Remarks at the Humphrey Fellowship Global Leadership Forum

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
October 20, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Suaad, for that kind introduction. I’ve met Suaad a number of times, both here in Washington and in Iraq. And each time I walk away thinking, she truly is a woman of courage. Her commitment to peace and democracy—and to the idea that without freedom for women, these pursuits will never be realized—is extraordinary.

It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be with you. For almost 40 years, Humphrey fellows have built a reputation of doing great things for the world. Some of your predecessors have risen to become chief justice of the Supreme Court in Brazil, foreign ministers of Senegal and Croatia, state governor in Tunisia, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in China. So no pressure.

Now, some of you may be looking around and saying to yourself, I’m not sure I belong here. I can promise you it is not a mistake that you are in this room. You are in this room because of the commitment you have to your country, the vision you have for the world. That’s why you’re studying some of the most pressing challenges of our time: climate change, food security, press freedom, sustainability. And even better, you’ve looked at your work with a gender lens. You’ve asked, what does this issue mean for gender equality—and vice versa?

That’s a question I ask every day at the State Department, and I challenge my colleagues to ask it as well. So it’s great to speak to a group that has already studied the intersections between your professional field and gender equality. For some fellows, I imagine this project confirmed things you’ve known for a long time—that women matter. But for others, your research may have been what we call here in the United States a lightbulb moment—when you suddenly realize or discover something new.

I know what that can feel like, because I had my own light bulb moment on this issue some time ago. I didn’t always realize the depth and breadth of the challenges facing women and girls. Even as I worked on gender-based violence here in the United States, I saw it as an issue where we were making progress. And so, with a few notable exceptions, I viewed most women’s issues and challenges as a part of our history, rather than our present.

But that changed in 2006. I was invited to travel with an international NGO to Bosnia to learn more about how women are affected by conflict. We visited Srebrenica, where thousands of boys and men were separated from their families and brutally massacred. I met women who had lost everything – their families, their livelihoods, and their ability to control their own lives – and yet they were working to piece their communities back together.

On a later trip to Rwanda, I visited a Catholic church. During the 1994 genocide, thousands of people sought refuge there, only to be killed. Today, it’s a memorial. I will never 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 two 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. I saw horror, but I also saw grace and resilience.

As a policymaker, I started to think about how the international community could do better for these women. But those trips had an even bigger impact on my thinking. When I came home, I started to see gender inequality in places I had not noticed before — in the media, in politics, in the economy. It was as if I had put on glasses, and the inequalities that women and girls face every day and everywhere became clear.

Throughout their lives, women and girls around the world are vulnerable to many forms of violence. It can start at birth, when parents may choose infanticide over the possibility of having a daughter. As adolescents, girls may undergo harmful practices like female genital mutilation, or be forced to marry as early as 12 or even younger. There are more than 700 million girls and women alive today who were married as children. If that trend continues, the total number of women alive that were married in childhood will grow to almost 1 billion by 2030. And the cycle of poverty often perpetuated by early and forced marriage will continue.

As students or workers, young women can face sexual harassment or assault. At home, girlfriends and wives can suffer from domestic violence. Women and girls with disabilities can face violence and discrimination, often perpetrated by the very people they depend on for care. And elderly women and widows can be abused, isolated, and cast away from their communities. All these forms of violence add up to one disturbing statistic: an estimated one in three women in the world will experience violence in her lifetime. When you stop and think about it, it’s a truly staggering number.

Unfortunately, violence is only one of many factors that limit the potential of women and girls. A report by the World Bank found that 155 out of 173 economies in the world have at least one law that impedes women’s economic opportunities. In too many places, daughters inherit less than sons. Mothers cannot pass citizenship to their children. Wives cannot open a bank account, sign a contract, or register a business without their husband. Women cannot work at night, or in lucrative sectors like mining, manufacturing, and construction.This is certainly a tragedy for those women – and it’s also a major impediment to the growth of their countries. A recent McKinsey report found that getting more women in the workforce would add trillions of dollars to global GDP.

Culture plays a role in promoting inequality as well. We have an initiative in Malawi, where we’re taking a comprehensive approach to advance gender equality. There are a number of barriers that we’re looking at, including girls’ access to school. But we also see something discouraging. Even when we address issues like poverty or safety—and those are certainly challenges on our list—there is a cultural undercurrent that makes our work that much harder. The fact is that some people look at girls’ education as a wasted investment. Why spend money on school fees for a girl who is destined to be a wife? Why invest in books and uniforms for her when she’ll never work outside the house?

