12/10/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Eleven Words

As we commemorate International Human Rights Day today, December 10, I can't help but recall the moment 17 years ago in Beijing when then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed, "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights."

Today, for many of us, these 11 words may seem obvious, even instinctive. But in 1995, they were a revelation. I remember being among the delegates at the Fourth World Conference on Women, and feeling a current of excitement wash across the room. It was perhaps one of the first times the world had heard a person of global stature assert at a global forum in such unequivocal terms that women's rights and human rights were one and the same.

Today, in my official travels, I still meet women all over the world who tell me how those eleven words nearly two decades ago changed their lives. They helped raise the profile of -- and garner more international support for -- the work they were doing to protect women's fundamental human rights to live free of violence and discrimination -- whether it was working to end domestic violence or to prevent child marriage or to prosecute so-called "honor" crimes.

Seventeen years later, we have indeed seen progress in protecting the human rights of women. But many of the same challenges highlighted in Beijing 17 years ago still cast dark shadows in the lives of still too many women and girls. And there is no getting around the fact that progress is fragile in many places and barely measurable in others. I am optimistic, however, that the world is awakening to the fact that that empowering women to participate more fully in the political, economic and social lives of their countries is not just good for women, it is vital to national peace, prosperity and stability.

It is a message that Secretary Clinton and the U.S. Department of State has consistently sought to convey and act upon around the world. Following a trip to the Congo, where sexual violence has been used as a tactic of war, Secretary Clinton led the effort in the Security Council to appoint a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. This summer, the White House launched the first U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. To advance the global campaign against child marriage, the State Department will begin tracking every country's legal minimum age of marriage and the rate of marriage for underage girls and boys in our Human Rights Reports. Last week, Secretary Clinton announced a new initiative to provide emergency support to survivors of gender-based violence, those under credible threat of imminent attack due to their gender, and organizations that may need protection.

It is heartening to see that more women from places where their rights had long been suppressed are finding their voices -- and finding common cause in so many issues, especially the fight against gender-based violence. I recently traveled to Guatemala and met women government and civil society leaders who were working to launch 24-hour courts to address gender violence and to ensure the enforcement of Guatemala's new laws against femicide. In Pakistan, women from across political parties formed a women's caucus to advocate successfully for legislation that promotes women's rights, including the Anti-Women practices law, a law to curb the use of acid to disfigure women, and anti-sexual harassment legislation. In Afghanistan, 120 female judges now sit on Afghan courts, and ensure the enforcement of laws against gender based violence. Brave women such as Lal Bibi, who survived a rape by Afghan local police officers and fought to ensure that those men were punished and sentenced to prison, continue to fight for their rights and the rights of their sisters, mothers and daughters.

And in the Middle East, so many of the women of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen fought side by side with their male counterparts to overthrow dictators during last year's Arab Spring. We watch anxiously as the people of these nations write their new constitutions and build their new governments. There continue to be many shocking reports of sexual assaults targeted at women taking part in public protests. We call on all governments to ensure that sexual violence is always confronted with the full force of the law. None of the hard-fought democratic gains of the Arab Spring can be consolidated unless women participate fully in the political process.

Recently, I spoke with Tawakkul Karman, a leader in Yemen's struggle for democracy and one of three women the Nobel Peace Prize Committee honored in 2011 for their work to bring peace and freedom to their countries. Just 33 years old, she has absorbed the lessons of the past 17 years. Women are instrumental to a free country, she told me, and that is why her struggle and the struggle of so many women around the world is not just one for women's rights but for human rights. In other words, women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights, once and for all.