Remarks for "Women Leaders: Promoting Peace and Security" International Visitor Leadership Program

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
December 2, 2015

Thank you Sue, for that kind introduction. And thanks to the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau for their hard work and dedication—particularly to this program.

Today I’d like to show you a few photos. This is a U.S. - Egypt Business Council event in New York. This is the Greek Cabinet in the year 2012.This is a rebel delegation at the opening ceremony of recent peace talks. And here’s a counter-ISIL coalition meeting in London earlier this year.

Each of these photos shows a group of people making big decisions or holding important discussions. And yet each photo is missing a critical component: women. The fact is that we see this in almost every country, in almost every forum, and at almost every level around the world.

We see it the number of women judges in justice systems around the world. Here’s a photo of the International Court of Justice—where women hold just three of 15 seats. The average representation of women judges in major international tribunals is 17 percent. Similarly discouraging are the number of women who sit on UN treaty bodies or who are special rapporteurs. And here in the United States, women make up roughly a third of the federal bench.

We see few women in sports as well. Now before you ask how you can compare sports with international justice, consider that the sports industry is one of the most lucrative markets in the world. It’s estimated to be worth $145.4 billion U.S. dollars this year. Guess who is very rarely at the top levels of this industry—women.

This is the Union of European Football Associations Executive Committee. Not pictured is the one woman who was allowed to join the committee after the Women’s Football Committee asked to be represented. And Europe isn’t alone here. Out of the 24 members of FIFA’s executive committee, just two are women.

In the broader world of business, women are also missing. This is a recent photo of the Board of Directors at Land O’Lakes. At the top of Fortune 500 companies, there are more men in leadership positions who have the name John than there are women with any name at all.

The leaders of peace and politics are also largely men. And that’s despite the fact that the UN Security Council passed Resolution1325—solidifying an international commitment to include more women in global peace and security efforts. That’s despite the fact that both research and history tell us that peace is more likely to be reached and sustained when women are at the table.

Out of more than 300 world leaders, just 24 women serve as heads of state or heads of government. Here in the United States, just 20 percent of Members of Congress are women. And around the world, just 22 percent of parliamentarians are women.

Peace and justice, business and politics—these are the pursuits that determine the future of communities and countries. They determine whether or not a factory will stay in business in China or if it will move to India. They determine whether a crime will be properly punished or if certain people will be given a pass. They determine whether a city has access to clean water or if an important trade deal will be made.When these questions are considered without women, data show that communities, countries, and economies are held back.

The United States knows this from our experience. Almost 50 years ago, the role of women started to change here in the United States. More and more women started to enter the workforce, which boosted our country’s economy.

One of those women was Bernice Sandler. In 1969, she was looking for work in higher education. Even though she was highly qualified, she kept getting turned down for jobs. People told her things like, “You come on too strong for a woman.” Or “you’re not a professional, you’re a house wife.” Unfortunately, the laws in the United States said this kind of discrimination was perfectly legal. So Sandler started to document discrimination against women at more than 250 schools.

Her work caught the eye of two other women in the working world—Edith Green and Patsy Mink, two women serving in Congress. They drafted what become known as Title IX—a single sentence in federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education.

In 1972—the year Title IX was passed— men received athletic scholarships, but women didn’t. Men’s teams had championship games, but women’s teams didn’t. That year, one in 27 girls played high school sports. Today, that number is two out of five. And this is because Title IX says that men can no longer receive special treatment in education, and that includes sports.

Because of Title IX, high school girls started to play volley ball and join the track team. As athletes, they took risks. They learned to work as a team, and play with confidence. When they left school, they took those skills with them. Today, they are advocates, police officers, prosecutors, and business owners. All thanks to Title IX.

Success stories like these remind me of one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Junior: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But that bend doesn’t happen on its own.

It happens because you blaze trails for women in law and peace, and you lead women police officers in your countries. It happens because you write for newspapers and broadcast on the radio, and you use humor to change attitudes. It happens because you provide legal services and support to survivors of gender-based violence, and you empower young people to live healthy lives. You fight stereotypes, you counter violent extremism, and you bring communities together. You are the ones who bend the world toward justice, peace, and equality.

The World Bank recently released a study on the most powerful indicator to predict gender equality in a country. The study considered things like a country’s wealth and the progressiveness of political parties. It found that, while those things mattered, the most important indicator was whether or not a country had strong grassroots advocates.

