Remarks at the FHI Gender 360 Summit

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
FHI Gender 360 Summit
Washington, DC
June 11, 2015

As prepared

Thank you, Andrea, for that kind introduction. Hi everyone. I’m thrilled to be here this afternoon for the second annual Gender 360 Summit.

This is an exciting time to be working on gender equality in the international development arena. After all, 2015 is a major year for development – and for women and girls. We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and shining a spotlight on those eleven powerful words that then First Lady Hillary Clinton said: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.

Those words illustrate the potential of conferences and conversations—like the one we’re having here today—to become milestones and movements. That statement became a seminal moment—one that pushed the envelope in ways we couldn’t imagine.

Today, of course, Hilary Clinton’s eleven words seem non-controversial. In my work at the State Department, I find that we no longer have to make the case that gender equality is the right thing to do, or even the strategic thing to do. When we talk about how gender equality is critical to U.S. foreign policy and development, people nod their heads. They get it.

Where the conversation has shifted is to how we can best accomplish this work. How can we empower women and girls—and engage men and boys in the process—to create a more stable, secure, and prosperous world?

The celebration of Beijing+20 provides an opportunity to have this discussion—to recognize the progress we’ve made, examine what’s working, and reaffirm our commitment to gender equality. In addition to the Beijing anniversary, this year also includes the Post-2015 Development Agenda summit and the Financing for Development conference.

So 2015 is a historic opportunity for the world to come together and define a common vision for the world we want to see in the year 2030—a world where political systems and economies are far more inclusive, a world where we are stemming the impacts of climate change and have healthier oceans and forests, and a world where well-governed, peaceful societies are the norm. But to realize any of these goals, gender equality must be at the core of the development agenda. To realize any of these goals, the world needs to come together and declare 2015 as our next Beijing moment—the year that we move the conversation forward in the same powerful way that the UN conference did back in 1995.

I know that many of you are working to do just that. Fikiri Nzoyisenga is showing the world how men can and do lead on gender equality with his work on gender-based violence in Burundi. Theo Sowa is doing ground-breaking work to support women’s organizations on the continent of Africa. Lori Michau has helped launch a program that takes a powerful, community-based approach to gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, a program that is now in more than 15 countries around the world. And that’s just three out of the hundreds gathered here today.

I’m proud to say that my office—indeed, the entire State Department—is a part of this movement. Under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, we’ve integrated a focus on gender equality into our national security policy. And we’re working at every level—from our engagement on the SDGs, to our diplomatic relations, to our programming and development—to make real progress on this issue.

Today I’d like to share with you where we’re focusing our efforts in order to advance gender equality and empower women and girls.

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 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 the water well or while she’s waiting for the bus.

That’s exactly what happened to a young woman named Laxmi, who received the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award last year. When Laxmi was 16, she turned down a friend’s brother who wanted to date her. In anger, he found her waiting at a bus stop and threw acid on her face as revenge. Today Laxmi is an advocate against gender-based violence, and her courage and resilience should inspire us as we do this work. But her story should also make us angry. Laxmi represents the one out of every three women who experience gender-based violence around the world and find that their lives are irreversibly changed in the process.

That’s why we’re taking action to not only respond to gender-based violence but also to try to prevent it. One of the areas I’d like to highlight here is our work to end FGM/C. Last July, the State Department launched a new program in Guinea, a country with a very high prevalence of FGM/C.Under this program, we are working with the Government of Guinea to develop a national action plan. We are collaborating with NGOs to hold training sessions in local villages and engage men and boys. We are asking survivors 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 the task is daunting. Recently I traveled to Iraq and Jordan to better understand the challenges facing Iraqi women and girls, particularly those forced to leave their homes because of ISIL. I met with both men and women who told me how ISIL makes life hell for women and girls.

The situation is especially grim for minority populations. Thousands of girls and women were abducted by ISIL last summer. Many, including girls as young as seven or eight, were repeatedly raped and forced to "marry" ISIL fighters. Others have been sold as slaves.

The United States has taken action to help. We’re providing both humanitarian aid and other kinds of assistance. And we are committed to continuing our work with the Government of Iraq, NGO partners, and the UN to address the needs of those who are affected by what's happening. But the international community needs to do more to protect and better serve women and girls affected by conflict. Because when it comes to sexual violence in conflict, we have to approach this issue as an atrocity that can—and must—end.

Secretary Kerry has compared ending sexual violence in conflict today to ending the use of chemical and biological weapons after World War I. Because that’s what sexual violence is. It’s a weapon. It destroys lives, fuels conflict, and stands in the way of lasting peace. And 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 DRC, where horrific violence against women is 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. In turn, those communities can see first-hand that sexual violence will not go unpunished, and that impunity will not be tolerated.

And this program doesn’t just protect survivors, although that is very important. It also contributes to 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 give citizens an opportunity to settle disputes without violence, which means 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. 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. They bring unique insights to decision making tables. They increase the effectiveness of government. And that’s why our second priority focuses on women’s participation.

