Remarks at The Center for Strategic and International Studies Lecture and Roundtable on Advancing Policy and Programs on Global Women's Issues

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
June 18, 2014

Thank you so much, Steve and Janet, for having me here today. I’d like to thank CSIS for the work you do to promote such important and robust policy discussions. It is such a privilege to be among so many experts, and to have the opportunity to discuss these important issues with my colleagues from UNFPA and the World Bank.

My job as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues is to advance the status of women and girls as a critical element of all U.S. diplomatic efforts. Investing in women and girls – helping them unleash their potential – is the right thing to do – and the wise thing to do strategically.

Women are critical to every issue we face, including security challenges like terrorism and weak rule of law; health challenges like HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases; economic security challenges; and democracy and governance challenges. Studies have shown that countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunities.

I’d like to give you a sense of four areas where I hope to focus my time and effort in the next three years.

The first is gender-based violence. I’ve worked on violence against women and girls issues throughout my career. When I was at the White House, I led the Obama Administration’s efforts to create the first U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.

We are now working to implement and make real the goals of that strategy, and this is an issue I raise consistently in my diplomatic engagement.

We know an estimated one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, and in some countries, 70 percent of female populations are affected. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence experienced by women globally. And as many as one in four women experience physical and/or sexual violence during pregnancy, endangering both the mother and her child. Further, studies indicate the risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence may be up to three times higher than among those who have not.

The U.S. supports comprehensive efforts to prevent and respond to GBV in all its forms, whether in conflict or peacetime settings, including intimate partner violence, rape, and harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, so-called “honor” crimes, and female genital mutilation and cutting. This includes both diplomatic and development efforts, and highlights our commitment to remain a leader in addressing this global scourge.

This commitment is exemplified in the new Safe from the Start initiative to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies worldwide.

Its initial commitment of $10 million, which Secretary Kerry expanded last week, will allow humanitarian agencies and organizations to hire specialized staff, launch new programs, and develop innovative methods to protect women and girls at the onset of emergencies around the world.

This commitment was on display at the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London last week, where Secretary Kerry encouraged the world to refuse to “tolerate rape as a tactic of war and intimidation” and vowed that now was the time to “banish sexual violence to the dark ages in the history books.”

This conference brings me to my second focus: political participation and women, peace, and security. Despite comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women continue to be underrepresented in every aspect of political and public life.

Today, only 21 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women. There are 21 women either serving as head of state or head of government. Only 17 percent of government ministers are women, with the majority serving in the fields of education and health. Since 1992, women have represented fewer than 3 percent of mediators and 8 percent of negotiators to major peace processes.

These are the places where decisions get made, and simply put, there aren’t enough women in them. Women often raise issues others have overlooked, reach out to constituencies others ignore and have unique knowledge that stems from their societal roles and responsibilities. Women’s participation affects the types of policy issues that are debated and decided in parliaments, local councils, and government ministries.

In India, research showed West Bengal villages with greater representation of women in local panchayats, saw an investment in drinking water facilities double that of villages with fewer women on local councils. This highlights that women raise issues that are important to them and their families.

Nowhere is this more critical than in countries like Afghanistan, where the voices of women leaders at the decision-making tables are essential to supporting a secure and stable future in their nation. The U.S. provides extensive support to bolster the participation of Afghan women in the political processes. We have also advocated for the full participation of Afghan women during the recent presidential and provincial elections.

Like millions of others around the world, we just watched the Afghan people show their commitment to a peaceful and democratic future for their country during the presidential run off and we are pleased with initial reports that Afghan women – once again – turned out in high numbers. We know women’s unique perspective is critical to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. Women often suffer disproportionately during armed conflict.

They often advocate most strongly for stabilization, reconstruction, and the prevention of further conflict. Peace agreements, post-conflict reconstruction, and governance have a better chance of long-term success when women are involved. According to research conducted by the International Crisis Group in Sudan, Congo and Uganda, women who participate in peace talks often raise issues like human rights, security, justice, employment, education, and health care that are fundamental to reconciliation and rebuilding and therefore to lasting and sustainable peace.

This is why the U.S. provided training for Syrian women’s civil society groups in negotiations, leadership, and conflict resolution training. And why we advocated for the inclusion of women in official delegations of the Geneva II negotiations.

The third focus is adolescent girls. Perhaps some of you joined us yesterday at Brookings, where I spoke extensively about the importance of secondary education.

Certainly all of you know about the ongoing crisis in Nigeria, which has captured the attention of the world. Adolescent girls face a particular set of unmet needs and addressing them is an important challenge. Healthy, educated, successful adolescent girls lead to healthy, educated, successful women and ultimately communities and societies. One extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.

A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age 5. And a child raised by a mother who has been educated is more likely to be healthy, safe and in school. But girls are especially vulnerable to certain threats.

National Violence Against Children surveys from the Together for Girls partnership in four African countries reveal around one in three girls and one in seven boys reported experiencing sexual violence; and, one in four girls report their first sexual experience happened unwillingly.

Early and forced marriage is a significant issue for young and adolescent girls. There are more than 60 million child brides worldwide; one girl in three is married by 18; one girl in seven in developing countries marries before the age of 15. The health consequences of early marriage are severe and long-term. 15-19 year olds are about 40 percent more likely to die due to medical complications from pregnancy and child births than young women aged 20-24.

are most vulnerable to early marriage, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and dropping out of school. They and their parents will make decisions that will affect their lives – and families for generations to come.