That’s why you’re here today. Because the United States knows that you—and countless others around the world—are working to make your communities and countries better places. The United also knows that when women do better, countries do better. And one of the best ways we can support gender equality is by supporting women on the front lines of change.

That’s why we’ve integrated gender into U.S. foreign policy. At every level, we’re working to include and consider women in our efforts. The women, peace, and security agenda is a critical part of this endeavor. I’d like to highlight for you three areas where we’re pushing for change.

The first is at the peace table. In places like Syria and South Sudan, we’re pushing for women’s inclusion in peace talks. Our diplomats meet with women’s civil society groups, including those pressing for peace, and work to make sure their concerns are integrated in our approach.

Earlier this year, I travelled to the Philippines, where I met Miriam Coronel Ferrer. She was the first woman to lead the Filipino government’s team in peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. She told me that no peace agreement is perfect—but we make agreements even more imperfect if we don’t have women in the picture. Because women help complete the picture.

Miriam did several very important things in the peace process. She helped get more women at the table. The other side had all men, and so she added more seats. She added consultants and technical working groups, and put pressure on the other side to fill some of those seats with women. Miriam also made sure that women’s rights were included and protected in the agreement. She told me she hopes that—as the agreement is implemented—this will help bring more women into decision-making.

Miriam’s story shows how women can advance equality in peace negotiations. But we know that including women has other benefits as well. Studies have found that negotiations are more likely to end in an agreement when women’s groups play an influential role in the process. And during negotiations, when momentum stalls or talks falter, women’s involvement help keep the talks on track.

That’s the power of women in peace negotiations. And it’s a power we see in peacekeeping as well. That’s why our second focus is on women in peacekeeping. We’re working to increase the pipeline of women serving in peacekeeping operations, so that core missions like protection and engagement with both men and women in the community are more effective. We’re working to level the playing field for women police officers by training them on the basic requirements for UN peacekeeping deployment. And we’re giving women the resources they need to succeed, whether it’s a network to unite women peacekeepers or a toolkit to help the UN integrate gender into peacekeeping.

A couple of months ago I was in Bangladesh, where I met with women peacekeepers from the military and police. One woman told me that while she was serving in Darfur, young girls would come up to her and say “we want to be like you.” They viewed her as a role model. Another told me how the women she served with helped improve access to justice and security for local women.

To me, their stories bring home the critical importance of President Obama’s commitment to strengthen, reform, and diversify peacekeeping. That commitment reflects our belief that to truly be effective at peacekeeping and peacebuilding, we need to deepen our commitment to social inclusion—particularly in conflict-affected communities.

Our third and final area of focus is women’s empowerment. Last month, I attended a conference where a doctor from Raqqa spoke. When ISIL took over her city, she continued to work as a doctor in a hospital.

One day, she was in the E.R. when a man came in the room and started to scream, “Gloves! Gloves!” Everyone was looking around frantically trying to figure out what he needed. So the doctor ran up to him and gave him a pair of surgical gloves. But he kept screaming in broken Arabic, “Gloves! Gloves!” And she realized that he was talking about her. Even though she was completely covered – her head, her face, even her hands—her fingers were bare. And to him, this was an abomination.

I wanted to share this example with you because it illustrates something very important: it doesn’t matter how much women have to offer their communities if their communities don’t let them contribute. Advocating for women at the table and on the team will only take us so far if people don’t take women seriously, if women are held back by unequal laws, if girls don’t have access to quality education. But we are committed to taking on this challenge, and we know that supporting you, and the millions of women and men like you, will be key to breaking down barriers.

That’s why we are investing in gender equality. At the UN Security Council meeting on Resolution 1325 in October, Ambassador Samantha Power announced more than $31 million in commitments to women, peace, and security. This investment is part of our ongoing commitment to women as equal partners in peace and security. And that commitment comes from the top—from President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

A critical part of our work is hearing from you – hearing your stories, your ideas, and your visions for peace – so we can make our actions and our policies better. I’d love to hear from you in the short time we have. What are your experiences with women, peace, and security in your country? What are the accomplishments you’ve achieved and the barriers you’ve encountered? How can we better support you?

In closing, I’d like to thank you for what you do every day to support women and girls in your countries and for your tremendous participation in this program. We have so much to learn from each other.

Thank you, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.