Women as Agents of Peace and Stability

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Sea Service Leadership Association's 24th Annual Women's Leadership Symposium
San Diego, CA
March 15, 2011

Thank you so much for your kind introduction, Nicole. I am so thrilled to be here will all of you, women who I so respect and admire. I understand this symposium constitutes the largest gathering of women in uniform in the country. It’s a privilege to be with you this morning, and in a very special way, it’s an opportunity. The themes of this conference -- “connect, empower, succeed” -- are my themes, too. I would go even further to say that we are living through a time of change in which “connect, empower, and succeed” should belong to all women everywhere.

After so many years of struggling for gender equality, the struggle is not over, but I want to believe that we are at a tipping point -- a time when women’s progress can be consolidated and a time when women’s equality (what has been called the moral imperative of the 21st century) can truly become a reality.

The World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report found that in those countries where the gender gap is closer to being closed -- where men and women are closer to parity in educational attainment, health outcomes, economic opportunity and political empowerment -- these countries are more prosperous and economically competitive.

That should come as no surprise! When women are afforded the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential, everyone benefits -- families, communities, countries -- our world.

My position is a first for our government. President Obama, in creating it, recognized that we can’t possibly tackle -- let alone address -- the challenges that confront us around the globe -- having to do with economics, the environment, governance, or security -- if women are not participating at all levels of society. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.

As Secretary Clinton has emphasized, “Women are critical to solving virtually every challenge we face as individual nations and as a community of nations.” Today women are on the frontlines of change around the globe. They are even taking on the hardest issues of war and peace, in the hardest environments (something you know a great deal about). We have had practical breakthroughs and conceptual breakthroughs and today I believe we are building momentum in terms of women’s leadership and the progress it represents.

I arrive here in San Diego still inspired by a trip I took to the Democratic Republic of Congo a few weeks ago. I want to share with you what I saw there because I can’t think of a better way to explain the paradigm shift we’re experiencing around the world -- a shift that hinges on women’s equal leadership in every dimension of human affairs.

As many of you undoubtedly know, the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been one of the most violent places on earth over the last decade or more. In addition to millions of deaths, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped -- a systematic tool of the armed combatants.

I participated in the dedication of the City of Joy, a refuge and training center for rape survivors in a place called Bukavu. In the City of Joy, hundreds and, over time, thousands of women will not only recover from their physical and psychological wounds to regain their dignity and their sense of possibility, but they will also develop the practical leadership skills necessary to return to their communities empowered to rebuild them on a new footing and new concept of power -- not power over but power for transforming “mine” into “ours” and “me” into “us.”

I wish all of you could have been there. Imagine hundreds of survivors of the worst brutality wearing T-shirts that said “Stop the rape of our most precious resource.” They were celebrating the opportunity to reclaim their rightful role in a society that desperately needs their abilities, courage, and wisdom. When a few of them spoke at the dedication, I didn’t see victims, I saw women of strength, resilience, belief in themselves, and commitment.

The City of Joy will enable them to take courses in self-defense, computers and human rights. They will learn trades and farming techniques. They will heal from the traumas they have endured. And then they will return to their home villages where they will pay this investment in them forward to benefit others.

If women who have suffered so much brutality can dare to think of themselves as leaders, any woman anywhere can think of herself as a leader. The truth is that our opportunity to act as agents of peace and stability has never been greater, or more necessary.

Right now, this very morning, there are some 30 active conflicts worldwide. Many of these conflicts are recurrent. Of the 39 conflicts that arose in the last decade, 31 of them were part of a repeating cycle of violence. These are hard facts and hard realities that have, in too many cases, a disproportionate impact on women and their children. And yet just as in the City of Joy, women everywhere are taking courageous steps to make a difference and to respond to their circumstances.