As I said before, this is an area where people understand the strategic value, if not the moral good, in promoting gender equality. And while we certainly need more data, and we need to continue to build an evidence-based case and illustrate what works, we have numbers that show the power of women’s participation.

For example, we have data showing that states with higher levels of gender equality use less violence to manage crises than states with lower levels of gender equality. That’s why in places like Syria and South Sudan, we’ve been pushing for women’s inclusion in peace talks. Our diplomats around the world do this despite many on-the-ground challenges. 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. And yet there are still places around the world where women are told they don’t belong in business, or they need their husband’s permission to get a loan. In every country around the globe there are stereotypes and cultural attitudes that send a message to women and girls about their “proper” roles. And those attitudes are often ingrained in laws and practices that make it harder for a woman to start her own business or make a fair wage, simply because of her gender.

But what we see over and over again is that these barriers don’t hold back only women. They hold back entire communities and economies as well. 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 every day we are asking ourselves, and asking governments around the world: can we afford not to invest in women’s economic participation?

But pushing for more women in the workforce is just part of the solution. Pushing for women’s political participation is equally important. The last time I traveled to Japan, I met the mayor of Yokohama, who is the first woman to hold her job. And as mayor she’s made it a priority to increase access to child care so moms could go back to work. In a remarkably short period of time, she reduced the waiting list for daycare from several thousand families to zero, which is really astounding.

Her leadership did more than address concerns for women. It also addressed an issue that was holding back the local workforce, and the local economy. That’s what happens when a country’s politicians represent not just some but all its citizens. Our approach to gender equality should do the same thing—it should include not just some, but all.

As we advocate for the views and needs of women to be taken into account—or as we design programs or strategies that aim to empower women— we need to pay particular attention to those who are often marginalized: lesbian, bisexual, and trans women… women with disabilities… women from ethnic and religious minorities… older women… and indigenous women and girls. And we absolutely must engage and empower men and boys to be part of our efforts.

We overlook these groups at our own peril. And that’s why my third and final priority is adolescent girls—a group that has been too often overlooked in women’s empowerment. Today’s girls are tomorrow’s mayors and entrepreneurs, judges and educators, mothers and workers. So let’s start empowering them now, while so much is still possible, by investing in their future. Let’s make sure they finish not just primary school, but also secondary school—with a diploma in hand, ready to contribute to their economies.

We’ve seen how this kind of goal is within our reach. In the past 15 years, the international community has made access to primary school a priority. And we’ve been quite successful. But the data shows that we are losing girls at the secondary level. Once a girl reaches adolescence, she is at greater risk of dropping out. This is the time in her life when she has more responsibility at home. She’s at high risk for early and forced marriage and for contracting HIV/AIDS. And her family may spend the money needed for education on other things.

This is the reality for some 30 million adolescent girls who are not in school. And it’s a reality we’d like to change. That’s why in March the President and the First Lady announced a new initiative called Let Girls Learn that aims to help adolescent girls finish secondary school. And again, this is a good example of how in the Obama Administration, we are working every day, at every level, to advance girls and women.

But as everyone here knows, improving the lives of adolescent girls requires a holistic approach. Ultimately, 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. We have to demonstrate that education is the best opportunity for the future of every daughter, regardless of whether she is married or pregnant.

That’s no small task. It requires a comprehensive approach that takes the full picture into consideration: laws and institutions, infrastructure and security, the issue of health and reproductive rights, and of course cultural values. But we know it’s worth the effort. We can see it when we look at adolescent girls here at home and around the world.

I try to meet with young women and girls whenever I travel. And one of the most courageous girls I’ve met is a young woman from Malawi named Memory Banda. Memory is a powerful example of how education can change lives. As an advocate for girls, she offers free writing lessons to adolescent moms in her neighborhood. She visits the families of girls who are in danger of being married, and she encourages them not to. And she’s part of a grassroots campaign to build networks for girls and end child marriage once and for all.

Memory does this work because she’s seen in her own life how education and gender-based violence can change a girl’s path. Her younger sister Mercy was 11 years old when she got pregnant during a so-called “sexual initiation” ceremony. During these ceremonies, girls are forced to have sex with an adult man to prepare for marriage. And like many other girls who end up pregnant after the ceremony, Memory’s sister had to drop out of school.

No matter what situations girls find themselves in—whether they become an adolescent mother like Mercy or an advocate for girls like Memory—it’s our job to make sure they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

I want to end by coming back to Secretary Clinton’s eleven words: 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 in 1995. What will people say about 2015? In 20 years, what will be the markers and policy achievements they look back on?

Obviously I can’t see into the future. But I can hope, and I can work toward, the idea that 2015 is a big year for gender equality. 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 put gender equality squarely at the heart of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It’s the year we commit to research that measures the impact of women and girls’ full participation in a consistent manner.

And it’s the year that we invite the entire international community—NGOs, government officials, community leaders, women, and men—to join us as real partners and make 2015 our own Beijing moment.

Thank you.