Remarks at Women for Women International Annual Awards Gala

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New York, NY
November 10, 2015

As prepared

Thank you, Mary. As all of you know, Mary is one of the most committed, tireless, and incredibly effective champions. I admire the work she does immensely, and am honored to call her a friend.

As Mary said in her introduction, the mission given to me by President Obama is to ensure that women and girls move to the center of American foreign policy, and that the United States continues to lead on the protection and promotion of women and girls.

The United States promotes gender equality not only because it is the right and moral thing to do, but because we know that communities, economies, and countries are stronger when women participate fully.

Women for Women played a transformative role in my journey to this position. In 2006, I traveled with Zainab and an amazing group of supporters to Bosnia. It was there that I started to think about how work to address gender-based violence in the United States could shape our efforts on the international front.

That trip changed the course of my work. In Bosnia, we traveled to Srebrenica, where thousands of boys and men were separated from their families and brutally massacred. We walked through an abandoned factory that served as the headquarters for UN peacekeepers – and even there we saw vile images of women drawn on the walls by those sent to keep the peace. I met women who had lost everything – their families, their livelihoods, and their ability to control their own lives – and yet they were working so hard to piece their lives back together.

On a subsequent trip to Rwanda, we visited the Nyamata church, which is a heartbreaking memorial to the 1994 genocide. Thousands were killed while seeking refuge in this Catholic Church. Pile after pile of their clothes remain today as a silent reminder of those who perished there. And in the basement are shelves lined with countless skulls bearing the marks of machetes.

To this day, I cannot forget the image of a single coffin encased in glass – a memorial to a woman who was abused so brutally that even in the midst of so much horror, she was singled out for special remembrance.

Some of what I saw on those trips shook my fundamental belief in human decency. But at the same time, I saw the most amazing ability of people – and women in particular – to not only survive, but also find a way to go on, to care for one another, and begin to rebuild a different kind of future. I saw horror, but I also saw grace and staggering resilience.

As a policymaker, the question for me was, how could the international community do better? How could we protect women from sexual violence, how could we address impunity, and ultimately how could we ensure that women are able to participate fully in their societies – as decision makers and as leaders?

Looking at the world today, there is no question that we still have a long way to go. Truly evil forces like ISIL and Boko Haram specifically target women and girls.

Too many women continue to face horrific violence – in their homes, in their communities, and on the battlefield. Too many are married young and denied an education. And too few are political leaders or part of the formal economy.

But, despite these very real challenges, we are committed to pushing forward and I do believe we are making progress. We’ve learned several very important things.

First, violence against women, particularly sexual violence in conflict, is pervasive, but it is not inevitable.

Researchers have studied conflicts that occurred between 1989 and 2010 and found that more than 40 percent of them had no reports of sexual violence used as a tactic by combatants. So why do we see it in some places – like Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria and the DRC – but not in others? Clearly, if we have to stop and prevent sexual violence, we must better understand why it happens.

We also have to take action. In the past few years, the UK has led more than 150 countries to commit not to use sexual violence as a tactic of war. That commitment is an important step.

But we must do more, which is why the international community is working on prevention tools. We’re prioritizing political and human rights solutions. We’ve established norms and punished perpetrators. And we’ve integrated women into warning systems. To be successful, we have to expand this work – and we have to do it together.

The second lesson is that while women are often targeted, they are not just victims.

Yes, women experience unimaginable horrors, especially in war. And they are often affected in unique ways during crises, whether in a natural disaster or in conflict. But women are so much more than victims in these situations. They are the key to peace and stability.

Once empowered, women have tremendous impact. They improve the condition of their families, immunizing and educating their children. Political bodies with more women tend to address critical issues like health, education, and infrastructure. And companies with more women in leadership tend to be more profitable. In other words, women are a great investment.

Women for Women knows this well. Your work to empower women, to lift up those most disenfranchised, is premised on the belief that women are agents of change.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary women who prove that women as victims is only one piece of the puzzle. One of those women is Joy Ndungutse from Rwanda, who many of you here know well. After the genocide, Joy gathered a handful of women under a tree. As the women shared stories, skills, and traditions with each other, they also started to forgive. They crossed the lines of hatred and they helped each other heal. That is the power of women.

Finally, although progress is very hard, it is possible. Women for Women knows this too: it takes a smart, comprehensive approach to make real and lasting change.

That’s why the United States works to advance gender equality through avenues that consider all the challenges that affect women and girls. We’re tackling gender-based violence. We’re working to empower women to fully participate in society. And we’re investing in girls, who are the next generation of women around the world.

As President Obama says, our work is powered by the belief that when women do better, countries do better. But the pursuit of gender equality cannot be the work of governments alone. That’s why organizations like Women for Women International are critical. And it’s why the courage and dedication of individuals like Dr. Denis Mukwege, who we are honoring here tonight, are so important.

I have had the great privilege of meeting Dr. Mukwege several times. He is quite simply a hero – not just to me, although he most certainly is, but to the thousands of women he has saved in his hospital in the DRC. And he’s proof that men are important advocates for women.

I traveled to Panzi hospital to see Dr. Mukwege. His part of the world is absolutely beautiful, lovely hills and a serene, picturesque lake. The peacefulness belies the horrors that have taken place there. Countless women have come to Dr. Mukwege as a last resort. They have been ravaged by combatants bent on destroying their bodies – raping them, often with machetes and guns. The women – and girls, some so incredibly young – come to Panzi hospital to be put back together, to stop the leaking of feces and urine that often results from the brutal attacks.

Dr. Mukwege is their beacon of hope. He has fearlessly called on combatants and leaders to leave women out of their fight. And he challenges all of us to do better. So what are we to do?

My answer is to keep at it – to recognize that each of us—from governments to NGOS, from the private sector to private individuals—we each have an important role to play. My work is on behalf of the United States government, which is an important force for empowering women around the world. Women for Women plays a critical role in supporting women in post- conflict countries. And heroes, like Dr. Mukwege, fearlessly change their own countries on the ground.

Each of you is helping too. And so, at the end of the day, I remain optimistic that change will continue. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I love that sentiment and at the darkest moments I cling to the belief that it is true.

As you’ll hear tonight, that bend toward justice does not happen on its own. Progress is only possible when we work together with resolve and courage to give women no less than they deserve—to give them the opportunity to live free from violence, free from discrimination, and free from injustice.

Thank you.