Women Center Stage in Foreign Policy and the Global Economy

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Women's Foreign Policy Group Luncheon
Washington, DC
July 15, 2010

Thank you so much. Thank you so much Judy…. It is such a pleasure to be here with so many women leaders, so many dear friends (I think we’ve decided this is the only way we can see each other anymore) and to be with the good guys who stand with us on all the critical issues. It is truly meaningful to have this opportunity.

I too want to thank my friend, Pat Ellis, who has done so much in leading the Women’s Foreign Policy Group over many years. We are all very indebted to her for the way she has put a spotlight on these issues of particular concern to women, but issues that should be of concern to everyone.

I want to thank Under Secretary Maria Otero from the State Department and who stands with us on so many key issues of the day in a very extraordinary way. And my friends, the female ambassadors serving in Washington who are partners, colleagues, and co-collaborators on so many issues. The ambassadors have been extraordinary partners on so many initiatives. I think it is an example of the way women have come together from positions of leadership to join to make more possible. I have worked with them on putting women’s economic issues on the APEC agenda, on training women parliamentarians in Afghanistan, on the India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, and so much more. I am so pleased that they could be here, and I thank them for all they do.

And, dear Judy [Woodruff], who has always exemplified the best in journalism—she has always been the gold standard and continues to be the gold standard. It will be 15 years this September that Judy was in Beijing to cover the UN 4th World Conference on Women. She was then the voice for CNN. And it was in Beijing that the then First Lady of the United States inspired the world with her historic speech on “women’s rights as human rights.” The record will show, that the first thing Hillary Clinton did when she left the podium, was to do an interview with Judy Woodruff.

Beijing sparked a movement, all around the world. It made a call to action for women’s access to education, health care, credit, and to be free from violence, and to be able participate fully in the economic and political lives of our countries.

The Platform for Action that was adopted in Beijing by 189 countries, including the United States, remains an ambitious blueprint against which we continue to measure our progress in improving the lives of women and girls around the world. And we have made progress. Women, and the good men who stand with us, everywhere are working to advance women’s equality, but there is still, unfortunately, a long road ahead on many of these issues. As Secretary Clinton has often reminded us: “We have to write the next chapter to fully realize the dreams and potential that were set forth in Beijing.”

Today, thankfully, there is a growing recognition that women’s empowerment must be a central component of any effort to solve our most pressing global challenges. Because it remains a simple fact, that no country, no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.

We can no longer afford to relegate this global, economic, and social imperative to the category of “women’s concerns.” You know, that nice category on the side--if we can get to it after all the pressing issues, we will. That’s not where these issues lie. These issues must lie at the center of our consideration to create the kind of world we all want to see.

Secretary Clinton has succinctly described the stakes: “Until women around the world are accorded their rights and afforded opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, global progress and prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.”

We not only shortchange the world’s women, but we shortchange our world, when the potential that women represent goes untapped.

The United States Government is making women a cornerstone of our foreign policy, because we recognize that the major security, economic, environmental, and governance challenges we face as a nation, and as a community of nations--from climate change to the conflict in Afghanistan--cannot be effectively addressed without the participation of women at all levels.

I am pleased to be able to come here, in my new role. President Obama created this position to underscore the importance of global women’s issues in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. And I must say, when I travel, so many people come up to me and say, “we need to do this in our own government,” or “we really respect the United States for what your position represents and what your country’s commitment to these issues represents.” The practical implication of this position is that the issues be fully integrated into the work of the State Department, whether that occurs in our regional bureaus—that cover every part of the world, our embassies—far flung across the world, USAID, or the specific offices that work on economics to human trafficking.

Under the Secretary’s strong leadership at the State Department, and with the support of many members of Congress, issues ranging from violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to women’s political participation, are getting greater attention on Capitol Hill. In fact, as Judy pointed out, I have to leave before lunch, because of the [event] on child marriage. I think it is unprecedented, in many ways, that the Congress would be focused on an issue like that.… There have been hearings in both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the House Foreign Relations Committee on violence against women…and there have been numerous hearings on women in Afghanistan and their future. All of this makes an important difference in moving these issues forward.

I have very limited time because of the strict rules from Pat Ellis to go into many issues. But let me touch upon a few.

First, leadership is essential to advancing the role of women in driving economic growth. Today there is a mountain of data, from the United Nations to the World Bank, from think tanks, from corporations, that correlate investments in women with positive outcomes in poverty alleviation and a country’s greater prosperity. The World Economic Forum (WEF), not a women’s organization by any definition, puts out an annual report; the Gender Gap Report. That report looks at the equality of men and women in a given country based on 4 indicators: health survivability, access to education, economic participation, and political participation. In countries where the gap is closest to being closed—and in no country is it closed, in no country are women equal to men, certainly not on these indicators.... But in those where that gap is closest to being closed, those countries are far more prosperous and economically much more competitive.

Women-run small and medium enterprises (SME’s) are the engines of economic growth. Studies show that to grow GDP, there is no better or more effective investment, “no lower hanging fruit,” as it has been said, than investing in women-run small and medium size businesses. Moreover, women have a multiplier effect, because they invest in their families and communities at much higher levels than men.

