mentioned may not be as well known, but I knew them both.
The last time I saw Galeena was in Sophia, Bulgaria, where we were having a conference about women and were attempting to bring together representatives of the public and private sectors of South Eastern Europe. She was there with that same energy and spirit that she brought to her path-breaking work in Russia, where she was literally one of the first people to create a new democratic party for her country. She intended to continue her work in politics, and she paid for her commitment to democracy and her fight against corruption with her life when she was gunned down in St. Petersburg.
Similarly, I had the great privilege of meeting in Sri Lanka, Neelan, who was an advocate on behalf of victims of violence. He himself was (inaudible) that he stood against the extraordinary violence that has plagued his country for so many decades. My meeting with him when I was in Columbo was one of the most vivid memories I have of all of my travels around the world. Because of his commitment to peace and democracy and reconciliation, he went to where others feared to go. And he too paid the ultimate price.
I'm very grateful for this honor, and I'm very moved by the kind words that Monica wrote and Paul delivered. But it is very hard for me to place myself in the same ranks as people like those we honor tonight and those we lost this year.
I often wish, as I travel around the world, that I could take every American with me. And if not that, at least every American teenager, so that they could see firsthand what is happening in this great movement toward democracy that has swept the globe at the end of this century. So many have contributed to that movement, many of them honored previously by NDI. But there are many others who are laboring as we speak tonightoften without much recognition, without drawing any headlineswho put themselves and their families at risk because they are willing to speak out and stand up for democracy.
Like many of you who have been part of NDI for many yearswho have worked with Paul and worked with Ken and gone on missions and supervised electionsyou've shaken the hands and looked into the eyes of people whose husbands or brothers or fathers or sisters or friends have paid that price for democracy. You've sat and talked, as I have, with people who've been imprisoned and tortured and been exiled and driven from the homes they love because they spoke for democracy. And it's imperative that the work of NDI and the work of all of you who support this work continue, because the work of peace and the work of democracy is as important now as it's ever been. Because we have made so much progress, but often the fruits of democracy are not so easily grasped and enjoyed. There is so much risk and danger still to those who pursue this work.
Because Monica was going to introduce me tonight, I want to say a special word on behalf of those women who not only labor for democracy, but sometimes do it against the most extraordinary odds because their voices are not respected and no one wants to hear their opinions. And yet in place after placeLatin America and Africa and AsiaI have met women who have made the decision to open their hearts and their minds to the idea that they could become citizens and full participants, and then they have acted on that conviction. Women like Monica, who did endure a lot of abuse as she sat with her comrade and colleague, Pearl, during all of those long negotiations in Northern Ireland. And they would come to Washington or they would call me or my staff. They'd come to the White House, and we'd sit and we'd talk, and they'd relate how difficult it was every day to go and assume the place they had been voted to holdwomen in the former Soviet Union, in places like Georgia, who have struggled to make this transition and not give up hope. In Vienna, at the Vital Voices conference that we held there, woman after woman told us how challenging it was because their standard of living was dropping, the health care that they and their families could access was deteriorating, the move toward a free market economy was very difficult, and they needed more support and encouragement to stay on the path of democracy.
In Latin America, where we held a conferencea Vital Voices conference in Montevideowe heard story after story of women who had struggled against military dictatorships; who had stood up for freedom and watched as their relatives and their friends disappeared; who lost loved ones to military coups; who knew that they wanted to stay the course for democracy, but weren't sure that they had the strength to do so. And yet they prevailed. And today they are being elected to the legislatures, they are serving as mayors, they are starting businesses, they are finding their voicesand it is making a difference. (Applause.) Time and time again, the vital voices of women all over this world are making a difference.
In a few weeks I will be in Iceland, where women from Russia and the Baltic States will be meeting for another Vital Voices conference, this one hosted by the governors of Iceland and co-sponsored by the Nordic Council and by the United States government. It will be another extraordinary opportunity for the women of the Baltic region to work together and to increase their own economic and political power, and thereby contribute to the stability and prosperity of their nations. It will be particularly important for the women coming from Russia to know that they must persevere and there are those who will help them to do so.
