Remarks at Trust Women Conference

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
London, United Kingdom
November 17, 2015

As prepared

Like millions of people around the world, I have been thinking a lot about last week’s attacks in Paris – what they mean for us and for those affected by ISIL every day. Women and girls have been a particular target for ISIL – just as they are for groups like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and far too many others who view progress for women as a threat to their backward beliefs.

That mindset – and the evil that results from it – cannot go unchecked. Those of us who believe that women are, in the American vernacular, entitled to inalienable rights have to redouble our efforts.

Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to equality, to opportunity, and to freedom for women and girls everywhere.

We have a long way to go. One in every three women around the world will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime. Millions of girls are out of school—and many of them are adolescents. Of the more than 300 heads of state and government, only 24 are women.

These statistics have consequences for all of us – families and communities, companies and economies. Because when women are held back, the world is held back as well. That’s why research shows that companies have better bottom lines when more women are on the board. Peace agreements are more sustainable when women are at the negotiating table. And family health is stronger when mothers are educated.

So the United States cares about gender equality not only because it speaks to our values as a country, but because it makes for good foreign policy. Every issue that’s on the Trust Women agenda this morning is also on the US agenda as we tackle challenges around the world.

For example, we recognize the power of women leaders at all levels of society. Nowhere is this more true than in conflict settings and fragile states. When everything else falls apart, women are there to hold their families together, to make sure there’s food on the table, and to pick up the pieces of society when it’s time to rebuild.

We see this time and time again in communities battling violent extremism. Earlier this year, I traveled to Iraq and Jordan, where I met with women and girls from the Syrian refugee community. Their accounts were horrific: families broken apart, men killed, women abducted. I heard the experiences of Yezidi women and girls who endured captivity, rape, and other brutalities under ISIL. Many of these women and girls managed to escape and are finding the courage to piece their lives back together. Some of them have been able to tell their stories and expose ISIL for what it is.

The United States is providing critical support to former captives, along with other displaced communities, to meet their basic needs, including psycho-social support and protection for survivors.

But more can and must be done. And it’s critical that while we act to support survivors, we don’t allow just one story of women to dominate the narrative. Because what’s true in the region, and what’s true around the world, is that women are much more than victims. They are part of the solution to enduring peace.

Many women are protecting their families and pushing back on violent extremists’ efforts to spread hate and destruction. Their efforts need to be recognized and they need to be taken seriously.

This second point is critical. It is not enough to acknowledge the important role women play in countering violent extremism. We also need to ensure they are empowered within their communities.

Let me give you an example. The State Department co-hosted an event last month where a woman told a story of how strange things were happening in a community in southern Afghanistan. Women from Uzbekistan were knocking on doors, asking families about their sons under the guise of bringing foreign business investments to the community. But the local women thought foreign investment in such a remote corner of Afghanistan was unlikely. So they started investigating. And they learned that the community’s boys were being recruited by militants.

Twelve of the women traveled to Kabul and tracked down a government minister to hear their concerns. But when he met with them, the minister didn’t take a single note. Instead, he laughed the women out of the building. A month after they returned home, militants attacked a bus in their village, and dozens of people died. We’ll never know what would have happened if those women had been taken seriously.

Unfortunately, what they faced is not unique. And whether we’re talking about being ignored by a government official, taken out of school to be married, or shut out of a job, it stems from the same place: the low status of women and girls.

That is the root problem facing women and girls around the world. Addressing it is difficult -- because there are so many factors at play, from laws that discriminate against women, to infrastructure that doesn’t take them into account, to a lack of education and cultural attitudes that hold them back.

As tough as these challenges are, I believe progress is possible. In the United States, we’ve made real and lasting progress on domestic violence, because we tackled the issue from many fronts – training judges, police officers, prosecutors, and health care professionals. And in time, although we haven’t solved the problem, we changed our culture so that people started to see domestic violence as a crime instead of a family matter.

Taking a holistic approach makes all the difference for these issues. That’s why, increasingly, the United States is strengthening our global approach to these issues so it addresses them in a comprehensive manner. We’re supporting women’s entrepreneurship centers in Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of Asia. These centers not only help women start small and medium businesses. They also provide programs on gender-based violence and engaging men and boys.

Earlier this year, President Obama announced a new pilot project the United States is taking on in Tanzania and Malawi. Instead of investing in one-off programs that tackle just one problem, we’re tackling the biggest issues facing women and adolescent girls—safety, health, and education. In both Malawi and Tanzania, we are identifying local challenges and working with a range of partners to tailor local solutions.

Girls’ education is a particularly tough issue in this region because girls face so many barriers. Some girls have to travel miles and miles to get to class. Some are married. Some families can’t afford school fees.

Under a presidential initiative called Let Girls Learn, we’ve started a challenge fund that brings together different partners to work with us and to partner with communities to find the right solutions.

We believe girls’ education is closely linked to vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and related to poverty, gender, and sexual violence. So Malawi and Tanzania are also DREAMS countries, which means they are part of the $280 million public-private partnership under PEPFAR working to reduce new HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women.

Ultimately, our goal is to empower a generation of girls to sidestep the many barriers they face, to stay in school until they graduate, and to contribute to their economies and societies. If we can do that for an entire generation in Malawi and Tanzania, we can change the way that people think about women and girls for years to come.

Each of us here knows what girls are capable of. We see it in our own daughters and our friends, and we see it in girls around the world, from Malawi to Mexico, from India to Indonesia.

Everywhere I travel I meet amazing, inspiring young women. I’ve met so many of these girls around the world. They need our support and they deserve our support.

In Kenya this summer, President Obama said: “If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women. And if you want to empower more women, America will be your partner.”

That’s why I’m here today. This conference is a valuable opportunity for us to be very clear: Violence against women, early and force marriage, trafficking, discrimination and ignorance – hurt women and ultimately hold us back. We must work together. We must push forward. And ultimately, to borrow the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we must bend the arc of the moral universe in the direction of justice, freedom, and equality.

Thank you.