Women's Stories Unfettered

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
International Conference of Women Media Leaders
Washington, DC
March 23, 2011

Thank you, Eleanor, for your far too generous introduction. You have been a friend and an inspiration to me and many others during your extraordinary career in journalism. I feel as though I’m at a reunion of the Women in Journalism Hall of Fame at my table—Pat Mitchell, Barbara Cochran, Susan King, and of course, Eleanor Clift. This is really a treat for me. And for all of you who have travelled from so many places to be here, let me add my welcome.

I want to salute this organization—the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF)—because you do a great deal every single day to support the critical work of women journalists around the globe. IWMF puts a spotlight on so many profiles of courage in this profession, women journalists who risk their lives to cover human rights stories and so many other stories that are critically important for the public to know.

I want to acknowledge one such woman of courage Natalia Koliada who is here. She is founder of the Belarus Free Theater, which has been telling the world the story of the repression that is occurring in her country; about the arrests of those who protested the recent rigged presidential election. She met recently with Secretary Clinton and told her about the scale of human rights violations that are taking place in Belarus today. But for the fact that she and her colleagues were able to sneak out of the country by riding in different cars and trucks, changing vehicles until they got across the border, she would not be able to be here to tell the story of what is happening there through her medium.

Last week I was at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Conference and I finally got to meet a remarkable woman, Dr. Hawa Abdi. She is taking care of 90,000 Somali women and their families who have been displaced by the conflict in Somalia. In more peaceful times, as a physician she set up a small clinic and intended that to be her life’s work. Instead, the horrors of what is happening in terms of

the humanitarian crisis interfered with her life and, instead of leaving the country as she well could have, she chose instead to address the critical challenges that women especially were enduring during the conflict. Her clinic turned into a large hospital. The small plot of land was expanded to include a training center so women could gain economic livelihoods. Her center continues to be a safe haven in the midst of terror.

Not too long ago, some of the armed combatants came to her and started destroying all of her medical equipment with guns blazing and told her that they wanted her to cease her work. Unarmed, she somehow faced them down. Of the many thousands of women she serves, thousands of them circled her in a human chain and she looked at these men, some of them quite young, and she said, “What have you done for your society?” And somehow they got the message and left.

What I wanted to say today is that thanks to women journalists like Lisa Griswold, who first visited her project in Somalia, and to Glamour Magazine (Cindy Levi is here) who honored Dr. Abdi and showcased her work in the magazine, her story is becoming well known in other parts of the world. As a result of the people Dr. Hawa Abdi’s story has touched, she is able to support the work that she is doing today. So once again, this profession in so many ways does so much to make a difference.

And I know firsthand the difference it makes when Afghan women journalists are trained to be more effective in the media. Pat Mitchell was telling me just moments ago about another group from Afghanistan whom she met in New York earlier this week who had come for media training. I sat with a group of Afghan women journalists not too long ago in Kabul, and they told me that the training they had received made such a difference in terms of their self esteem and their competence in reporting stories. The training not only made them better reporters, but it helped them confront the tough challenges that they confront every day.

One of them gave me a plastic corsage which I keep in my office. She told me that there is an Afghan saying, “One flower does not make spring time, but many flowers coming together do make a Spring.” They felt that their growing numbers, their training, and their solidarity with each other and women journalists around the world are enabling them to usher in a new spring in their country. They are like the blossoming flowers.

Women reporters make a difference! You make a difference—every day, a difference from Belarus to Somalia, to Afghanistan and to so many places in between! We should all be grateful for, and support, women like these in the best way that we can.

I also want to acknowledge the conference sponsors—Bloomberg, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Goldman Sachs, Gibson Dunn, the Knight Foundation, and the McCormick Foundation—and their commitment. The corporate sponsors, foundations, NGO, and partners are so essential in helping ensure that women around the world achieve the full equality that they need to make the critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and stability in the 21st century.

