Ambassador Melanne Verveer's Interview With Lois Romano of the Washington Post

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
The Washington Post
Washington, DC
November 19, 2009

QUESTION: Welcome Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. Thanks for joining us today.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: It's my pleasure, Lois.

QUESTION: This is a new position.


QUESTION: So what took us so long to send this sort of message to the international community that this is a priority for the United States?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I think we have had some progressive steps over the years. Back in the '90s, there as the formation of the Women's Office. There was a strong commitment from the Congress, from many in the Congress. So there was a Women's Office here. It functioned up until this time, really. It had a lot to do with the preparations for the Beijing Forth World UN Conference. We're ramping up to its fifteenth anniversary, but, really, it's been evolutionary because if you look back to the '90s, not too long ago, there weren't even cables written from posts about what was happening on issues of concern to women that were really matters for our foreign policy consideration.

So, in many ways, we've come a long way, and we've come to a point where President Obama and Secretary Clinton clearly recognize that these are issues that matter a great deal to our foreign policy, that it's hard to imagine how we're going to respond to challenges, whether they're economic or they're matters of security, matters of governance, the environment, if we don't have women participating at all sectors of society.

So it's an effort to truly integrate these concerns into the overall operations of the State Department, and, really, when you look at it fundamentally, they are about women, uniquely affect women, but they really are about the kind of world we want to create. So they're much larger, and it gives us an opportunity to really focus in a way that can be a resource to all of the Departments here.

QUESTION: Your larger message is the empowerment of women, both economically through education, through, you know, political elections. Are these western notions, though, that we're trying to impose on other countries that are not ready?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: No, they're not western notions, and, you know, what's so interesting is that in so many places around the world, women may not know what was in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes that all of us are created equal, and we are human beings, and our dignity is protected by these rights.

But they do know deep inside of them, they shouldn't be victims of abuse, they should have the right to participate in the political and economic lives of their society, the right to go to school, and what's happening in places that may be the most hostile environments are what women are doing in those places aided by men and through NGOs, through governments and other ways. They are actually bringing about change.

So, for example, in Morocco, the Family Code was reformed. It took years of struggle because there were many who said it was hostile to their religious values, that it was inappropriate, and yet women and the good men at their sides struggled with them; some were imprisoned, but they finally made it happen. And what they did is they realized that their opponents were saying that this was contrary to their religious values, and the women said, "No. These are our religious values. Our religion doesn't oppose the kinds of things that we are trying to make happen."

And when the family law reform in Morocco was proclaimed, for example, and it said women had the right to divorce, there was, beneath the provision of that code, a Koranic verse that supported it, and then it would say right to custody of the children, another Koranic verse, demonstrating in that society that these were values that went hand in hand, and those who try to say otherwise were really out of step.

So, today, they're making progress. They're training judges. They're informing women in the rural areas of their rights, but this is all done from within that society.

QUESTION: You are dealing with on a daily basis developing countries where there are entrenched cultural attitudes that marginalize women and diminish women. How can you move your argument forward when you can't even get some of these countries to prosecute some of the, you know, violators, like in the Congo where you've had 14,000 reports of rape and 280-something prosecutions?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: You're right, Lois. Sometimes it's really tough, and you've probably raised one of the most difficult situations anyplace, and that is the tremendous violations, that kind of abuse, and raping used as a tool of the armed conflict and what is resulting. And the conflict goes on more than a decade now. There is tremendous physical and mental and, certainly, every other kind of damage done to the victims of this, and what we have to do is we have to operate at every level.

We operate at the United Nations, and a series of resolutions have been passed. And one that Secretary Clinton just worked to strengthen on a U.S.-proposed resolution in the Security Council several weeks ago, that was unanimously adopted to create a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to really go in and deal with these kinds of instances of sexual violence against women and to create a pool of experts who can be placed in a country before the worst happens, to look at all kinds of issues from impunity to other related problems.

But the UN is one way. Through our aid and assistance programs is another way. We've got--you know, Howard Wolpe in this case is the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes trying to bring countries of interest together in the region and beyond the region to look at the political issues.