Now NDI has played, I believe, a critical role in furthering the work of democracy. And I'm very grateful to NDI, and I'm grateful to the members of Congress, and I'm grateful to the members of this administration who have supported NDI. And I'm also very pleased that this president and administration have made democracy one of the centerpieces of our foreign policy(applause)and have provided financial and technical and political support to those who seek to further democracy abroad. This is not the time to cut back on our support for the National Endowment for Democracy. (Applause.) This is not the time to undermine the work we are doing that I have seen around the world to support those who are the democrats in their countries. And it is the timeit is long past the timeto pay our dues to the United Nations. (Applause.)
The work that is occurring around the world and is supported by our government and is supported by NDI means so much. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories that we could be trading back and forth all evening long, because so many of you have been for so long on the front lines of democracy. But I like to think about that conference that Monica referred to toward the end of her remarksthe Vital Voices Conference in Belfast, and then the follow-up conference a year later, also in Belfast, but with satellite link-ups around Northern Ireland and into the Republic. At those conferences we brought together Protestant and Catholic women who had never been in the same room together, who had never worked on any common project, who did not believe they had anything in common. And through the work of Vital Voices, with the support of our government and with the support of corporations that understand the importance of democracy to economic stability and growth, we came out of that conference with new friendships forged, new commitments made, and with all kinds of promise for the future.
When I came back for the follow-up conference, I went to the meeting of the women Parliamentarians, and I was pleased to see that they had also forged a consensus about some of the issues they would work on jointly despite their political differences. It's that building of democracy, piece by piece, that will stand the test of time.
The other story I would mention is what occurred in Senegal. The first time I went to Senegal, I went out into a village where there was a project that was funded by USAID, as well as private NGOs from America, to teach democracy. And in this village people were practicing democracy; they put on a skit for me as to how they learned how to be citizens of a democracy. And the women were very proud because they now understood that democracy meant that they could be in the skit too, that they could stand up and speak about issues that were important to them. And because of this practice at democracy, they learned that they could make decisions and they could bring ideas for discussion to the general village meetings. After thinking about what was most important to them, they decided that the health care of their daughters and themselves was the most important item on their agenda. And in particular, they decided they wanted to end the traditional, conventional practice in that part of Africa of female circumcision.
Now this was unheard of, and at first the men in the village did not want to hear the women speak of this. And even some of the women were very upset about it. But the women who had come with that idea said, But this is a democracywe get to speak; our voices are important. And they kept talking. Even when they were told to sit down and be quiet, they kept talking. And eventually they created a consensus and they had a vote. And their vote was to end the practice. (Applause.)
And once they voted, they decided they wanted to go to other villages to teach other villages about democracy. So two of the older men who were elders in the village were appointed to walk to the next village, because unaccompanied women could not do that. So the two older men walked to the next village and began explaining about this thing called democracy and what they had just voted for in their village. And pretty soon that village voted the same way. And then another village voted the same way. And by the time I came back a year later with the President, we were able to meet with a group of people from that original village and hear their report about how now dozens of villages were practicing democracy. And they had done it not only for themselves, but they were going to the president of Senegal where they'd request that legislation be passed to ban the practice throughout the country. (Applause.) And in just a short period of time, they did that. And after it went through the Parliament, the legislation was passed and the president signed it. And I thanked President Diouf when I saw him at the funeral of King Hassan of Morocco. And he said, well, you know, it started with the women in the village.
Now there are many stories like that, where it's not just abstract talk; it's not just lofty ideals, as important as they are; it's not just asking people to be part of democracy when that means so little to them based on their own experience. But it is giving them the tools to understand what that means, and the assistance to implement their own ideas, and the support that is required to make the transition.
So for me, I am honored by this recognition, but I really accept it on behalf of those hundreds and thousands of women and men whom I have seen in countries throughout the worldin villages and in barrios and in ghettos and in every kind of setting you could imagine. Because it is they who are doing the work of democracy, and it is we who owe it to them to do all we can to make sure that their journey to democracy is a successful one.
Thank you very much.