I know that this morning you released the ground breaking report of the status of women in the news media and that it illustrates the progress that has been made by women in the profession—but also the distance yet to be traveled to end discrimination, to end under-representation, and to end the untapped potential of women in the media. I know that among you are so many who are the exceptions, who have made a difference in your companies, and who are committed to tapping the potential of women and to greater inclusion more broadly and the talent that they represent. But the study that was released by the foundation mirrors so many other studies with which I am familiar. Whether it is women in politics or women in corporate boards—the story line is all too familiar.

And yet, humanity has no greater underutilized resource than women. The right thing to do—and what we are all in fact beginning to do better—is to ensure that women have full access to the educational, economic and political opportunities that they can touch. Given that access and those opportunities, women can and are changing the world and I see it wherever I go.

I particularly like the fact that you have arranged these proceedings so that they will lead to a “Platform for Action” to achieve greater equality in newsrooms and news coverage.

After so many years of struggling for gender equality—and yet the struggle is not over—I want to believe that we are closer to a tipping point—a time when women’s progress can be consolidated. And a time when women’s equality—what has been called the great imperative that has yet to be achieved in the 21st century—can truly become a reality.

My position, as you heard, is a first for our government. President Obama, in creating it, recognized that we can’t possibly tackle, yet alone address, the challenges that confront us around the globe, whether they have to do with economics, the environment, governance, security, war and peace—if women are not participating at all levels of society. Because it is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.

Secretary Clinton has emphasized, “Women are critical to solving virtually every challenge we face as individual nations and as a community of nations … and until women around the world are accorded their rights and afforded opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.”

A few weeks ago, I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was there, as was Pat Mitchell. I want to share with you what I saw there because I can’t think of a better way to explain the paradigm shift that I think 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 know, the eastern portion of the DRC 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 as a systematic tool of the armed combatants.

I went there for many reasons, but I went there also to participate in the dedication of The City of Joy, which is a refuge and training center created by the playwright Eve Ensler. It is for rape survivors in a place called Bukavu. At the new center, hundreds, and over time thousands, of women will not only recover from the physical and psychological wounds from the traumas that they have endured, but also regain their dignity and their sense of possibility. They will also develop leadership skills and the kind of skills they need to create a livelihood. They will go back after a few months to empower their communities as they have been empowered—to rebuild and to exercise the kind of the power that is not power over, but power for.

At the City of Joy women, who had gone through something that all of us could not even imagine, were celebrating the opportunity to reclaim their rightful role in a society—a society that desperately needs their abilities, their commitment, their concerns, their courage, and wisdom. When a few of them spoke, everyone who listened to them was impressed by their sense of place and possibility, their great sense of self. At the dedication, I certainly didn’t see victims—I saw women of strength, resilience and commitment. 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.

One of the journalists covering the dedication was a young woman I met a few years ago. Some of you may know her. She is a brilliant reporter named Chouchou Namegabe. Every time I see her, I see life because she is a dynamic force for positive change in eastern DRC. A compelling account of her work notes that several years ago in the midst of the raging violence and sexual brutality, she found that her radio reporting skills as a fearless journalist gave her a unique ability to speak out on behalf of the women who were silenced by the crimes committed against them.

Through the power of her broadcasts she has not only reported on what was happening to survivors of sexual violence in the Congo, but she has empowered them to speak out. She even provided them with handheld radios so that they can be connected to the rest of the world—a world far bigger than the violence that surrounds them. If there is to be any remedy for the injustices and inequities women suffer, and the stories that you all cover—stories like the City of Joy must be told, not simply passed over as being “less important” or less than newsworthy. But to the contrary, we believe they are increasingly important and newsworthy for what they represent.

I work at the US State Department where we recently released the report called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development review. I want to tell you about it because it is part of what is happening and a part of what we are trying to do, because it focuses on women in the strongest possible terms. “… Women are at the center of our diplomacy and development efforts—not simply as beneficiaries, but as recognized agents of peace, reconciliation, development, growth, and stability...”

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been emphatic about all of this—and redoubling our focus on empowering women and girls—so that they can become agents of transformation not just as beneficiaries of development.

Let me focus briefly on this kind of commitment and change in terms of women’s roles in two broad areas that I hope can be of value to all of you—economics and peace and security.

