Remarks at the Center for Transatlantic Relations

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Washington, DC
February 4, 2015

Twenty years ago, a woman stood at a podium not alike this one in Beijing and declared: women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.

It’s almost hard to believe now, but at the time, people were shocked—and then emboldened—by then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s important words.

They became a rallying cry for those who believe that women should be able to go about their lives free from violence….that they deserve a seat at the business or political table...that their lives have equal value…and that governments around the world should promote and protect these rights.

We’ve come a long way in many ways since 1995, thanks in no small part to President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Kerry.

Under their leadership, we’ve been able to make an evidence-based case that advancing gender equality and empowering women is not only the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.

Today I want to share with you how women and girls around the world are critical to U.S. foreign policy and our pursuit of global peace, prosperity, and security. Let’s start by looking at how women and girls have played a role in one of the biggest world events this past year: Ebola.

The big story is that Ebola paralyzed three countries and sparked fear in the other 192. But if we look more closely we see that women play critical roles in the crisis.

When you look at the numbers, you see that Ebola has killed more women than men. That’s because women’s community roles and occupations have put them at higher risk for contracting the disease.

In Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, women are the primary caregivers for their families. If Ebola strikes sons or daughters, the women in the family would care for them. If a pregnant mother gives birth, women would deliver the baby. If someone in the family dies from the disease, the women would play a key role in preparing the bodies for burial.

Women also make up the majority of nurses and caregivers in the health care industry. They were on the front lines of daily care and hygiene, increasing their exposure to the disease. Measures taken to prevent Ebola have also disproportionately affected women.

We’ve seen this in the Mano River Union region, which includes Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. There women make up 70 to 80 percent of cross -border traders and the majority of small-holder farmers in rural areas.

When Ebola prevention measures shut down cross-border trade, it threatened women’s ability to make money. It threatened their families’ economic security. And it threatened the entire region’s food security.

So when we acknowledge how gender plays a role, we can better understand the solutions that are going to work. In other words, if women are uniquely affected by an issue, they’re going to be uniquely positioned to turn the tide. When we look at the world at large, it’s clear that women and girls need to be a priority. That’s why President Obama’s administration has integrated women and girls into our national security policy.

We’re focused on both the challenges they face and the roles they play as agents of change. And we see three key areas where we can make a big difference.

First, we recognize that gender-based violence is a global pandemic that demands our attention.

No country has solved this problem. Gender-based violence defies borders, class structures, religions, and races. And it takes a very heavy toll, on individuals and families, on communities and countries, and on the global economy.

We see how violence seriously jeopardizes physical and mental health, often including sexual and reproductive health. We see the consequences of that toll when a woman can’t go to work after she’s been beaten by her partner. We see it when a young girl is forced to leave school and marry before she’s fully grown. And we see it when a woman is attacked on her way to get water or fire wood.

This is reality for many women in the world. One out of every three women will experience gender-based violence, most of them at the hands of an intimate partner.

That statistic is truly unacceptable. That’s why we’re taking action to not only respond to gender-based violence but also to try to prevent it.

This Friday we’ll mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting. It’s a moment for people around the world to stand up and say: this must end. So my office is hosting our first-ever social media campaign asking others to join us in standing together for zero tolerance. And, if I can do a shameless plug for our campaign, if you’re on social media, I hope you’ll join us. We’re asking people to take a photo of themselves holding up a zero sign and post it online using hashtag Together For Zero and hashtag End FGM.

Raising awareness of this issue and breaking the silence around it is a critical step. But it’s also important that we work closely with those in their communities who know how to do this work and are doing it well. That’s why in July, my office launched a new program with our embassy in Guinea, a country with the very high prevalence of FGM/C in the world.

Under the program, we are working with the Guinean government to develop a national action plan. We are collaborating with NGOs to hold training sessions in local villages. We are asking victims and imams to speak out. And most importantly, we are lifting up the voices of Guinean women and girls to spread the message that FGM/C in Guinea needs to end.

Our goal is to end gender-based violence, in all its forms. But sometimes the task is daunting. One very difficult challenge is ending sexual violence in conflict, which is so prevalent, so widespread, that many people believe it is inevitable and something we can’t stop.

We don’t believe that’s true. The U.S. government and our partners in the United Kingdom approach sexual violence as an atrocity that can—and must—end.

Secretary Kerry has compared ending sexual violence in conflict to efforts after World War I to end the use of chemical and biological weapons. Because that’s what sexual violence is. It’s a weapon. It destroys lives, fuels conflict, and stands in the way of lasting peace. So we can do something to stop it. For example, we can make sure perpetrators are brought to justice.

