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Secretary Clinton Focuses on Women's Rights

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made clear that she plans to make women's issues a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy than ever before. On her recent trip to Africa, Clinton pressed government leaders on abuses of women's rights, and is using her star power to advance opportunities for women and young girls across the world.

Secretary Clinton spent 11 days on her trip to Africa last month, her longest trip so far as Secretary of State. The trip included visits with heads of state and government, but also visits with women farmers in Kenya and with women in a housing project outside Cape Town in South Africa.

Women's rights advocates say Secretary Clinton went out of her way to shine a spotlight on the plight of poor and abused women, continuing her long years of advocacy for women's rights.

It became clear that Hillary Clinton had a special passion for global women's issues when, as First Lady, she addressed the United Nations women's conference in Beijing in September 1995, denouncing abuses of women.

During her trip to Africa, Clinton boarded U.N. planes to visit the remote, eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place the UN says has the worst prevalence of rape and other sexual violence in the world.

"I have just come from a meeting with two survivors of sexual attacks," she said. "The atrocities that these women have suffered, which stand for the atrocities that so many have suffered. The United States condemns these attacks and all those who commit them and abet them."

Secretary Clinton has chosen her close friend Melanne Verveer as the State Department's first Global Ambassador for Women's Affairs. Clinton has indicated that major decisions at the State Department will be viewed through the prism of how they might impact women. Jessica Grounds is president of the nonpartisan "Women under Forty" political action committee, based in Washington.

"Secretary Clinton has done something by bringing this global women's issue to a top priority, that every decision goes through that office, because often times women's issues tend to be an outlier piece, or maybe like a minority group," she explained.

Grounds says she thinks Clinton's international fame will boost her efforts to empower women.

"I think she is so well received internationally, and that was one of the best reasons to choose her, by President Obama, to choose her for Secretary of State," she added. "She already had an amazing connection with leaders from around the world from her experience as First Lady, she made that a priority, to build relationships with other women heads of state, Angela Merkel and all of that. Now we have a whole cadre of new women leading nations around the world."

Some critics say Clinton needs to make sure that terrorism and nuclear proliferation are her top priorities, and not women's rights.

Lawrence Wilkerson was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Women's rights is high on my list of things to do to empower the rest of the world that is not empowered, but it is not the top priority, there are many more things that take priority over that," he noted.

Wilkerson also says Clinton needs to tread carefully in certain parts of the world on pushing governments to respect and empower women.

"In societies where women's rights are severely curtailed, like Afghanistan, for example, then we need to be very circumspect and very cautious and prudent about the way we move towards empowering women, although it's important" he added.

There are others, however, who say Clinton must use her unique position to push women's rights, because so many women are still the victims of violence and repression in many parts of the world, making women's rights the moral challenge of our times.