Remarks at Equal Futures Partnership

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Waldorf Astoria Hotel
New York City
September 22, 2014

MS. JARRETT: (In progress.) -- Russell, who you will be hearing from this afternoon as well.

This is our fifth high-level meeting for the Equal Futures Partnership, and they seem to get more impressive with each one. Since Secretary – then-Secretary Clinton and I launched Equal Futures back in 2012, we have been bringing countries together and rallying worldwide commitment to the economic and civic empowerment of women. Earlier this year at President Obama’s State of the Union address, he said that “when women succeed, America succeeds.” Soon thereafter, he added, “and the same goes for the rest of the world.” Countries where the women are thriving and who are valued and treated with respect tend to do well, and countries who do not do that tend to not do well.

And that’s what Equal Futures is all about. And as our program continues to grow, this year we are thrilled to welcome Chile, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, which brings us to 27 countries. So please, let’s join in welcoming our new members. (Applause.)

So as you all know, there’s a lot going on in the world. These are very complicated and challenging times, and Secretary Kerry has been all over the world – and this is one of the first times I’ve seen him in the United States in a very long time, so we wish to welcome him home – but it’s also an indication of his commitment to Equal Futures, particularly this week, with everything going on here in New York, that he would make it a priority to be here with us today. So please join me in welcoming Secretary Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Valerie, thank you. (Applause.) Valerie, thank you very, very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here with everybody. I apologize to all for being a little bit tardy, and I must say to you – you say it’s amazing that I’m here because of my schedule. If I wasn’t here, folks, I couldn’t go home. (Laughter.) I got a couple of daughters; they would not forgive me.

It’s a pleasure to be here with Valerie and all of you. I’m particularly admiring of Valerie’s remarkable record of service in Chicago and in Washington through a couple of decades now. And it’s a terrific reminder, frankly, of exactly why we’re here. So I salute your great leadership on this and so many other things over the course of the last five years – six years now, almost.

And the Equal Futures Partnership is really quite remarkable for what it has accomplished in a short span of time. And the theme of this year’s meeting, increasing women’s representation in leadership positions, is at the heart of what we can really do to change things on a global basis. It’s amazing to think that this is the fifth meeting already of the partnership. What began as a challenge to heads of state by President Obama in 2011 has now grown into a full-fledged, multinational partnership. And there are, as we just heard, more than two dozen nations now answering the challenge and making real commitments in order to break down the barriers to women’s economic and political participation.

It’s important to focus on the fact that we are partners for an equal future, not just because gender equality is an important moral imperative and not just because it’s an economic or a security imperative, though it is all three. We’re here because women’s progress represents human progress, because no society can succeed if it leaves half of its population behind. And in the United States, believe me, we make this commitment without any arrogance whatsoever, knowing that we still have miles to travel.

The Senate – the United States Senate, a body that I was privileged to be in for more than 29 years – has only 20 female members today. When I came there, it had one, so it’s improved, but it’s way below where it ought to be. The disparities between men and women in many ways are accented in many other things. And it really represents – I think you would agree with me – our country’s loss – disparities in pay, for instance. As Goldman Sachs reported in a study not too long ago, closing the gap between male and female employment in the United States would boost our GDP by 9 percent.

As I mentioned, I’m the proud father of two daughters, and I’m the husband of a very strong woman, Teresa, who has invested much of her public life in her passion of trying to improve the lives of women. And I know the difference that it makes when women and girls are empowered to be leaders. It’s a difference that I actually see every day at the State Department. Five of the six regional assistant secretaries are women; that’s our top level. Above that, I have two deputy secretaries, one of whom is a woman. And my chief of our political bureaus, all of which – which is one of the most important under secretaries – a woman.

These are among our most accomplished leaders in the Department, but I want to make something really clear to all of you. I take pride in these not because they’re strong women, but because of the strength of their commitment and leadership and what they contribute to the Department – and they happen to be women.

It’s also not lost on me that the Department that I’m so privileged to now lead was a Department led by three secretaries before me – Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton – who obviously made it difficult for a man to follow. (Laughter.) These three remarkable women are not defined by the barriers that they overcame in their lives; really, they’re defined by the barriers to opportunity that they helped to break down. And that’s true, I might add, for both men and women across the world.

