Key Women’s Voices Missing from Clinton’s Speech

by Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO

When was the last time a major world leader devoted an entire speech on the global economy to the empowerment of women? Secretary Clinton’s keynote address at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco was powerful and significant: she made a compelling case for women’s participation in economic policy and practice. Her vision and commitment to women’s leadership is exemplified by the fact that the Women and the Economy Summit is the largest convening of world leaders in the Bay Area since the signing of the UN Charter 66 years ago. Since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Secretary Clinton has been a committed advocate for women’s empowerment in government, business and civil society.

Workers in a factory in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy Nari Uddug Kendra.Workers in a factory in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy Nari Uddug Kendra.I was encouraged to hear one of the world’s most powerful women talk about the structural impediments facing women, including legal, religious and social traditions. I was energized when she declared the 21st century the “Participation Age” in which everyone, regardless of gender, age or other characteristics, can contribute to building a more just society. I was equally energized by her insight that our world needs a paradigm shift to unleash the political will for legal and regulatory reforms that improve the lives of women. It was refreshing to hear Secretary Clinton address some of the critical challenges our sisters around the world face — access to land, inheritance rights and political participation. For nearly 25 years, the Global Fund for Women has been investing in women’s leadership and movements that address these challenges. And we are beginning to see systemic, sustainable, social change.

I was disappointed, however, with the use of Walmart as a shining example of business empowering women by making a $20 billion commitment to increase sourcing from female-owned businesses in the U.S. and abroad. Yes, it is wonderful to source from women suppliers, but it’s also critical to treat your women employees fairly and equally. As many know, the largest gender-discrimination class-action lawsuit ever filed in U.S. history was filed against Walmart, right here in San Francisco. Its women employees allege that they were denied advancement and training opportunities, paid less than men for the same work, subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and faced retaliation when they sought legal redress.

In Bangladesh, labor leaders and garment factory workers that supply to Walmart were arrested last year for fighting for a fair minimum wage, 35 cents an hour. These women workers continue to face harassment and live in fear as they urge Walmart to comply with international standards of human and workers’ rights. The voices of these women and others like them were missing from this APEC conference. We call on APEC to have at least one session at its November summit that includes civil society and community leaders, government and industry to discuss multiple levels of ideas and solutions. These voices are the crucial step in the hoped-for paradigm shift.

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