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Diplomacy in Action

Championing Women Globally

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Johns Hopkins University
Washington, DC
March 30, 2012



Well, thank you Susan for all that you do at the SAIS Center and for putting these kinds of programs together. I know that I don’t deserve your generous words, but I will certainly accept them on behalf of the women and men who have labored so long to advance the cause, that is aptly summed up by the title of this new lecture series – Championing Women Globally.

And I want to thank Dean Einhorn and everything Susan said about you, it is all true. You have been an extraordinary leader here and certainly a role model for so many diplomats and diplomats to be. And it is a real great personal pleasure for me to be at SAIS, which enjoys a world class reputation for international studies and justifiably so because I don’t know, where would we be at the State Department if we didn’t have so many well educated SAIS diplomats. And, I look here and see particularly the young women, and I know that you will be taking your places one day next to all of them.

And to my dear friend, Ambassador Claudia Fritche, thank you for being such a committed leader on these issues related to women’s progress around the world. I’m not surprised that Susan described Claudia as being part of a co-conspiracy, because she has her ways and on these issues she is certainly formidable. I have come to know this over the years. Her commitment is very deep, as it that of her government as she stated. So, I’m not surprised that Liechtenstein has teamed up with the Center for Transatlantic Relations here at SAIS to inaugurate this lecture series.

I also want to recognize, and I see him in the back of the room, Ambassador Andras Simonyi, the former Ambassador of Hungary to the United States and the new managing director for the SAIS Center. I have come to known him and his wonderful wife Nada over the years and they certainly brought distinguished service on behalf of their country to Washington and I know that you will continue to do so in this role.

And I am truly honored to be the first speaker in this series, and I am confident that the series will make a vital contribution to understanding women’s diverse and critical roles in this 21st century.

Not many people are aware, I’m sure, that when she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton gave the SAIS commencement address in 1997. I remember it well but I think it’s also worth pointing out that in her address, she spoke of what she referred to and I quote “an unnoticed foreign policy flash point” that demands our attention. She went on to explain that “we cannot build the kind of world and future we want to see without the contributions of women.”

Now this came just two years after her historic speech at the UN 4th world conference in Beijing in which she proclaimed “women’s rights are human rights.” --- not something separate from human rights but indivisible.

Beijing sparked a movement around the world and it generated a call to action for women’s access to education, to health, to be free from violence, to be able to participate fully in the economic and political lives of our countries.

A Platform for Action was adopted there by consensus by the 189 countries. And we still to this day use that platform against which to measure ourselves and the progress that is being made to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. And today there is certainly greater recognition that women’s empowerment must be a central component of any effort to solve some of our most pressing global challenges.

Now, why is this so? Well, it remains a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. And we cannot any longer afford to relegate this global, economic, social, and political imperative to the category of “women’s concerns.” You know that nice category on the side, that feel good category, do something on these issues every once in a while after the so called pressing issues are dealt with. Well, that’s not where women’s issues lie.

Rather, they must be at the center of our efforts to create the kind of world we all want to see. And I think Secretary Clinton has very succinctly described the stakes: “Until women around the world, she said, are accorded their rights and afforded opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.” So, we not only shortchange the world’s women, but we shortchange our world when their potential goes untapped.

Now the Obama Administration has made empowering women and girls a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Because we believe it is in the vital interest of the United States to do so and we are working, as you heard from Susan, to integrate gender into the range of our development and diplomatic missions.

Now although this is fundamentally a moral issue, it is a humanitarian issue, it is not just the right thing to do. Let me be clear, that is foundational. But it is also the smart strategic thing to do, to advance our foreign policy. And to tackle some of those pressing challenges of which every single person in this room is very aware.

So this is what I want to talk about today ….what we are doing about these issues in three vital areas: the global economy, global development and women’s vital roles in advancing peace, stability and security.

