May 01, 2017

Sen Harris Delivers Keynote Address at NDI’s Madeleine Albright Luncheon

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris delivered the keynote address at the National Democratic Institute's 2017 Madeleine K. Albright Luncheon. During her remarks, Senator Harris discussed the importance of the next generation of women leaders making their voices heard and the potential they have to make change.

"When people's voices are silenced, women's voices are silenced," said Harris. "That's what's at stake here. And by the way, the United States, as we all know, has a long way to go on many of these issues as well. So we need to keep speaking up on behalf of every woman's right to be heard and realize her power."

Full remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, everybody! Thank you all for being here. I'm so delighted and honored to join you.

Senator Mikulski, thank you for that incredibly generous introduction. And, more importantly, for your decades of extraordinary leadership.

Senator Mikulski was kind enough to host us incoming women senators this past November. I think she was especially happy because all of the freshman women are Democrats.

So many of us senators have benefited from your leadership, and as a new senator I can attest that my colleagues have taken some pity on us freshman that haven't had the honor of serving with you. But each of us continue to be inspired by your example.

I also want to thank the National Democratic Institute for the outstanding work you do to strengthen democracy and justice around the world.

And in particular I want to recognize the chair of the NDI-and an inspiration to women and people everywhere-Secretary Albright. I'm so grateful to have benefited from your longstanding friendship, support, and wisdom. Thank you, Madam Secretary.

Now, I come from a long line of tough, trailblazing, phenomenal women. My grandmother would go into villages in India with a bullhorn, telling poor women how to access birth control. My mother came to the United States at the age of 19 to study endocrinology at UC Berkeley and eventually became a leading breast cancer researcher.

She and my father met when they were graduate students at Berkeley, while they were active in the civil rights movement. And my sister Maya and I actually joke that we grew up surrounded by all these adults who spent full time marching and shouting for this thing called justice.

It was that passion for justice that led me to become a lawyer-a prosecutor-so that I could fight for the voiceless and the vulnerable.

After years of prosecuting everything from low-level offenses to homicides, I decided to run to be the District Attorney of San Francisco.

Now, there was a two-term incumbent running. His nickname is KO, because he was a boxer who was known for knocking people out. He came from an old political family. Everyone knew his name.

But I thought he wasn't doing the job well. And one of the issues I felt like we needed to take more seriously were crimes against women and children-crimes like human trafficking, domestic violence, and child abuse.

People told me, "Hmm, maybe it's not your time." Some people said to me, "maybe you're a little too young for this."

"You know, nobody like you has done this before."

Or, "You know it's going to be a lot of hard work."

That's ridiculous-as though any of us runs away from hard work. Long story short, I was elected as the first woman district attorney in San Francisco. And the first woman of color to be elected DA in the state of California.

After two terms, I ran to be the Attorney General of California, believing that the innovation we were able to accomplish in San Francisco could be implemented statewide.

And again I heard the doubts.

You're from San Francisco... a woman... of color... personally opposed to the death penalty... running to be the top cop of the biggest state in the country.

It'll never happen.

Well, I didn't listen... and they were wrong.

Then after two terms I decided to run for Senate. And today, I stand here as a United States Senator from the great state of California-and only the second black woman in the history of the United States Senate.

And from this vantage point, while I know we have our challenges, I believe there's a lot to be encouraged about-here and around the world.

Thanks to the amazing work of organizations like NDI, more and more women have been elected and taken on leadership roles, from Jordan to Liberia to Guatemala.

I couldn't be more excited that Women Act for Living Together is receiving an award today for its work to support gender equality and more inclusive governance in the Central African Republic. And let's all give Angeline a big hand for WALT's great work. What a well-deserved award.

And here in the United States, as tough as the 2016 election may have been, let's not forget that Hillary Clinton became the first woman major-party nominee for President of the United States.

In fact, there was a great article in the Washington Post a few weekends back, about all these new candidates for office. And one statistic was particularly impressive. Last year, EMILY's List talked to around 900 women interested in running for office-school board, state legislature, and Congress. And already, in the first few months of this year, they've heard from more than 11,000 women interested in running for office.

But we can't lose sight of the challenges that remain.

Women are about 51% of the U.S. population, but make up just under 20% of the United States Congress. And only about a quarter of state legislators. It's past time we changed that.

Globally, women are 50% of the population but hold only 23% of seats in national legislatures. And it's time to change that.

There are countries where women who engage in the political process face not only slurs, or whisper campaigns, or comments about their appearance-they face rape, and violence and death. Imagine being killed for trying to serve in parliament. For trying to vote. In the 21st century. You'd better believe we've got to change that.

And there's a broader trend at work here.

Look at the countries that lag behind in the education of girls.

Look at the countries with the highest rates of child marriage-they're called child brides, but let's be clear-it's rape. It's rape.

Look at the countries that practice female genital mutilation.

Look at the countries that limit access to women's reproductive health.

It's not a coincidence that the vast majority of these countries that oppress women and deny them opportunities are not democracies. And many are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

When citizens are shut out of their government, women are shut out of their government.

When people's voices are silenced, women's voices are silenced.

That's what's at stake here.