Women in the U.S. military, like all of you, are making enormous contributions to peace and security. Women now constitute more than 14 percent of the active-duty force and 17.5 percent of the National Guard and Reserves. I am told they are assigned to more than 80 percent of all military specialties and work in more than 90 percent of career fields. Women also make up 20 percent of new recruits. In fact, as Chairman Mullen has recently noted, women in uniform not only face the same risks as their male counterparts -- they have also served in situations where men cannot.

Take, for example, the U.S. Marine Female Engagement Teams in Helmand province. They are going out on combat patrols and interacting with rural Afghan women in a way not possible for male troops. In a military campaign where the perceptions of the population are so crucial, the role of these Female Engagement Teams is innovative, effective, and nothing less than critical. And it is in perfect harmony with a conversation I had with a group of Afghan women in Kabul not long ago myself. Once of the women started the discussion by saying, “Please do not look at us as victims. Look at us as the leaders we are.” She was right.

This past week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Secretary Clinton honored several International Women of Courage. One was Maria Bashir, the Prosecutor General for Heart -- the only woman ever to hold such a position in Afghan history. Banned from working during the Taliban regime, she served her community by secretly teaching her sisters and local girls at home despite the risks of reprisal.

After the fall of the Taliban, she regained her position as a prosecutor. Her high profile work and relentless pursuit of justice has come at a great personal cost -- her house was set on fire, a bomb exploded in her front yard and her own and her children’s lives have been threatened in countless Taliban night letters. Yet, she continues to wage a determined campaign against crime and corruption and stands out as a champion of judicial transparency and women’s rights. She exemplifies the resilience of Afghan women whose participation in the leadership of their country at all levels is essential to Afghanistan’s stability and critical for its future.

As President Obama’s National Security Strategy recognizes, “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.”

Secretary Clinton has noted where women are oppressed and marginalized, societies are more dangerous and extremism is more likely to take hold. The suffering and denial of women’s rights and instability of nations go hand in hand. Women’s equality is not just a moral or humanitarian issue. It’s also about peace, security and prosperity.

I would like to offer you two major examples of what I mean by this: UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review Secretary Clinton released just a few months ago.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 represents the conceptual breakthrough I referred to a moment ago -- a pivotal change in the international community’s perspectives on the roles of women in addressing the most fundamental issues of preserving peace and preventing war. Adopted ten years ago last fall, UN Security Council Resolution 1325:

  • calls on all actors in conflict to increase the vital participation of women in peace negotiations, peacekeeping and post-conflict peace building and governance;
  • it emphasizes the need to protect women and girls in emergency and humanitarian situations; and
  • it calls for an end to impunity to crimes of sexual violence and an expansion of the role and contribution of women in UN peacekeeping and field-based operations.

These are goals that have to be achieved in harsh circumstances and forbidding environments, but they can be achieved because they speak to the underlying and undeniable strengths empowered women demonstrate in every society on earth. It speaks to women’s experiences and abilities.

Although progress has too been slow, Resolution 1325 is beginning to change not only how we think about women as agents of peace and stability but how we act in support of their efforts. You will be instrumental in that change. With Secretary General Rasmussen’s leadership, NATO is incorporating the 1325 principles of participation, prevention, and protection into its directives, and is ensuring that soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere seek to take into account the views and needs of women.

In parallel to these efforts on 1325, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Special Representative Margot Wallström is working to ensure full implementation of Resolution 1888 -- which was sponsored by the U.S. and adopted last year in the Security Council -- to combat sexual violence in armed conflicts.

In addition, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. is developing our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in response to UN Resolution 1325 and we have begun an interagency process led by the White House. From Nepal to Uganda, USAID is promoting women’s roles in politics, supporting their participation in local peace committees, and supporting their efforts in reconciliation. The United States has also written protection and respect for women’s human rights into all of our peacekeeping training. And working closely with the UN and donors, the United States also will continue to bolster international police peacekeeping capacity in ways that are consistent with and reinforce Resolution 1325.