That’s what we’re doing in the D.R.C., where horrific violence against women has been pervasive. We’re working to build a coherent approach to justice. And we are seeing some results. Judges are holding open trials in local areas so witnesses can testify in their own communities. And those communities can see first-hand that sexual violence does not go unpunished. Even in the midst of conflict, impunity will not be tolerated.

But here’s what makes these programs not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. This program doesn’t just protect survivors, although that is very important. It’s also helping efforts to collect evidence and hold trials. In other words, it’s bringing the promise of justice home to communities that have little reason to believe in it.

And that promise goes beyond ending sexual violence. These courts are a way for citizens to settle disputes without violence. The rule of law is more likely to be respected. And that makes for a more stable and prosperous country.

Those are just a few examples of how we’re tackling gender-based violence. And it’s important work if we hope to unleash women’s full potential.

In many narratives, women are portrayed as victims. And while that is too often true, it’s not the whole story. Women are also incredible agents of change. They wield influence in their communities, bring unique insight to the table, and increase the effectiveness of government. They can be powerful participants, in any realm. And that’s why our second priority focuses on women’s participation. History has shown us the advantages of women’s economic and political participation.

Let’s look again at Liberia. In the 1990s, the country experienced a devastating civil war. As you can imagine, the country was rife with ethnic and religious tensions. And yet women crossed cultural lines—religious, economic, and social—to unite for peace. It was not only revolutionary for these women to come together. It was also effective.

One of their most famous actions was a sit-in at the peace talks. They literally barricaded the delegates in the assembly room and promised only to leave once a peace agreement was signed. And it was.

Women in Ireland and South Africa have similar success stories. They mobilized across sectarian and ethnic divides to find a better path forward for their communities and their countries. They were a part of the decision making and part of the creation of lasting peace agreements.

We can see the strategic value of women in peace negotiations as well. A recent study looked at 83 peace agreements in 40 countries from 1989 to 2004. The results indicated that when civil society groups, including women, were involved, societies saw greater long-term stability. That’s why in places like Syria and South Sudan, we’ve been pushing for women’s inclusion in peace talks. We continue to meet with women’s civil society groups, including those pressing for peace, to ensure their concerns are integrated in our approach.

Despite many on-the-ground challenges, U.S. officials around the world continue to push for women’s inclusion. Because we know we can’t leave half the population behind.

This is true in the economic realm as well. Women already play powerful roles in our economies. They’re workers and consumers. In fact, they’re often in charge of families’ everyday purchasing decisions.

One of the most powerful statistics I’ve seen is that women typically invest 80 percent of their incomes back into their family, whereas men only invest about 30 percent. We can imagine, then, the ripple effects of expanding women’s economic opportunities. Beyond buying food and medicine for families—although that in itself is huge—women could lift up entire economies.

The numbers back this up. The OECD just reported that unleashing the potential of women in India could boost growth by 2 percentage points a year. Experts have said that if women’s labor force participation rose to comparable male levels, GDP would rise too…by 5 percentage points in the United States…by 9 in Japan…and by 34 in Egypt.

So we have to ask the question: Can we afford not to invest in women’s economic participation?

Since I first started this job, I’ve traveled to Japan twice. The government there is trying to lift the country out of a decades-long recession. And because of the declining birth rate and an aging population, they’re working hard to expand the Japanese work force.

Adding more women to the workforce is really a critical part of the solution and Prime Minister Abe has embraced that. But tax laws and cultural norms encourage women to leave the workforce to provide child and elder care. And, a glass ceiling keeps working women from leadership roles.

During my last visit, I met with women leaders working to break those barriers. One woman I met was the mayor of Yokohama. She was the first woman to hold her job. As mayor, she made it a priority to increase access to child care so moms could go back to work. In just a remarkably short period of time, she reduced the waiting list for daycare from several thousand families to zero, which is astounding.

I love this story because it shows how women can play a powerful role in fixing a country’s economy. From finding seats for women at the political table to opening doors for them in the workforce, we can do so much to support women and their work.

This is what we’re doing to address challenges and make the most of opportunities today. But we’re also thinking about tomorrow. And that’s why my final priority is focused on adolescent girls.

Today’s girls are the mayors, entrepreneurs, judges, educators, mothers, and workers of tomorrow. So let’s start empowering them now, while so much is still possible, by investing in them.

When I travel, I make it a point to visit with adolescent girls, and I often ask them what they want to be when they grow up. One girl I met in Afghanistan told me she wanted to be President.

Nearly 14 years ago, this would have been unfathomable for any young girl in Afghanistan. And while the road ahead is indeed long, Afghan women have made tremendous progress. I see this young girl’s dream as proof of that. And I believe we can take action to help make it possible.

In the past 15 years, the international community has made access to primary school a priority. It was one of the Millennium Development Goals. And we’ve been quite successful.

But the data shows that we are losing girls at the secondary level. Once they become adolescents they are at greater risk of dropping out. They have more responsibility at home. They’re at high risk for early and forced marriage. And their families often spend the money needed for education on other things.

