“You all have the power to be soldiers for human rights. I urge you to use that power,” former President Bill Clinton told the audience at a packed Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts after receiving the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights. Clinton’s return to UConn on Oct. 15, came 20 years to the day after his visit for the inauguration of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, which is named for the late U.S. senator from Connecticut.
Clinton was a co-winner along with Tostan, a vital human rights organization that has brought significant, sustainable change to Africa, notably by putting an end to the centuries-old practices of female genital cutting and forced child marriage. Tostan founder Molly Melching was there to accept the second Thomas J. Dodd prize.
During the University-wide celebration, the focus frequently returned to the power of all individuals to effect change.
“Sometimes the empowerment of people to help themselves is the most important thing you can do,” said Clinton. Acknowledging that it is a troubling time in the world because “there are so many blatant examples of abuses of human rights,” he urged audience members to “not be paralyzed by the fact that we cannot stop every bad thing or solve every problem.”
Both award recipients cited examples of individuals who make a difference — from women in small African villages whose voices have united behind efforts to abandon the practice of female genital cutting to students who donate to human rights organizations with the stroke of a computer key.
“You may not want to do what Molly [Melching] did,” said Clinton, “but you can support people who do.”
In 1971, Melching visited Senegal intending to remain for a few months, yet stayed more than 40 years. She started Tostan to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.
Melching explained that Tostan’s innovative approach, called the Community Empowerment Program, is rooted in the belief that every human being has a fundamental right to human dignity.
The program was shaped by a set of shared beliefs about human rights, including that everyone has the right to be free from discrimination, the right to be free from violence, the right to pursue an education and work, and the right not to be exploited, said Melching.
Tostan has been recognized in the past, notably by Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady, said Melching, before citing the words of another former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt: “‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.’ I dedicate this award to all those who work for human rights in small places around the world,” Melching continued.
The Clinton Foundation
Clinton was recognized for the efforts of the foundation he established after leaving office. The Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation works to improve global health and wellness, increase opportunity for girls and women, reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity and growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change.
University Provost Mun Choi ended the ceremony with the same call to action emphasized throughout the night.
“President Clinton, I thank you for your service to the nation and the greater humanity,” said Choi, before turning to the audience to say, “Go forth and make an impact.” —KRISTEN COLE