Turning the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) Secretary Clinton released late last year, we see another major commitment to women in all dimensions of public policy. The Secretary created the QDDR to parallel the Quadrennial Defense Review, a process with which you are all familiar. The QDDR examines every facet of the Department of State’s mission. What’s most notable for us this morning is one of its core policy premises, “…women are at the center of our diplomacy and development efforts -- not simply as beneficiaries, but also as agents of peace, reconciliation, development, growth, and stability. To foster and maximize the diplomatic and development outcomes we seek, we will integrate gender issues into policies and practices at State and USAID…. By considering women and girls in all of our policy initiatives, global health, food security, climate change, economic issues, human rights, and peace and security we can make those initiatives stronger and more successful…”

President Obama and Secretary Clinton are being very clear: we must redouble our focus on empowering women and girls, not just as beneficiaries of development, but as agents of transformation. Let me share with you some of the facts and findings that underpin this national commitment to women around the globe.

  • According to the World Bank, investing in women and girls has a positive correlation with poverty alleviation and a country’s prosperity.
  • Moreover, women’s equality is smart economics. It is estimated by the UN that the Asia-Pacific region is losing over $40 billion in GDP annually due to the untapped economic potential of women.
  • Or think about the role of food in human existence: Did you know that women comprise the great majority of small farmers in much of the world? If they have no say in the allocation of agricultural resources, or those resources are trampled by war, what happens to levels of nutrition, hunger, and starvation in a given country or region?
  • Here is another fact: studies show that the more educated women are, the more likely they are to make positive contributions to a country’s economy, and the single most effective development investment is to educate a girl --with positive consequences for her and her future family.
  • Finally, I would point to a World Bank study that found that “where the influence of women in public life is greater, the level of corruption is lower,” contributing to greater confidence in governance and less need to resolve disputes beyond the bounds of the rule of law, including through violence.

The fact is that we are living in exciting times when women leaders around the globe are making a difference, as you are doing in this women’s leadership symposium, and we should be inspired by them and do our best to support them.

Afghanistan, of course, represents an acute test for UN Resolution 1325, the QDDR, and American foreign policy in general. Some of you no doubt have served there or may serve there in the future. Let me say how grateful America is for your leadership there. We need it. And let me also assure you that our diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan have been rooted in the notion that respect for the rights of women, as protected in the Afghan constitution, is an essential element of democracy and stability.

The redlines established for reintegration and reconciliation require renunciation of Al Qaeda and require any combatant seeking reintegration to uphold the Constitution , including women’s rights -- the right of women and girls to go to school, to participate in the economic and political life of their country, and to be free from violence in their homes, workplaces, and communities.

Secretary Clinton has stated our position on this issue clearly and forcefully on numerous occasions: “The women in Afghanistan are rightly worried that in the very legitimate search for peace their rights will be sacrificed. We cannot permit that to happen. Any potential for peace in Afghanistan will be subverted if women are marginalized or silenced.

We are at a critical juncture in marshalling humanity’s best efforts so that we can march ahead toward equality, justice, peace and prosperity. Just as women (and the good men who supported them) journeyed to an equal rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, we continue their journey. There may be setbacks, but there is no turning back on what we know to be true: women’s rights are non-negotiable and women’s contributions to society -- all societies -- are indispensable. Whether in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the United States of America, we need women’s leadership, we need women’s voices, we need women’s vision. The theme of this conference: “Connect. Empower. Succeed.” has summoned us together.

So I would say our mission at work and in our communities at home and abroad is clear. It’s up to all of us to keep connecting with each other and women around the world growing our capabilities, leadership, and opportunities. It’s up to all of us to keep empowering women to change the world wherever they find themselves. It’s up to all of us to keep succeeding as each and every one of you does each day in order to create a better world. As women leaders in your own right, dedicated to defending America’s freedom and ensuring a world at peace, I know you will make this happen.

The moment in history when women’s leadership will make all the difference has arrived, and the moment is yours. Seize it. I wish you Godspeed.