So we have work to do to increase access to safe and high quality secondary school. That will be a key ingredient to improving the lives of adolescent girls.

What else can we do to change tomorrow for these girls? We can write and enforce laws that make 18 the minimum legal marrying age.

Too many girls drop out of school to get married. Sometimes this happens because, instead of valuing girls, families see them as economic burdens. A marriage transfers that burden to someone else.

Or sometimes parents arrange an early marriage to keep their daughter safe. We see this during humanitarian crises. Parents see marriage—mistakenly, in my view—as a way to protect their daughters from violence and instability.

So we have to change the way the world views girls. We have to show that communities and countries are missing out when their girls are prevented from achieving their fullest potential. And we have to demonstrate that education is the best opportunity for every daughter’s future. That’s no small task. But we know it’s worth it.

When a girl has the chance to go to school… when she has access to health care…when she is kept safe from violence…her life changes for the better.

She will marry later and have fewer and healthier children. She’ll earn money that she invests back into her family and her community. She’ll contribute to a safer and more prosperous world.

That’s what you are working for as well. As future diplomats, leaders, and activists, you care about the world’s future. And someday you will be in charge at the State Department, at a think tank, or at an NGO.

No matter where you land in your career… you will be better at your job… and you will see better outcomes… if you consider gender. I’d like to leave you with three ideas for how you can do just that: research, representation, and response. These are the critical ways you, as future leaders, can integrate gender into your work.

First, research. One of the big holes we’re facing now is a lack of data. We need more and better research to understand how women and girls live, survive, and thrive in every country of the world, on every issue.

Good data drives the decisions of Fortune 500 companies. It drives policy discussions, like the one we’re having right now about the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Without it, we can’t make the best informed decisions on our path forward. So we need to do everything we can to get more data and to get better data.

That’s why we are making sure that gender sensitive and sex-disaggregated data is part of how the State Department and USAID report on our progress. That’s why we’re working to champion data in decision-making on an international level. That’s why we’re supporting efforts like Data2X, which brings forth commitments across sectors to build our global repository of gender data.

And that’s why I’m asking you to think about data too. As you do your work, emphasize the importance of including and analyzing data on women and men’s experiences, and how they differ. Insist on including gender analysis in your studies. Be the person who brings the question of gender data into the room when decisions are on the table.

The second idea you should remember is representation.

Whatever table you’re sitting at—a panel discussion on the Middle East….the senior leadership meeting at your think tank…the board meeting of the non-profit where you volunteer—make sure there are women. And preferably more than one.

I’ve seen firsthand how personal action can make that happen with mentors in my own life, and also at the State Department.

Secretary Kerry is a great example of how leaders can lift up women’s voices. One out of two deputy secretaries at the State Department is a woman. Four of six under secretaries are women. And five of the six regional assistant sectaries are women.

Research shows us that Secretary Kerry is on to something. When a critical mass of women is included in decision-making, women aren’t viewed as a token group. Instead, they’re viewed as individuals with different experiences and views.

That increased representation leads to better discussions, more perspectives, and better decisions. And the decisions made are more inclusive, and more successful. So be the person who invites women into the room – and makes sure that their voices are heard and respected.

So we have research, representation, and finally, response.

The world is facing incredibly complex challenges, and I doubt they will get less complicated throughout your careers.  Even in the midst of these many complications, our response to these crises needs to consider women and girls.

So when you’re looking at a problem, make sure the strategies and approaches you choose acknowledge that women and girls are not just as an “affected population.” They aren’t a so-called “vulnerable group.” They are equal citizens and active participants in decision making.

Ask yourself how the decision you’re making will impact women and girls. And how can you take their unique needs and concerns into consideration to come up with the best policy or the best solution?

It’s my hope that someday these questions will be automatic in all of our diplomacy, development, and operations. It’s a change that is already underway.

But if our smartest minds—that’s you—graduate into the higher echelons of foreign policy already understanding the power and potential of gender equality, we will all be much better off.

I want to end by coming back to Secretary Clinton’s declaration: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. People have written op-eds, articles, even books about those words and the moment they marked.

What will people say about 2015? In 20 years, when many of you are well-known leaders in foreign policy, what will be the markers and policy achievements you look back on?

Obviously I can’t see into the future. But I can hope, and I can work towards, the idea that 2015 is a big year for women and girls.

It’s a year of reflection…of taking stock of how far we’ve come since Beijing 20 years ago…and of finding big and bold ways to push forward. It’s the year we take a stand for gender equality and women’s empowerment… by putting these goals at the heart of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It’s the year we start collecting more research and better data that show the world what we already know…. that advancing women is the right thing… and it is the smart thing to do.

Thank you.