Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Advancing the Role of Women in Leadership, Diplomacy, and Government

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
University of Nevada at Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV
September 1, 2011

Dean Hudgins, thank you for that introduction. I greatly appreciate this opportunity and want to thank the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, its College of Liberal Arts and Department of Political Science who are the hosts of this event. I also want to thank Professor Dr. Joanne Goodwin for participating in this event, and for the important role she is playing here at UNLV and as the Director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada.

It is truly an honor for me to be in Las Vegas and to share the Obama Administration’s far-reaching efforts to support the empowerment of women and girls globally. It is also an honor to be with Representative Shelley Berkley who has been a tireless advocate for the advancement of women and girls internationally. Congresswoman: I want to thank you and your colleagues in Congress for supporting our bilateral and multilateral efforts to address critical issues that impact women, girls and families around the world.

As Secretary Clinton and officials across this Administration have stated repeatedly, the major security, governance, environmental, and economic challenges of the 21st Century cannot be solved without the participation of women and girls at all levels of society.

We know that empowering women globally – including farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, women de-miners in Sri Lanka, a legislator in Afghanistan or a recent college graduate protesting in Tahrir Square in Egypt – is one of the surest ways to create favorable outcomes in poverty alleviation, economic growth, and a country’s general prosperity. In fact, we know that as women progress, everyone in society benefits, including men and boys.

That is why the United States and our international partners are invested in an historic effort to empower women globally. It is clear that tapping into limitless potential of women and girls is not only the right thing to do but it is the smart thing.

As the Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs responsible for U.S. engagement across the United Nations system as well as with other multilateral institutions, I want to focus my remarks today on how the U.S. is working to lift up millions of women and girls across the world through robust engagement multilaterally.

But first, I want to touch briefly on the importance this Administration has placed on our engagement at the UN and other organizations.

As many of you know, our engagement at the UN and across the multilateral system has been a top priority for this Administration, particularly as we face increasingly difficult global challenges including, continued economic instability, famine in places such as the Horn of Africa, complex security challenges such as terrorism and non-proliferation, and breathtaking transformation in North Africa and Middle East. Time and again, we have found that multilateral tools at the UN and elsewhere have been essential for the United States in achieving our foreign policy goals, enhancing our security, and advancing our values.

The UN and multilateral organizations provide the means of cooperation and partnership to find common solutions to complex problems; they offer fora through which the international community can set global norms and standards; and they help states achieve them.

Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States has sought to strengthen the United Nations and other aspects of the international architecture to respond better to the challenges of our rapidly changing world. That includes leveraging multilateral tools and mobilizing the international community in a coordinated, focused, and concentrated way to empower women and girls globally.

We realize that in the 21st century, the weight and scope of these issues are too great for the U.S. to carry the water alone, and that is why we have strengthened old alliances and built new partnerships – locally, nationally and internationally – to address the challenges of our day.

When you look solely at the breadth of challenges facing women and girls globally – including the lack of education and basic literacy skills, sexual and gender-based violence, rampant discrimination, the lack of economic opportunities and political participation we can understand why institutions like the UN are essential. We can exchange ideas and best practices and rally support to address hard problems.

For example, the United States is working the specialized agencies such as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to expand girls’ and women’s access to education.

Today, women, mainly in the world’s poorest communities, represent about two-thirds of the nearly 800 million illiterate adults around the world. Seeking to end this imbalance, Secretary Clinton spoke at to UNESCO in May to launch the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. In Paris, she joined UNESCO’s Executive Director Irina Bokova, world leaders, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, including American companies, in pledging to support education for women and girls.

As the Secretary pointed out at the Global Partnership launch, “No society can achieve its full potential when half the population is denied the opportunity to achieve theirs.” We know that opening the door for women and girls to greater education leads to more choices, opportunities, and useful information in how to live their lives. Indeed, we also know that birth rates, HIV infections, incidents of domestic violence and female cutting all decline when education rises.