First, US Foreign Policy and Global Economic Growth

One of the big challenges we face all over the world is how to grow economies and ensure shared prosperity for all nations and all people. The World Bank has called Gender Equality “smart economics.” Now you might ask, how do they get there? Well let’s look at one study. This is the annual study that the World Economic Forum puts out, the gender gap report. And what the WEF does is look at the gap between men and women in a given country on four metrics: health and survivability, access to education, economic participation, and political empowerment. And what their data shows is in those countries where that gap, between men and women on those metrics, is closer to being closed ---and in no place is it closed--- but where it is closer to being closed, those countries are far more prosperous and economically competitive. We also know that women invest up to 90% of their incomes in their families and communities – on food, healthcare and education – all of which has a multiplier effect and constitutes an investment in raising the standard of living around the world.

The case for unlocking the potential of women and including them more fully in the economic life of our nations begins with acknowledging how women already are driving economic growth. The Economist magazine points out that the increase in employment of women in developed countries during the past decade has added more to global growth than China has ---- now that’s a lot of growth! In the United States alone, our work force today is just about 50% female and 50% male.

Studies also show that women run small and medium size businesses – the so called SMEs are accelerators of GDP. And this whole area --- the SMEs --- is known as the “missing middle.” This is where jobs are created and growth occurs. We have had a lot of focus - and we need to continue to focus - on the role of micro enterprise development and what it does to lift up those at the bottom of the pyramid. But this missing middle is very important for our focus because this is where jobs are created and economies grow.

Yet if women are to be those accelerators of growth running small and medium size businesses, they cannot do so unless the barriers that they confront are removed and they are able to have their potential unleashed. Women face barriers in starting and expanding their business everywhere; laws, customs and the values that fuel them provide roadblocks. In some places women have no rights to inheritance or property rights. They often lack access to training, to mentors, to networks, to markets, and particularly access to finance. Other studies show that reduction in barriers to female labor force participation would increase even our own GDP by some 9%. Japan’s by 16%. So barriers and restrictions that erode women’s abilities to participate fully in their economies and support their families, whether as employees or entrepreneurs, are posing a roadblock, not just to them, but to the kind of vibrant economic growth we would all like to see.

Furthermore women represent a growing consumer market. The Boston Consulting Group survey concludes that women globally will control about $15 trillion in spending by the year 2014, and by 2028 will be responsible for about two-thirds of all consumer spending worldwide. So, imagine if women aren’t part of the decisions that companies make, and more engaged in everything from design to strategic planning, they will be missing out on what women’s consumer power represents.

Now let me give you a macro example of what the economic empowerment of women could mean. It is calculated, this is a UN statistic, that in the Asia – Pacific region, it is shortchanged in excess of $40 billion a year in GDP and that is viewed as a very short small estimate, because of the untapped potential of women in the region. So we really can’t afford to perpetuate this kind of structural discrimination against women in the workplace, in the private sector, unless we want to continue to shortchange our world.

At the State Department, we have put a strong focus on women’s economic participation and we’ve put these issues very broadly and specifically on the agendas of the multilateral platforms in which we participate. Platforms like the OECD, APEC and so on.

So for example, last year the United States hosted APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. In so doing we held the first-ever ministerial and high level private sector summit on women and the economy and it took place in San Francisco. The declaration was adopted -- the so-called San Francisco declaration – represents a commitment to enable women more strategically to overcome hurdles to starting and growing businesses, particularly by addressing those specific ways in which they are being hindered. And this was echoed by the heads of state, the world leaders, when they gathered and adopted this in the overall APEC declaration.

We have promoted access to markets for businesswomen through the African Women’s entrepreneurship Program and through Pathway to Prosperity for the Americas. We’ve worked to promote financial inclusion on the G20 agenda and, specifically, for the agenda of the upcoming G20 in Mexico. Our efforts have led to the adoption of a gender initiative, by the OECD to improve data collection on women’s education, employment, and entrepreneurship and to work with other organizations to ensure that that data is harmonized, because without the data we can’t do the analysis and we can’t evaluate and know how best to build on what needs to be done.

So, all of this and so much more underscores my primary point which is -- when we liberate the economic potential of women, we elevate the economic performance of communities, of nations and certainly our world.