These are tough issues to tackle, because it’s not as simple as passing a law or waiving school fees. These are actions that can certainly help, but attitudes about girls and their value can be stubborn. But I’m confident we can still have an impact, because we’ve seen right here in the United States that change is possible. Sexual assault has been the subject of conversation in the U.S. recently. Earlier this month, one woman put out a call on Twitter for women to share their stories of the first time they had been sexually assaulted. Almost immediately, women started responding with stories of being groped by their doctors, their teachers, their co-workers, or people they didn’t even know. Within a few days, nearly 27 million people had either responded to her request or visited her Twitter page to read other people’s stories.

It is heartbreaking to see these stories. But in a way, it’s also encouraging. Historically, it has not been easy for a woman here to come forward and say, “I’ve been assaulted.” That has been changing, often because of these moments when our country has to look in the mirror and ask, is this really how we want to treat women? This illustrates something that I say in almost every country I visit. The United States also faces these challenges. But, we’ve seen that progress is possible, from combating sexual assault and domestic violence to advancing women in the workforce. When leaders and advocates come together, change follows.

We’ve also seen that this change is good for everyone. Because more women have joined the workforce, our GDP has increased. Because domestic violence is considered a crime, not a private family matter, our homes and neighborhoods are safer. Because more women are better able to participate in civic life, our democracy is more representative. This is true here in the United States, and around the world. Japan, for example, has been trying to increase the number of women in the workforce. Right now, well more than half of women in Japan don’t go back to work after they have their first child. So the Japanese government is working hard to increase access to child care. I visited Japan a couple years ago, and I met the first woman to serve as mayor in Yokohama. When she came into office, thousands of families were on a waiting list for child care. Under her leadership, that waiting list disappeared. That’s the power of women at the table. And it’s something we’ve seen in research, in history, and in modern times.

Last year I met a woman who led peace talks in the Philippines. She told me that at first, the other side was all men. And so to bring more women into the process, she introduced consultants and working groups. That way, it wasn’t a zero sum game, and there was room for women on both sides. I see this in almost every issue on the global agenda. When women are included, everyone benefits.

The United States has made that idea a cornerstone of our work on gender equality and foreign policy. That’s why we’re working to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, to advance women in the economy, to make sure women are part of efforts to build and sustain peace. Because we know that when women do better, countries do better as well. And that’s why women and girls are so important to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The United States is also looking to the future, by investing in the next generation of women. We’re focused on making sure adolescent girls get the education they need to succeed. And we’re tackling some of the pitfalls that cut short girls’ potential, like early and forced marriage. But as I said before, the United States is on its own path to equality. So we approach this issue with humility, with strong commitment, and with powerful experiences to share with other countries. We know we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we look to partner with others— especially with civil society.

Partnership can be a path to progress. But it is often an endeavor unto itself. There’s a quote attributed to Vice President Hubert Humphrey: “This, then, is the test we must set for ourselves: not to march alone, but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us.” I’d like to close on that thought—that our efforts to advance gender equality will be successful when they inspire others to get involved. This forum is full of potential, because it is a moment for us to see what needs to be done and say, I’m going to be a part of this work. And I’m going to bring others along with me. Someday, not too far in the future, you will be the people at the decision-making table. Some of you are already there. My challenge to you is this: remember your research, and remember this forum. Remember that the barriers holding back women and girls are holding back all of us. And most importantly, remember that we can do something about it together.

Sometimes, the challenges can seem overwhelming. People ask me all the time if I ever get discouraged working on issues as tough as the ones girls and women face. Of course, there are days when I am discouraged. But in this job, I meet amazing men and women who are committed to change. I hear stories about how, one person at a time, change is being realized. I’ve met artists who use humor to challenge attitudes about women and girls. I’ve met community leaders who stand up to so-called traditions to put an end to gender-based violence. And I’ve met Humphrey fellows who are leading the conversation on gender equality around the world. You are part of a long tradition of amazing leaders who improve our communities and our countries—not just for some, for but all. There is still plenty of work to be done, but I’m confident that together, “marching” together, we will make progress. Thank you, and I’m happy to take your questions now.