And by the way, the United States, as we all know, has a long way to go on many of these issues as well.

So we need to keep speaking up on behalf of every woman's right to be heard and realize her power.

My mother used to tell my sister and me, "You may be the first, but make sure you aren't the last." And I've never forgotten that.

But let's dig into why this matters to all of us. Why the work you do is so important.

Because here's the thing we all know and that more people need to understand:

Bringing women into government is not just the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. It yields better policy, healthier democracies, and stronger communities.

Do we want to defeat terrorism? Empower women and girls. That's how we build stronger, more resilient communities that can resist violent extremism.

Do we want to grow a developing economy? Make sure women can contribute the same as men. One study estimated that if women around the world could participate equally, it would add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. That's the GDP of the U.S. and China combined. That's real money.

And here's something I've seen over and over again in my own career. Women in power bring a different perspective. An essential perspective.

I've been at meetings this year and in this city where 10 men speak before a single woman is called up on stage. If you're trying to tackle the world's problems, you should hear from someone who represents half the world's population.

For example, I'm one of 3 women on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And I remain deeply concerned about Boko Haram in Nigeria-kidnapping girls, using rape as a tool of war. So I suggested that the Intelligence Committee hold a hearing on Boko Haram to talk about this issue and what more can be done.

I'm not saying a male senator couldn't or wouldn't propose that topic. But I do think it helps that women have a unique understanding of the intense brutality and trauma of rape, and why we should pay attention to a group that uses it as a weapon or anyone who uses rape as a weapon of war.

And by the way, whether or not a woman is in the room, we all know men have an equal responsibility to consider issues from these other perspectives.

So I think the bottom line is pretty clear. Helping women lead is a moral issue.

That's where you come in.

I want to thank NDI for leading this fight.

We need the work you do.

We need you to keep training and organizing aspiring women leaders.

We need you to keep monitoring electoral violence.

We need you to keep connecting women around the globe so they can share their insights and experiences.

The United States government must remain a leader in the effort to support and empower women.

So when we see proposals to cut the budgets for the State Department and USAID by nearly a third-31%-we must speak up for full funding.

When we see CNN report, just yesterday, that the Administration is shutting down the "Let Girls Learn" program launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, we need to make our case-that when we help girls learn, we can build stronger economies and safer communities.

Let's remind people what programs like Let Girls Learn, and resources like our foreign aid mean- life-saving food, vaccinations, HIV/AIDS medication, refugee assistance, education, women's health programs.

Let's remind people that while less than 1% of the overall federal budget-these investments make us safer and more secure, because they strengthen vulnerable societies and help us avoid military interventions.

Foreign aid isn't charity-it's in our interest.

And today I want to challenge all of us to go even beyond that. I want us to take all this energy, all this commitment, and ask what we can each do to bring more women into the arena.

You've probably seen that slogan, "The Future Is Female"-it was on a lot of signs at the Women's March in January. So let's figure out how to make that future arrive as soon as possible.

Let me leave you with one final story.

A few weeks ago, I visited Iraq and Jordan as part of a congressional delegation. And in Jordan, we went to the Za'atari refugee camp-80,000 people forced to flee their homes and everything they knew. This camp is now actually Jordan's 4th-largest city.

While we were there, I met with a number of women and heard their stories. And as you can imagine, their stories were devastating. But meeting with them also reminded me of certain universal truths-among people and among women.

Like, if you spend time with women in a group, they'll start telling stories-and laughing about themselves, each other, and the world-even when they've just fled a war zone.

There was one woman I met-as entrepreneurial as anyone in Silicon Valley-making scented soap out of things she found at the commissary. She gave me a bar made out of cucumber juice. It smelled amazing, by the way.

We met with a group of women who had all gathered to figure out how to use their sewing skills to make and sell clothes.

There was one woman who was talking a lot, explaining what she was doing, how she was going to organize women in the camp.

And another woman made a noise-she sort of scoffed, "Oh, she just can't stop talking."

So our translator whispers to me, "They're sisters." And I looked over at the woman who had interrupted and I asked, "Are you younger or older?" She said she was older.

And I told her, "I'm an older sister too. I understand."

The older sister lit up, and hugged and kissed me. It was that big sister bond.

But I recognized that woman-the younger sister. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, rallying the troops, taking charge. And any of you would have recognized her too.

She was a leader.

And I've been thinking about these women who have experienced so much suffering, but still have compassion, determination, a sense of humor, and hope. I don't know what they'll go on to do with their lives. And I really want to keep track and find out. And I really hope that one day they'll be able to return to their homes, and reinstitute themselves in their communities, and play a role in rebuilding and leading their countries.

In one of those camps-in places here or around the world-there are women, right now, who are following in the footsteps Angela Merkel, or Indira Gandhi, or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Here in our own country, there are young women-running the PTA, building parks, leading their communities or starting a campaign-women who are building on the work of Barbara Mikulski or Madeleine Albright.

And I hope we all continue to do everything in our power to find those women and encourage them to make change.

This organization is living that knowledge, that lesson my mother believed in so deeply: We may be the first, but let's make very certain that we're not the last.

Thank you very much.