VP Kamala Harris Opens U.N. Gender Equality Summit: “Our World is Stronger When Everyone Participates”

“Here is the truth,” said Harris. “Democracy is strongest when everyone participates and it is weaker when people are left out.”

Vice President Harris in Pittsburgh in June to mark Child Tax Credit Awareness Day. (Instagram)

Vice President Kamala Harris led the virtual U.S. delegation in a speech during the opening ceremony of the U.N.’s Generation Equality Forum on Wednesday. Her main message: Gender equality is essential for legitimate and robust democracy. 

“At the G7 Summit, just weeks ago, world leaders pledged to unite against the threat of autocracy. World leaders pledged to unite behind the principles of democracy,” she said.

Harris painted a picture of “democracy in peril” across the globe—stark increases in human rights violations, rampant misinformation chipping away at public confidence, strong men gaining more power and growing corruption. As the world finds itself in the second year of COVID-19, the gendered impacts of the pandemic and backsliding democracy are apparent on a global scale.

Harris pointed to the fact that when democracies falter and fail, women and girls suffer the greatest. “I believe—as you all do—that addressing gender equity and equality is essential to addressing every other challenge we face,” she said. 

The vice president expressed pride that the United States is re-committing to “make gender equality a reality” by joining 188 other nations in adopting a concrete platform for action. She said the U.S. will make a number of commitments, promising tangible results to improve the lives of women in the U.S. and around the world. 

Harris recognized the lessons learned in the U.S. about gender equality that the country is still working to implement: “When women have access to capital … they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger. When women have access to reproductive health care to stay healthy, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger. When women live free from the fear of violence, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger.”

In ending her address, Harris spoke directly to youth leaders featured in panels over the course of the program. “Listen to those people who are not being heard,” she urged. “Respect and embrace those whose experiences are different than your own. Recognize who is not in the room and invite them in. And, do not forget the importance of your own story.” 

She closed on a simple, concise note, well received by attendees of the Generation Equality Forum: “Our world is stronger when everyone participates.”

The vice president’s full speech is below:

Twenty-six years ago, government and civil society leaders from around the world came together in a forum not unlike this one.  In Beijing, in 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a clarion call to the world, and the United States became one of 189 nations to adopt the ambitious “Platform for Action.”  These are points of profound pride for our nation.  

And for me, it is an honor to be here with you now, as we recommit to make gender equality a reality.

Over the past five months, I have met many world leaders, and we have discussed some of the most pressing issues of our time: COVID-19, climate change, threats to security, and threats to democracy.  

And in these meetings, I have often made it a point to raise the importance of equal participation of women and girls, because I believe, as you all do, that addressing gender equity and equality is essential to addressing every other challenge we face, which is certainly true in light of the current threats to democracy.  

Around the world, democracy is in peril.  Strong men have become stronger.  Human rights abuses have multiplied.  Corruption is undermining progress as misinformation is undermining public confidence.  

And who gets hurt when democracies fall, when democracies falter?  Who gets hurt when democracies fail to live up to their promise?  Well, women and girls are among those who suffer.

At the G7 Summit, just weeks ago, world leaders pledged to unite against the threat of autocracy.  World leaders pledged to unite behind the principles of democracy.  And as we move forward, I believe that if we want to strengthen democracy, we must fight for gender equality.  

Because here’s the truth: Democracy is strongest when everyone participates, and it is weaker when people are left out.  And we’ve seen this here in the United States.  

When women have access to capital to start a small business, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger.  

When women have access to reproductive healthcare to stay healthy, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger.  

When women live free from the fear of violence, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger. 

Throughout my career, I have worked to protect women from violence and exploitation.  I know what happens when women are supported.  I know what happens when women are heard.  When women are heard, whether that is in the courtroom, in the workplace, in the halls of government, or at the ballot box, democracy is more complete.  

So I know, without doubt, gender equality strengthens democracy.  And, for our part, the United States will make a number of commitments today to reinforce our own institutions.  And these commitments have one thing in common: They will yield results — real, tangible results — that improve the lives of women in the United States and women around the world.  

So, in closing, I will address the young leaders who are participating in Generation Equality: I remain hopeful and optimistic because of you.  Our world needs your leadership.  And in that role, there are two things I want you to remember.  

First, remember to use the tools of democracy, whether that is the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote.  And if you do not yet have those freedoms, fight for them and know we will fight alongside you.  

And the second thing I want you to remember is this: Listen to those people who are not being heard.  Respect and embrace those whose experiences are different from your own, and recognize who is not in the room and invite them in.  And do not forget the power of your own story.  

When we bring people in — when we bring in all the people — we are more successful, our results are more impactful because democracy is strongest, because our world is stronger when everyone participates.  

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About

Lily Sendroff is an editorial fellow at Ms. and a rising senior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She majors in the study of women and gender and government, with a concentrative subfield in comparative politics. Her work typically focuses on feminist economics, transnational feminism, and policy analysis.