If we can ensure that more adolescent girls stay and graduate from quality secondary school, remain healthy and avoid early marriage and early pregnancy, they will indeed be on a course to a better life and positively influence the lives of future generations. And, because of these investments, countries will be more stable and more prosperous.

The fourth and final focus is to continue the momentum on women’s economic empowerment efforts.

I would like to spend a few minutes on this issue because, as leaders around the world now understand, economic empowerment presents a real opportunity to address so many of the challenges facing women. Recently, President Obama told the assembled houses of Congress that “when women succeed, America succeeds.” Secretary Kerry, too, knows how important women’s empowerment is to any country’s growth and security.

So what do we know about women and the economy?

First, we know several of the barriers to women’s economic empowerment.

Many of them are the very challenges I have been discussing: inadequate education systems, high incidences of gender-based violence, and widespread gaps in health services. These issues are all connected. Other impediments strike at the heart of economic activity.

The Women, Business and the Law report indicates that of 143 economies surveyed, 128 make at least one legal distinction between genders that impacts women’s ability to participate in the economy. For example, legal barriers and cultural norms in many countries inhibit women from accessing capital.

In developing economies alone, these barriers result in a $260 to $320 billion dollar credit gap for women owned small and medium enterprises. This is not only a missed market opportunity for financial institutions but also an enormous constraint on women’s ability to achieve the financial wherewithal to grow a business, raise crops, or protect against shocks.

Second, we know the benefits of removing these barriers. This is important because of the profound impact that economic empowerment – or a lack of it – can have not only in the lives of billions of women and girls around the world, but also on their families, communities, and nations. Growth in women’s entrepreneurship boosts economies and rising numbers of women on the factory floor or in the board room, improves the health of economies.  

Many of these benefits accrue to the women themselves. Women who take home dependable pay from decent jobs are better equipped to provide for themselves and more likely to stand up for their rights. And investing in women also produces a multiplier effect. Women spend the majority of their earnings on local products and services that strengthen communities and on food, schooling, and immunizations that help secure their children’s futures.

At the macroeconomic level, countries can realize significant gains from focusing on leveling the playing field for women.

The OECD found that the narrowing gap between male and female employment has accounted for a quarter of Europe’s annual GDP growth over the past two decades and that closing gender gaps in the labor market in the Middle East and North Africa could increase per capita GDP in that region by more than 25 percent.

The UN found that the Asia Pacific region loses upwards of 89 billion dollars in GDP each year due to restrictions on women’s ability to fully participate in the economy.

Finally we know that impediments to women’s full participation in the economy are faced by women in all parts of the world – by women in least developed countries and G20 countries alike.

Last November, I traveled to Japan, the world’s third largest economy, with Vice President Biden. I saw firsthand how Prime Minister Abe, is trying to remove constraints on women fully joining the workforce to boost his nation’s economic performance. Not only did he recognize such steps made common sense, he also saw they made good business sense and good economic sense.

Our challenge is to go from what we know and from where we are, to action. To find out where we – my office, the State Department, the UN, the World Bank – add value. A whole-of-government – in fact, a whole-of-international-community – approach is needed to advance the economic empowerment of women and girls.

Such an approach will require a variety of partnerships, strategic dialogues, and public diplomacy outreach. We are working to develop toolkits that our embassies and forward-thinking governments or civil society groups can use to drive positive change.

Such an approach will leverage the established international fora that have already turned an eye toward economically empowering women, such as the G20 and APEC, and will look to see how we can enhance these efforts.

The G20 is focused on increasing female labor force participation, and APEC, after successfully elevating the strategic importance of women and the economy through high level policy dialogues that began in 2011, is moving towards regional action to support the consensus achieved in those dialogues.

This is just the beginning. Gains made in a regional forum like these can and should be transferred to other regions.

Such an approach will also draw on private sector engagement. With the private sector supplying the largest number of jobs in most countries, the importance of working with them to establish gender equality throughout internal and external business operations is crucial.

However, women make up the majority of the informal sector and unpaid workforce, and we need to ensure that our efforts take this segment of the population into account.

Such an approach will also convene new multi-member partnerships in support of women’s economic empowerment.

Over the past few years, the State Department has played a role in creating several key partnerships. The Equal Futures Partnership is an important initiative of President Obama’s designed to drive action by member countries to empower women economically and politically.

The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise is a public-private partnership through which companies, non-profits, governments, and international organizations collaborate and grow artisan enterprises.

Both programs are terrific examples of what can happen when public and private sector stakeholders come together. And they demonstrate the commitment of the U.S and other countries to continue to support the economic empowerment of women.

I’d like to close with an example of a program I heard about when I was in India that showed how empowering women to participate in the economy has a real and lasting impact. While I was there I met a woman who started a “Women on Wheels Campaign,” which trains women for jobs in the driver’s seat of trucks, taxis, and personal limousines. What I truly appreciated about the Azad Foundation’s work to recruit, train, and mentor these young women was the many ripple effects of their efforts.

The trainees participate in modules on health and first aid because the Foundation recognizes that when women and their families are healthy, it benefits both the women and companies that hire them. In families where the total household income was formerly 3,000 to 5,000 rupees per month, the women alone are now earning between 7,000 to 12,000 rupees each month. That is a significant change.

In communities where women’s freedom was limited by the fear of gender-based violence, every woman who takes the wheel helps dozens of others access markets and much-needed services. That, too, is a significant change.

So in all these areas, gender-based violence, women, peace and security, and adolescent girls, women’s economic empowerment. We have a pretty good idea of the path forward. We only need to keep committing ourselves and recruiting others to join us. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe this is true for women’s equality.

Our work, and the work we do together, is integral to these efforts. Thank you.