After the Secretary's trip there, she committed to a series of interventions dealing with the impunity, with corruption, with other accountable--accountability issues that clearly need to be put in place that this is going to change. So it's operating on many, many levels. It is a difficult process, but it is one in which we are really trying to impact in a positive way. But, oftentimes, these are very, very tough issues.

QUESTION: Now, the UN has had a number of resolutions floating around for the past decade, the oldest of which, I think, is 1325. Do any of these have teeth?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: They do, and they should have greater teeth, if you will. 1325 will be ten years old next year. It basically said that women should participate in peacekeeping and negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction, that these issues are about women, peace and security, and they are all keenly related.

A lot of it goes back to the political will, to really put women in these positions. You know, you remember well Northern Ireland and all of the effort that went in to end the conflict that had gone on so long between the Catholics and the Protestants. Well, women played a very critical role, both in creating a social infrastructure, they had to create their own political party because they were kept out of the other parties, but they were--finally, by one vote, they were able to get to be part of the negotiating process, made a real contribution, helped make sure that the referendum, the Good Friday Accords, was adopted, and then worked economically, politically, and every other way to strengthen that society, so it could be what it is today.

There's always some pushback, but they are doing far--much better than anybody could have but hope for, and women made a difference; Rwanda, the same thing. But it takes political will. It takes a commitment. It takes recognizing that women need to have a place at the table.

There's a resolution called 1820 which really showed how these violations against women are matters of international peace and security and have to be addressed as such. It has made a difference in terms of the peacekeepers and ensuring that they are properly trained, so they don't become part of the problem as well, but we haven't made it to the point where we should. There's a lot of work that has to be done in strengthening all of these. That's why the Secretary worked at trying to get the Special Representative appointed. And we will continue to try to do that, but it is not a perfect situation, and it is a situation that really requires a great deal of improvement. And I think as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of Resolution 1325, we clearly have to use this year to make sure that we make more progress than we have in the last nine years.

QUESTION: What are the economic arguments for empowering women globally?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Oh, my goodness. You know, the data just keeps growing every day, and it comes from the United Nations, from the World Bank, increasingly from corporations, from think tanks, and what it basically says is that women are the drivers of GDP, they're the drivers of economic growth. And when women are able to access the tools that they need, whether it's the skills, the capability, credit, they can really make an enormous difference.

And the corollary of that is that investments in women have the greatest positive correlation to enhancing a country's general prosperity and poverty alleviation. So, economic growth is really one of the best ways to promote development with all of the positive impacts that that represents.

The World Economic Forum just came out with its gender gap study. Now, why would this forum of very top corporate leaders put out a study on the equality in a given country between men and women on a set of four criteria, from economic participation to educational attainment? Because it says a great deal about a country's competitiveness. If there is greater equality between men and women and there is no equality as such, perfect equality, in any one country at this point, but to the extent that countries close that gap and do better, those countries much, much more prosperous economies.

So we know that closing the equality gap makes a great difference. In fact, the slogan of a big project at the World Bank is "Women's equality equals smart economics," and that's basically what it boils down to.

The head of Goldman Sachs, which, obviously, as he, himself, will acknowledge, pays a lot of attention to research and data, did a lot of work before they announced their big program called "10,000 Women," major investment in enhancing the prospects for women in small- and medium-size businesses in the developing world. They said they did it because the highest yield investments will come out of investing in women's economic prospects, and--

QUESTION: And what did they base that on?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: The data. The data is all there. As Lloyd Blankfein has said, "It's the lowest-hanging fruit. If you really want to grow GDP, then pick that fruit."

QUESTION: Oh, that's interesting.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: So the data is really becoming quite voluminous.

QUESTION: You have said that the treatment of women globally is also a national security issue. How so?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, you know, some of the most dangerous places in the world for women are the most dangerous places, period, and we often find where women are oppressed in the worst ways, they are the perfect havens for the kinds of extremists and the kinds of damage that extremists have done.

And we have just had ground-breaking hearings in our Congress, both in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the House Foreign Relations Committee, on violence against women, and it's a recognition that these are major human rights problems, but, beyond that, violence against women results in lesser economic productivity for a country. So we've got economic price we pay for it, and we've got a security price we pay for it, because where women suffer the most are often the most unstable, dangerous situations politically that will impact our world, let alone potentially our country.

