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In a region where dictatorships have given way to democracies, Hillary Rodham Clinton urged nations of the Americas Thursday to go a step further to protect women's rights.

The only way for democracies to "survive and thrive," she said, is to give women more power "to seek and claim their rights as citizens and as human beings."

Speaking at a conference of Latin American first ladies, Mrs. Clinton suggested the challenge could be more difficult than the giant undertaking of building the Panama Canal, whose Pacific entrance was just blocks away.

"Instead of mountains, we seek to move hearts, to change old attitudes, to banish hunger and disease and ignorance, to educate all our children . . . to empower the women of our hemisphere to participate fully in the life of our nations," Mrs. Clinton said.

Without being specific, she called for changes in both law and attitude to protect women's property and employment rights, combat sexual and domestic violence and encourage political participation.

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