But all of that said, there are still so many barriers to women’s greater economic participation, even though we know that gender equality is “smart economics.” So we at the State Department are working to enable women to overcome those barriers –from the lack of training and mentors--to credit, to access to technology, to markets, to the lack of property rights and other discriminatory laws that they need to overcome, so that they can build the new businesses that they are capable of building and expand existing ones.

These issues are now on the agendas of the regional bureaus at State as well as the regional collaborations in which we engage. The APEC conference—the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that will be taking place this year with Japan leading it —the United States next year—will, for the first time, have women’s economic issues front and center on the agenda. With AGOA, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, we are making a concerted effort (and, thanks to many business represented in this room who have come on as partners) to enable women in Africa better access to what AGOA represents. In the Middle East, we have developed a number of initiatives to help women in the MENA countries to enable women to be full partners in growing the economies of their countries.

Just to give you an idea of how important women’s economic participation is, it is calculated that in the Asia-Pacific region alone, the region is shortchanged in excess of $40 billion a year in GDP because the potential of women is not tapped.

Second, women are at the center of the Administration’s global development initiatives. The $3.5 billion commitment to strengthen the world’s food supply by enhancing agricultural productivity recognizes that men and women farmers need different tools, different kinds of training, to be able to be more productive in the agricultural sector. We have made a concerted effort with this initiative to ensure that women, who are the great majority of small hold farmers around the world, will have the kind of access to the particular needs they have—whether it is credit, or it is the type of crops, or it is extension training, or it has to do with land tenure rights which are absolutely critical.

The Climate Change Initiative recognizes that women are the primary users, managers, and stewards of natural resources, and they are severely affected by climate change, more severely than men because they are out doing the kind of work that so much of the bad weather and other consequences of climate change—whether it’s droughts or tsunamis—can impact. We rarely hear that women are critical to addressing the challenges of climate change, yet they are uniquely suited to do that. We are working to ensure that women have access to programs and technologies to enable them to participate in adaptation and mitigation solutions—from farming techniques, to cook stoves, to solar lanterns, to a whole array of green technologies so they can be actors in reducing the carbon footprint.

The Administration’s $63 billion Global Health Initiative, a commitment to improve health and strengthen health systems worldwide, is focused on a women-centered model of care. Because we recognize that women not only face unmet health needs, they are also the key care givers for their families and their communities. We are eager to reduce maternal and child mortality—and there has not been progress for far too long. Hopefully, we will make progress now to reduce those terrible numbers, and to grow access to family planning which is critically needed around the world. We are also working to reduce increases in HIV/AIDS infections. AIDS has the face of a woman today, and the alarming increases in infection is occurring among adolescent girls. So, we need to address violence against women which contributes to this, as well as help young girls avoid the serious situations in which they often find themselves.

In her major address this year on development, Secretary Clinton underscored that women are front and center in our development policies and the application of the gender lens on development initiatives, three programs which I’ve just mentioned, are examples of this commitment.

Third, leadership is essential in promoting the role of women in peace and security. Where women are oppressed and marginalized, societies are more dangerous and extremism is more likely to take hold. Secretary Clinton has noted that

the subjugation of women is a threat to the national security of our own country. It is also a threat to the common security of our world, because the suffering and denial of the rights of women, and the instability of nations, go hand in hand.

In Afghanistan, for example, we recognize that women are critical to their country’s future; in securing it and rebuilding it. Our development policies are focusing on women’s and girls’ education, literacy; access to income generation—in agriculture, animal husbandry and small business; protecting them from violence, which is a very serious problem.

Ten years ago, the UN Security Council adopted a Resolution which has come to be known simply as 1325. It recognizes that women have a critical role to play in conflict resolution, in peace negotiations, in political transitions, and in post conflict reconstruction. If countries are to stabilize, and peace is to be secured and sustained in these situations, women have a key role to play. Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan where we recognize the important role that they must play. The United States was a leader in ensuring Afghan women’s political participation in parliament and in the provincial councils through the adoption of quotas.

This is a particularly critical time, as discussions are begin to take place on reintegration with the insurgents. We have also said that those who are integrated into society must renounce al Qaeda, violence, and uphold the constitution, including women’s rights. Afghan women are extremely worried that if they are not part of the discussions, they will have their hard-earned rights potentially sold out, without their knowing about it until it’s too late. The Secretary and our policies have illustrated time and again why it is important for Afghan women to be involved in these discussions that so keenly affect them. Next week, there will be the conference in Kabul, a ministerial conference, with ministers from the countries participating in the effort there. These issues are going to come up again, because if a sustainable peace is to take hold, women must have an equal role in shaping it.

One night in Kabul, several months ago, I sat with a group of extraordinary Afghan women and as the discussion opened, one of them said: “Please, do not look at us as victims, but as the leaders that we are.”

Our global challenges are numerous, but in advancing women we can make giant steps for progress that will benefit men and women, boys and girls everywhere.

Nick Kristoff, whom I’m sure many of you read on regular basis, noted that in the 19th century our moral imperative was to end slavery; in the 20th century it was to defeat totalitarianism. He said, in this 21st century, our moral imperative must be women’s equality.

With the leadership of so many of you, and so many more around the world, women’s equality will be closer to becoming a reality as a result of that hard effort. We know that “women’s rights are human rights,” and we cannot settle for anything less.

Thank you very much.