Acceptance of the Annual Mildred Robbins Leet Award for the Advancement of Women

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
InterAction Awards Gala
Washington, DC
August 11, 2011

Thank you so much for the honor that you bestow on me this evening. My only regret is that I can’t be with you in person. I want especially to thank InterAction for your committed and indispensible leadership in promoting effective and sustainable development and enlightened foreign policies. Our nation owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the alliance that you represent and to all the member organizations. All of you have been raising your powerful voices and doing so much for so many around our world – for those who have little voice and little power. I want also to salute Sam Worthington for his dedicated leadership, as well as that of Suzanne Kindervatter. I am especially grateful for the role that InterAction has played on women’s empowerment and gender equality—which, as Secretary Clinton has said, is the great moral imperative of the 21st century. I have been privileged to work with Suzanne on these issues over many years and she has always been an invaluable partner.

I also want to mention Mildred Robbins Leet for whom this award is named. Today just about everyone who is serious about poverty alleviation knows the transformative impact of micro finance which has enabled tens of millions of people—especially poor women—to transcend their circumstances and attain their dreams of entrepreneurship. But not many people knew that back in 1979 when Mildred helped lead the first major push for micro-loans. She was on the front lines long before the rest of us caught up with her. And I remember how pleased she was when Hillary Clinton took up the cause of microcredit as First Lady. The organization that Mildred founded with her husband Glen has not only lifted up countless women out of poverty and into economic independence, but paved the way for the progress we are making on financial inclusion today. So as I accept this award, I am so very mindful that the bar that she set is a very high one, indeed.

It is also an honor to share this award with my colleague and friend, Don Steinberg, who is such a champion for women and girls in development. Don has seen firsthand and keenly understands the critical role that women can and must play as agents of change. Through his leadership at USAID, the Administration is making good on its commitment to gender equality and gender integration on initiatives from Feed the Future to Women in Peace and Security. Don has been relentless and I am so grateful to have him as a partner in this common cause.

All of us know that progress for women’s equality must be the work of women and men. Don is one of the good guys who gets it. He knows that “the rising of the women is the rising us of us all.” So, congratulations, Don, for your well deserved recognition.

Now in recognizing Don and me, you recognize the important twin roles of diplomacy and development as pillars (with defense) of our foreign policy. It was just late last year that Secretary Clinton launched the QDDR process and today Don, I and our colleagues at State and USAID are hard at work integrating gender into programs, policies, institutional structures and processes. Why? Because women and girls are an important cornerstone of both diplomacy and development.

InterAction has been a leader in advancing the importance of engendering development. You know that investing in women and girls correlates positively with poverty alleviation and a country’s general prosperity. You know, too, that no country can hope to get ahead if it leaves half its people behind. You also know that Millenium Development Goal 3—women’s equality—the linchpin for the realization of all the other MDGs. And that investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective development investments that can be made with the highest yield dividends. Indeed, when women progress, everyone benefits: women and men, boys and girls. And therefore, it was no surprise to me that I had barely assumed my new position at the State Department when InterAction came knocking, always providing excellent advice, hard data and a wealth of important information.

The Obama Administration has reflected this understanding in our most important development initiatives. The President’s Feed the Future initiative recognizes that women are a vital force in the agricultural sector – in some places they constitute the majority of the small hold farmers. If food productivity is to grow, if hunger is to decrease and nutrition increase, our programs must recognize that women farmers have specific needs whether in training, land tenure rights, access to finance and machinery and so many more issues. This is clearly not just the right thing to do but the smart thing. This holds true also for economic growth as well. If we want to see greater economic prosperity and jobs creation, we need to recognize that women-run SMEs are one of the most effective investments to drive GDP. To unleash women’s potential we must enable them to successfully overcome the barriers that impede their progress. And if we want to see an end to conflicts, and countries stabilized and peace sustained, we must work to ensure that women’s voices are not silenced and their roles are not marginalized. This is true from Afghanistan, to the Middle East to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Whether the challenge is climate change, global health or corruption, women’s participation at all levels of society in dealing with some of the most critical issues confronting us is absolutely essential. So thank you InterAction – for prodding, for pushing, for advocating, and relentlessly reminding us that a focus on women and girls is essential to effective diplomacy and development.

Thank you so much for the honor you have bestowed on me tonight, but thank you even more for all that you do and all that you will do in the months and years ahead to create a better world for all people. I so look forward to continuing our partnership. May you all have a wonderful evening.