Today women are blazing new trails and viewed as accelerators of economic growth. The World Economic Forum publishes an annual Gender Gap Report that looks at the equality of men and women in a given country based on four indicators: health and survivability, access to education, political participation and economic participation. On those four indicators, I can tell you something that you probably already know—nowhere in the world is the gap closed. But in those countries where the gap is closer to being closed, where men and women are closer to being equal on those measures, those countries are far more prosperous and economically more competitive.

Again and again research demonstrates that investments in women and girls help guarantee their families’ prosperity and communities’ progress. When women thrive, families, communities and countries thrive.

When Larry Summers was a young economist at the World Bank, he was in charge of looking at the role that education plays. The Bank embarked on a study of education that found educating a girl is the single most effective investment that can be made in development—that it produces all kinds of positive consequences that are critical families, communities and countries in terms of her future employability and her family’s health and prosperity. All of these years later, the study has stood the test of time.

As World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said, “…the empowerment of women is smart economics…studies show that investments in women yield large social and economic returns.” For International Women’s Day, Secretary Clinton contributed a piece for Bloomberg News, entitled “I Know the Secret to Economic Growth,” and the secret is women’s economic participation.

Let me just expand on that statement a little bit. There is a story to be told here. Agriculture is one sector of the global economy where women play a particularly crucial role. Why? Because the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization projects that the world food production will have to jump by 70% to meet our needs in 2050—and most of the world’s food is grown, harvested, stored and prepared by women who comprise the great majority of the world’s small-scale farmers particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world.

Nonetheless, women farmers receive little to no training or access to financial services. And in some regions, women produce 70% of the food, yet receive only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the land. Where is the economic logic, not to mention justice, in figures so starkly out of whack?

The reform of land tenure and property rights, as well as inheritance laws, can help advance women in farming and help to secure the world’s food supply in greater ways. The Administration’s Feed the Future Initiative to grow agricultural productivity specifically focuses on the needs of women farmers as well as male farmers and recognizes that their needs are not always the same.

Looking beyond agriculture, studies show that to grow GDP, there is no more effective investment than investing in women-run small and medium size businesses. Yet we know that women confront an array of discriminatory barriers that make it difficult for them to be the accelerators that they can become.

In the Asia Pacific region it is calculated by the United Nations that between $42-47 billion dollars a year are lost in GDP because of the untapped potential of women. The region can no more afford not to tap the potential of women’s economic participation—neither can any other part in the world. Not in today’s world and certainly not in tomorrow’s world.

One of the most exciting innovations that is happening in our times is happening in mobile communications. The simple cell phone has the potential to train women who are illiterate, to provide vital health information, to provide banking services to the still largely unbanked poor, to protect women from violence, and to be a tool for economic empowerment. It is an extraordinary tool for empowerment of women, yet there is a gender gap in mobile technology for some 300 million women in low and middle-income countries that have no access to technology. This undercuts the ability of too many women and girls to learn, teach, communicate, cooperate and conduct commerce.

So an effort to close the gap in mobile technology would have enormous impact on women’s potential. To address this gap and better advance development, Secretary Clinton announced the mWomen initiative in partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation , the mobile technology industry and USAID to close the gap in half in three years and better serve women and their needs. Initiatives like the ones I have mentioned underscore the centrality of investing in women and girls as a fundamental principle and one that benefits all of society.

Today women are increasingly taking on the hardest issues—issues of war and peace—in the hardest environments. We’ve had conceptual breakthroughs, we’ve had practical breakthroughs, and we’re building momentum. I believe in women as agents of peace and stability which is as important today as it ever was, if not even more.

Right now, there are at least 36 active conflicts worldwide, with the risk of even more conflict and armed violence in resource-rich but governance-poor parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these conflicts are recurrent. Of the 39 conflicts that arose in the last decade, 31 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 in response.

I had a conversation with a group of women in Kabul not long ago. One of the women said, “Please do not look at us as victims. Look at us as the leaders that we are.” Now she was right. That is how we should look at women in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s National Security Strategy recognizes 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.” Secretary Clinton said it a little bit differently, but expressed the same point—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 the instability of nations go hand in hand.