So one of the ways that we’re carrying forward President Obama’s strong commitment to equality and Secretary Clinton’s legacy at the State Department is through our Office of Global Women’s Issues. And Cathy Russell, who – our ambassador-at-large who was introduced earlier, is doing a remarkable job of integrating gender equality into every facet of our mission and everything that we do across the world. And she is making sure that in every embassy and every single one of our consulates, whatever our posts are, every Foreign Service officer, every Civil Service officer makes the promotion of gender equality part of their work.

One of the great pleasures of serving as Secretary of State is also that I get to witness women advancing peace and prosperity many times in the most difficult circumstances in truly remarkable ways, and I mean that. In Afghanistan, I had the privilege of being introduced to ten women entrepreneurs who are running extraordinary companies, serving as a member of parliament, teaching in schools, working as doctors, some involved in athletic endeavors, which, believe me, in Afghanistan is a difficult task beyond the athletics itself in terms of the social customs and mores.

These women are the foundation on which the new Afghanistan is going to be built. I saw it in Ukraine where women worked on the front lines as volunteers in the Maidan Medical Service, where they treated victims of violence and raised their voices for freedom and dignity. I saw it in Congo, where I met Catholic nuns treating victims of sexual violence and women entrepreneurs launching pharmacies, providing affordable drugs for women and families in their communities. And everywhere that I travel, in every meeting, I get to see firsthand the promise of a world where women are empowered as equal partners in peace and prosperity.

I also see, often painfully, that our journey is far from finished. We simply cannot rest when one out of every three women is subjected to some form of violence in her lifetime – one out of every three. We can’t rest while ISIL threatens the health and dignity and well-being of women and girls in Iraq and Syria. And we can’t rest when only one out of every ten girls graduates from secondary school in certain parts of the world. We can’t rest knowing that girls younger than 15 are forced to marry and that they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. And we can’t rest when we know that in parts of the world, women and girls are infected by AIDS at five times the rates of men their own age.

And I’m proud to say that we’re not standing still. Thanks to PEPFAR’s data-driven innovations, we are directing more resources to areas where women are disproportionately affected by AIDS and HIV. And all of us know what we stand to lose if we fail to harness the talent and the productivity of women in the world’s population. We simply cannot hope to break the cycle of war if women are not enlisted as equal partners in the work of peace.

So here’s what I’m saying and here’s what we all need to demand: Women have to be involved in decisions that affect us all everywhere, and they have to have a place at the peacemaking tables and in the tough negotiations that follow deadly conflicts where, by and large, women and girls are the most negatively affected. They have to have a seat on the boards of corporations that shape our global marketplace. And they have to have a voice in the halls of justice that uphold the rule of law.

Even as the United States faces flashpoints and crises around the world, I can promise you we will never lose sight of the strategic priorities and opportunities of tapping the potential for women and girls around the world. It remains foremost in our minds. And it is the focus on these opportunities that defines this partnership. It’s what makes Equal Futures different. And I’m proud that this year we’re welcoming the three new partners that Valerie just mentioned – Chile, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. So we do stand at this magic number of 27 and growing committed to one future – to an equal future for all.

And we’ve come together at a critical moment. By September of next year, we must come forward as a global community with a new set of strategic and ambitious goals that will shape the post-2015 development agenda. It’s a huge opportunity for all of us to change the way we develop. As members of Equal Futures, as members of the community of nations, each of us has a responsibility to ensure that gender equality remains a front-tier global priority, and that’s something we can ensure in the context of 2015.

Everybody here has seen this firsthand. Societies where women and girls are safe, where women are empowered to exercise their rights and move their communities forward, where societies prove themselves to be more prosperous and more stable not occasionally, but always, because women are full partners.

So working for greater equality and opportunity for women and girls in our own societies and across the world is something that can serve all of us in ways that not everybody can even measure fully today, but I’m confident will be described by history as one of the most important things we ever did. And I look forward to working with you to make sure history describes it that way. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)