Opening Statement on Resources, Priorities and Programs for Global Women's Issues

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, & Global Women's Issues
Washington, DC
May 5, 2015

Good afternoon, and thank you, Chairman Rubio, Ranking Member Boxer, and distinguished members of the Committee for inviting me to testify today.

We at the Department of State believe that advancing the status of women and girls worldwide is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Study after study demonstrates that countries are more stable, peaceful, and prosperous when women are healthy, educated, and able to fully participate in their economies and societies.

As the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, it’s my job to develop and help implement policies and initiatives that promote gender equality and advance the status of girls and women around the world.

My office is focused on both policy and diplomacy efforts. We implement a handful of targeted programs to strategically advance our objectives. We share best practices for promoting gender issues within the State Department. And we coordinate with USAID and other U.S. government agencies, as well as other governments, international institutions, and NGOs.

I would like to begin today by providing you with an overview of my office’s three priority areas, and I will then outline how we use our resources to support these objectives.

Our first priority is to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, both in conflict and in peacetime. As you mentioned, Chairman Rubio, more than one in three women around the world will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. That is why I make sure that addressing gender-based violence is on the agenda of every trip I take.

For example, I’ve met with survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan. I’ve met with the Government of Bangladesh to encourage them to uphold 18 as the legal age of marriage for all girls. I’ve met with Afghanistan President Ghani to discuss the recent mob murder of a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda. And we continue to push the Afghan Government to fully implement the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act.

Our second priority is to advance women’s full participation in all aspects of society. In the places where decisions are made, women are vastly underrepresented. From politics to peace negotiations, women often don’t have a seat at the table. We’re working to change that.

We also work to expand women’s economic participation. One of the most effective ways to empower women is to facilitate greater economic independence.

Women’s economic opportunities have ripple effects for their families, communities, and countries. Women spend the majority of their earnings on food, schooling, and immunizations that help secure their children’s futures. And when more women work—when the gap between women and men in the workforce narrows—economies benefit as well. Research has found that the narrowing gap between male and female employment accounted for a quarter of Europe’s annual GDP growth over the past two decades.

Our final priority is addressing the needs of adolescent girls.

In too many parts of the world, adolescence is the most precarious time for girls. Many are at risk of early and force marriage. In fact, one in three girls in the developing world is married by the time she is 18 years old. Millions of girls live in conflict settings that raise the risks of gender-based violence and further disrupt already perilous situations. And far too few girls have the education they need to participate fully in the economy. Girls’ attendance in formal school during adolescence is also correlated with later marriage, later childbearing, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, fewer hours of domestic and labor work, and greater gender equality.

That’s why through the Let Girls Learn Initiative—a government-wide effort recently launched by the President and First Lady—we are working to make the case that every girl deserves a chance to complete her education, especially secondary education.

These are the priorities we’re focused on. I’d like to talk very briefly about how we use resources and programs to advance gender equality.

As I mentioned, my role is a strategic combination of policy and diplomacy. The majority of programmatic activities related to gender are carried out by State and USAID embassies and missions around the world, as well as some of our bureaus here in Washington. My office helps advance these issues through our own targeted programming. In many instances, we use our resources to fill gaps and test innovative, strategic ways to address challenges related to women and girls.

I am committed to ensuring that our funds are spent on programs that have real impact and that can serve as models for other work. That is why we have implemented procedures to carry out rigorous monitoring and evaluation of the projects we fund.

One thing we have learned is that it is difficult to see change without comprehensively addressing the many challenges that women and girls face. For example, it is one thing to provide services to survivors of domestic violence. But to truly reduce rates of gender-based violence, we must also focus on prevention and empowerment. And for us to succeed in achieving full gender equality, we need everyone—diplomats and development practitioners, governments and civil society, men and women— to play a role.

The same concept applies to U.S. foreign policy. Each of the global challenges we face include and involve women. We cannot effectively counter violent extremist groups without engaging women. We cannot create stable and prosperous societies without including women. We cannot build stronger economies without making sure that girls can go to school.

That’s why across every Bureau and every Embassy, we need to make every effort to advance the status and address the needs of women and girls.

Your leadership and support are critical to our efforts, so thank you for your support and for your time today.