British attorney and human rights activist Cherie Booth Blair urged a Samford University audience to take seriously the matters of human rights in general and women's rights in particular during a talk at the school Tuesday (MARCH 1).
"We have the power, individually and collectively, and the responsibility to strive for the betterment of the human condition," said the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, noting that the U.S. plays a leading role in advocating human rights around the world.
"The globalization of human rights since 1945 has been driven by the U.S.," she said.
Despite successes in many areas, she said, the reality is that millions of people around the world are being denied their rights and protections of law.
"There is a lot to be done, especially related to the rights of women," she acknowledged, noting that civil and political rights are still being sought for many women around the world. "In some countries, women are still fighting for the right to vote."
Booth Blair delivered the Percy C. Ratliff lecture to a crowd of about 1,700 in Samford's Wright Center Concert Hall. Recognized by Forbes magazine as among the most powerful women in the world, she is the author of a recently published book, The Goldfish Bowl, which looks at the lives of spouses of other British Prime Ministers.
She opened her remarks with an outline of historical markers related to human rights, referencing the U.S. Constitution, which was influenced by its writers' belief in God, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and late 19th century developments such as the abolition of slavery.
In the 20th century, the Nuremberg Tribunal, which followed the Holocaust, dealt with crimes against humanity. Then, for the first time, it was accepted that individuals had a right to demand a certain minimal level of humane treatment. "This was a huge step forward for human rights," she said.
Booth Blair spoke of Kuwait, which presents a contradiction in its approach to women's rights. Although women cannot vote in the country, which she recently visited, it has achieved progress for women in many ways, including education and lower illiteracy rates.
She told of horrific situations of torture and rape women have endured in many countries, such as in Yugoslavia during the Balkan crisis, in East Timor, Rwanda, Sudan and the Congo.
In many places today, women's rights focus has shifted to securing economic and political rights.
Noting the truth of the statement that "Poverty has a woman's face," she said that "Women and girls are twice as likely to live in poverty as are men." In the U.S., she said, women receive 77 percent of what a man makes, on average.
She sees education as essential for breaking the poverty cycle. "Countries that fail to educate their girls and women have lower economic growth rates."
She cited findings in a report, to be released in May, that looks at the status of women in 53 countries related to economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, education, quality of life, and other areas.
"The reality is, no country in the world has achieved true equality for women," said Booth Blair, who has seen an early draft of the report.
"We can make a difference. We all have a role to play," both internationally and domestically, she said. And the responsibility, she believes, lies not just with government. "Business has a role to play."
Quoting a former human rights advocate and first lady of the U.S., she said, "Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us that human rights starts in the human heart."
While on the Samford campus, she met with a group of student leaders who submitted questions on a variety of topics, from her work as Queen's Counsel, an elite group of English lawyers, to how she balances her life as Britain's first lady, attorney, author and mother of four-- ranging in age from four to 21.
Just prior to the lecture, she greeted and posed for photos with 150 invited guests at a reception in the Great Room in Robinson law building.
In his introduction of her at the lecture, which was open to the public, Samford president Thomas E. Corts remarked on the "many wonderful relationships" the university community has had with the British people over the years. Since 1985, the school has sent hundreds of students and faculty to its study centre in London.
During her overnight stay in Alabama, Booth Blair visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where she viewed exhibits along with other visitors, including a group from Leeds Elementary School.
She also shopped for presents for her 17-year-old daughter, who will soon celebrate a birthday. She told her Samford audience of the niceness of the store clerks. "I'm sure they appreciated the money I was spending, too," she quipped.