QUESTION: But don't you have kind of a conundrum here? Because these, these areas, the most dangerous, are the ones where it's the toughest to empower women. If you did empower women, then, you know, the country would be stronger, but how do you empower women in these kind of environments?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, you know, let's look at what's happening in Afghanistan, for example, and the impacts of what we're trying to do there and rooting out al-Qaeda and given what the Taliban have done. We know that if that country is going to stabilize, if the forces of progress are going to prevail ultimately, it will have a great deal to do with improving the lives of the people in that country.

Women have to be a part of that solution in a significant way. It won't happen if we're just investing in one part of the population and leaving half behind because we know that no country can prosper if you leave half the people behind. And so, even in the most difficult situations, if we want to move those countries forward and hope we can, in most instances, if not all, then we have to invest in women and find ways to do that.

QUESTION: You had a recent trip to Afghanistan a couple of months ago. How do the women there feel about U.S. involvement in the country? I mean, that's sort of in the news right now. So--

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, it's funny you should ask because I was just reading some statements that they have been e-mailing me, and there are worries about the future, should we dramatically diminish our own efforts there. Because the security situation in many ways has worsened in recent months.

The President is, obviously, spending a good deal of time with the security team, trying to make a determination in terms of the issue with additional troops, but, generally, most women embrace what we have been trying to do, and it has devolved to their betterment.

There are girls' schools in places that never were. There were countless more girls getting an education. There are women engaged economically. There are women in the parliament trying to make a difference.

And I had a discussion with a group of women when I was there, and the discussion opened by their plea that we not look at them as victims but as the leaders that they are. And part of, I think, one of the problems has been the fact that this great talent pool that many of them represent in that country is not being tapped adequately by the government and tapped in ways that they can really move their country forward. They are a real part of the solution.

QUESTION: But it sounds like the people that you've been hearing from believe that in order for them to move forward, you know, the U.S. needs to at least keep up their presence, the way it is, if not exceed it.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, we have a commitment to continuing to support progress in Afghanistan, and I think nobody expects that we're going to run away from that. What's being discussed is sort of the numbers of troops, whether they're increased or not, but there's been no question about the fact that we have a commitment, certainly and most fundamentally, to try to get at al-Qaeda, which did such damage to our country.

QUESTION: Now, education took a hit, though. I understand--or I read that the Taliban burned down 700 schools?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, they've burned down schools, and oftentimes, as quickly as they burn them down, the people desperately want to see them back in place. Girls who have had acid thrown in their faces find themselves determined to go to school the next day. So there's been a lot of bad stuff. There's no doubt about it. There are forces who don't want to see women and girls make the kind of progress that the women and girls in Afghanistan want to see and that their husbands often want to see for them.

We have had instances where the Mullahs now are speaking out in the Friday services in opposition to the violence, in opposition particularly to violence against women. So there are a lot of negative things happening. We only need to open the newspaper and read about them every day, but there are also a lot of good people who continue to struggle on in hopes that the future is going to be better.

QUESTION: A lot of activists, women activists in this country, were incensed last year, the way the first serious women's candidate was treated, Secretary Hillary Clinton. How is it--how do you go into these countries with this message when many people don't think we've gotten it right yet?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: You know, I think they don't say anything like why are you coming here. Usually, I'm a good news story from America.


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: It's that--you know, when I go in and talk to the women there, it's not to say America is perfect and you're not. Far from it. It's how can we work together to support each other, to learn about some of your best practices, to take lessons that don't have borders to them and export them to other places.

There was tremendous fascinating with our campaign, and it is always raised. It was just raised with me when I did a press conference in India. It was among the first questions, and I think people recognize the tremendously historic nature of the fact that we have our first African-American president, and they also recognize the fact that Hillary Clinton had waged a very, very competitive campaign, and that there are 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and, you know, with some more cracks in the future, hopefully this barrier will no longer be one that exists in our country.

So I think they really are fascinated by the progress that we have made, and that's a great lesson. And the fact that the Secretary and the President both having competed against each other are now working together as a team is one of utter fascination because, in so many places, one doesn't so easily cross the aisle or, you know, work together with your opponent, but it's also a great message that we can send, and it's one that clearly is very impactful.