That is why we are deeply committed to the Partnership because it has the power to transform the lives of women. Together, we are working to ensure that money and resources are best used to promote basic literacy training and secondary education for girls around the globe. Working together with other governments, NGOs, and private partners also allows us to multiply our impact, reaching more women and girls in meaningful ways than if we acted alone. It is because of the power of these partnerships that we have been at the fore-front of bringing together diverse groups of governments, foundations, and corporations.

For example, the United States helped broker an agreement between Procter and Gamble and UNESCO to fund literacy training for girls in Senegal. Today only 33% of Senegalese women are literate. This modestly funded agreement will impact 40,000 women in Senegal enhancing their literacy and increasing their income and quality of their environment.

We also have partners, like Nokia, with whom we work in multiple venues. Nokia is a partner in the UNESCO Global Partnership, but they are also one of our partners in the mWomen program, an initiative led by the Cherie Blair Foundation and the mobile industry association GSMA which aims to reduce the gender gap in access to mobile technology of 300 million in the developing world, by 50 percent, in the next three years. By increasing women’s access to cell phones, the programs enables them to gain access to mobile education and mobile banking, which are critical tools for girls and women to strengthen their education and participate in developing markets.

The Obama Administration has also focused on the number of women holding leadership positions. We know there has been progress on this front; year after year we see more women entering government and taking on senior positions, including heads of state, yet the road forward has at times been rocky and the numbers disproportionate given that women make half of the global population. When women are not serving in governments, when their voice and experience are muted, when they are not at the negotiating table their absence has direct impact on society, on peace and security, on strengthening democracy in the communities, nations and world in which we live.

The Administration is implementing policies and programs to bolster women’s leadership capacity in all areas of political participation and decision-making. To that end, we have worked to strengthen the institutional arrangements and mechanisms at the UN for support of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Indeed, we were at the forefront in 2009 and 2010 in leading efforts at the UN to support the consolidation of the UN’s existing gender-related institutions into a single more effective women’s agency. It was our goal at the UN to elevate women’s issues to their rightful status.

I am pleased to report that our efforts were successful. UN Women formally began operations on January 1, 2011 with a comprehensive mandate to work on all issues related to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, is an impressive leader, as you know she is the former President of Chile.

UN Women has several strategic priorities, one of which is expanding women’s leadership and participation. The events of the Arab Spring have focused international attention on the importance and fragility of women’s political participation. In some cases, gains previously made by women in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged, and women who had taken part in democracy movements are now excluded from negotiations on future systems of government. These trends jeopardize political stability, economic security, and human rights in countries undergoing transition.

To address these concerns, UN Women, in conjunction with the United States and other partners, will hold a high-level roundtable discussion during the upcoming UN General Assembly in September to examine the role of women during periods of political transition, like in the Middle East and North Africa. There will be senior-level participation from UN Women, the United States, Brazil, the European Union, and other member states.

Additionally, the Administration supports UN Women efforts to advance women’s political participation through technical assistance, research, and training, with a focus on countries in transition, including countries in the Middle East. We hope to complement ongoing UN Women projects aimed at greater political participation for women in Latin America and in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Another UN Women strategic priority is enhancing women’s economic empowerment. Executive Director Bachelet has often said that women’s economic security is a precondition for further improvements in their lives.

Every day, women are starting their own businesses. Between 1997 and 2008, women-owned businesses in the U.S. grew at twice the national average for all other business types. An estimated 10.1 million companies, 40% of all privately-owned firms, were owned by women as of 2008.

What we know is that women-run small and medium sized businesses in the U.S. and internationally accelerate economic growth, and many countries have made progress on laws and regulations concerning inheritance and property ownership, working hours, and retirement ages. Yet women face barriers in the U.S. and globally starting these businesses, including challenges connected with access to training, mentors, finance, technology, and markets. These challenges need to be addressed in order for women to fulfill their potential to increase their livelihoods and contribute to the broader economy.