These observations have helped to lead us to profound alterations in the way we and other nations today have begun to shape our foreign policies. To look at things a little differently, to think about them a little differently, to hopefully act a little differently and to develop endless opportunities for women leaders to contribute to a more peaceful, prosperous and just world.

There is a resolution that some of you may be familiar with that the Security Council of the United Nations passed some ten years ago. It is called 1325, and it makes a link between women, peace, and security. It can be thought of as a pivotal change in the international community’s perspectives on the roles of women. It calls on all actors in conflict to increase the participation of women in peace negotiations, peacekeeping and post-conflict peace building and governance—something that is not happening as often as it should. It emphasizes the need to protect women and girls in emergency and humanitarian situations, and for an end to impunity to crimes of sexual violence.

These are goals that have to be achieved in harsh circumstances and very forbidding environments, but they can be achieved because they speak to the underlying and undeniable strengths empowered women demonstrate in every society.

Although progress has not been fast enough Resolution 1325 is beginning to change not only how we think about women as agents of peace and stability but how we should act in supporting them in this role. NATO for example, 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 needs of women and the roles they should play. In parallel to these efforts at the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has appointed a Special Representative on violence against women—who is working to ensure full implementation of Resolution 1888—which was sponsored by the US and adopted last year in the Security Council to end and combat sexual violence in armed conflicts. In addition, Secretary Clinton announced that the United States will join other nations in putting together a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in response to UN Resolution 1325.

Now Afghanistan, of course, represents an acute test for UN Resolution 1325 and American foreign policy in general. 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.

Redlines have been established for the reintegration and reconciliation process. They require any combatant seeking reintegration into society in Afghanistan to renounce Al Qaeda and violence, and to uphold the Constitution, including the rights of women and girls—the rights to go to school, to be employed, to be free from violence. Now obviously this is still a tall order in many ways.

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 and an end to the conflict their rights will be sacrificed in the process.” Their role, she added, is critical to the stabilization and any potential for peace to be sustained.

Let me just end by focusing for two minutes on the major developments across the Middle East, that have not only occupied the media and the world’s attention intensively over the last few months, but have engaged many women from that part of the world.

It is instructive to look at the landmark Arab Human Development Report that was released almost a decade ago. It is rooted in full respect for human rights and freedoms as the cornerstone of good governance, leading to human development and the complete empowerment of Arab women, as necessary for them to take advantage of all opportunities to build their capabilities and to enable them to exercise those capabilities to the full. It focused on low levels of girls’ education, the lowest level of economic and political participation which have held the region back.

A subsequent report issued in 2005 focused solely on Arab women and noted that women’s empowerment is a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparably and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world. So I don’t have to draw the obvious conclusion but I will—the condition of women in Arab societies has not been equitably addressed and must be in order to see the progress and change realized.

We have seen women on the frontlines of progress in their countries and in recent weeks we have seen them participating in the demonstrations across the Arab world. What the future holds in places like Tunisia and Egypt will depend a great deal on how women are included in all the decisions going forward to ensure their equal place in society.

There’s a wonderful movement phrase, one you all know well: “Nothing about us without us.” I love that phrase but sometimes—particularly right now, standing before a gathering of the world’s most influential women media leaders—I want to make it even stronger. The fact is that there is nothing that is not about us. As we fare, so will the world. As we prosper, so will the world.

I hope your action plan takes these thoughts into account. As media leaders you have the power to ensure that women’s stories everywhere can emerge complete, compelling and unfettered. There are tragedies to report, but there are also triumphs to report, and now is the time. Whatever the issues are—now is the time. Your reporting will continue to be decisive. So many courageous women journalists have shown us how difficult and often dangerous it can be to speak up, but they also have shown us how important it is.

I know that you will borrow their courage and add your own in following their examples—many examples that this organization continues to put before us—because that’s why you’re here today. And, that’s no doubt a large part of why you wanted to become journalists in the first place. So thank you very much for your commitment to making sure that women’s stories—all women’s stories—are heard. Your work could not be more important.