To study these barriers and identify solutions, the U.S. supported the launch of the OECD’s Gender Initiative earlier this year. This initiative will create indicators for measuring women’s economic empowerment, and offer a toolbox of policy options by which member states can unleash the potential of millions of women through education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The OECD is piloting this approach with its Women’s Business Network for the Middle East and North Africa, which is co-chaired by the United States and Jordan.

The United States is also playing a leading role, along with international partners, in supporting empowerment of women, within the UN system, through our participation in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The theme of the spring 2011 UN Commission on the Status of Women session was “Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science, and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.”

At that Commission meeting, the U.S. pointed out that the emerging green economy is shaping employment opportunities, and women can gain a stronger position in the workforce through green jobs. The Department of Labor is leading efforts domestically along with policy-makers, employers, workforce professionals, educators, and trainers to focus their efforts on having women participate in and benefit from the new green economy. Women have made great strides in some male-dominated occupations, but still make up only a small portion of the workers in these jobs.

At the Spring session, and with the goal of further advancing the capacity of women in addressing climate change policy, our delegation led by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, announced a new international exchange program, which will target women climate leaders from the developing world and the critical role they play in developing climate-related policies.

Participants will travel to the United States for three weeks to learn about the development of new policies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as information about cutting edge small scale clean technologies and how to promote women’s entrepreneurship opportunities and markets for them in their countries.

Building on the Administrations’ strong commitment to expand educational exchanges and new opportunities in entrepreneurship and science, the U.S. established the TechWomen Program in 2010 to promote professional development and sustainable relationships for women technology leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the most prominent U.S. technology companies are committed to participating in the program. This summer we saw the first graduates from this program, thirty-seven women from places such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the West Bank and Gaza. Building on the success of the TechWomen program Secretary Clinton recently announced a similar initiative called TechGirls that will bring teenage girls from the Middle East and North Africa for educational programming in the United States.

Before concluding, I want to highlight the Administration’s continued effort to work multilaterally including through the UN to address some of the most vexing challenges facing women and girls, including the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women, the role of women in peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building and combating sexual and gender-based violence.

This Administration is deeply committed to increasing women’s representation at all levels of conflict resolution, including in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. It is a priority for the U.S. in areas of post-conflict and transition, to ensure that participate in peace processes, political transitions, new constitutions, and the electoral process. Thus, we have been blunt in urging others join us in implementing the series of UN Security Council resolutions on these topics, including those we have taken leadership on, such as Resolutions 1325, 1888 and more recently 1960.

Resolution 1888 was a major achievement for the Administration because it established a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict as well as a team of experts to support accountability mechanisms targeting impunity for rape as a weapon of war. The Special Representative position is currently held by Margot Wallstrom.

Resolution 1960, passed at U.S. urging last December, further empowered the UN to address sexual violence in armed conflict by establish monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements.

Today we are continuing to work hand in hand with Special Representative Margot Wallstrom to lead and coordinate efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence against women and children.

Additionally, as the Secretary of State promised during the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 last October, the U.S. is developing a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security that will guide our approach to this issue in the coming years. While making this promise, the Secretary also committed nearly $44 million in U.S. funding to a set of initiatives designed to empower women, with a large share of the funding to support civil society groups that focus on women in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been adamant that rights of Afghan women will not be sacrificed.

President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy recognized that “countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity. When those rights and opportunities are denied, countries lag behind.”

That’s why the Obama Administration is firmly committed to working with the United Nations and with international partners, including non-governmental organizations, the private sector, to advance women’s rights, freedoms, and opportunities. We know our goal to empower women and girls is an historic effort that will not be achieved overnight. It will require persistence and a long-term commitment of the United States and international community to realize the lasting change we seek for women and girls on a global scale.

I will end there. I look forward to your questions and comments.