Secondly, US Foreign Policy and Global Development

When Secretary Clinton issued what’s been called the Quadrennial Report on Diplomacy and Development over a year ago now, she underscored that fact that women are a key pillar of development. Investing in women and girls is one of the most powerful tools we have for improving prosperity, alleviating poverty and addressing the general needs that are apparent around the world. And both USAID and the State Department have in the last two months issued gender guidance in the areas of both development and diplomacy to ensure aid effectiveness and greater diplomatic success in the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

One of the key development initiatives of the Obama Administration is Feed the Future, a $3.5 billion commitment to strengthen the world’s food supply, so farmers can earn enough to support their families and food can be available more broadly. Women are vital to the agricultural sector. In many developing countries they are the backbone of the economy and they comprise the majority of the small farmers in many places. Yet their work is usually not counted in many economies as economically active employment.

And I remember several years ago traveling with Mrs. Clinton, when she was then first lady, and we were in a country in Africa and a government official who was accompanying her, opined as how the women had no role in the economy of his country and he was basically referring to the fact, as is often the case, that their work is not counted. But he went on and on in a way that became a tad irritating, and Mrs. Clinton said, “Sir, could I just interrupt you a second.” We were traveling in a van and she said, “I am looking out of one side of this vehicle and I look out the other side and as far as the eye can see it’s women bent over, often with a child on their backs, carrying wood for fuel, carrying water and doing the cultivating that is going on to provide food for the table.” And she added, “You know if they stopped but for one day, your country would stop.” So after that we didn’t hear anything more from him on this subject.

But women farmers do not have equal access to resources and this significantly limits their potential to enhancing productivity. They are often at a severe disadvantage when it comes to training, the kind that is available through extension programs, or other kinds of resources from fertilizer to tools they need, to access to credit to purchase what they need to grow their output.

Last year, the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization produced its annual report on the vital role that women play in the agriculture sector. And what their report shows is that when women farmers are provided with equal resources, they can produce yields equal to those of men, if not more. But there is a huge gender gap in access to resources and closing that gap and providing women farmers with the same resources could increase their individual yields, according to the FAO, by 20-30%, and in turn improve agricultural production between 2.5 to 5%, as well as reduce the number of undernourished people up to 150 million globally. That is why the Feed the Future initiative is integrating gender into all of aspects and measuring results to ensure that goals are being met.

Similarly, the Global Health Initiative, which Secretary Clinton actually unveiled here at SAIS, is a commitment to improve and strengthen health systems worldwide. And it is focused on a women-centered model of care because women not only face some of the most serious health conditions but they are the key care givers to their families, and more broadly to their communities. The initiative aims to have greater access to family planning, to reduce child and maternal mortality --- which is still at staggeringly high numbers, although we know from the studies that have been done that progress is possible. And we’re also working to reduce the number of new HIV/AIDS infections. AIDS, increasingly has a woman’s face, and girls, especially adolescent girls’ infection rates continue to go up.

Our climate change initiative recognizes that women have to be involved in both adaptation and mitigation because they are the primary users, managers and stewards of natural resources. We often hear how women are severely affected by climate change, but what we rarely hear is how they are critical to addressing the challenges and are doing so at the community level in which they find themselves, however, they often don’t find themselves more significantly in the policies and initiatives that are adopted to deal with this challenge.

We are also working to ensure that technologies enable them to participate more widely in addressing these challenges and solutions. The Secretary has been quite active about the need to do something about the way most women around the world cook. An estimated two million premature deaths occur annually, with women and children as the most affected, because of the dirty cookstoves that are used all around the world to do what is a critical activity of life. These cookstoves, emit the short-lived particles such as black carbon that are a big part of greenhouse emissions. And we’re finding, as I’ve often seen in my travels, how women are now engaged as entrepreneurs creating very productive and profitable businesses by selling and maintaining both clean cookstoves, solar lanterns, and other kinds of green technologies that create both good products and improve health and safety and the environment of families.

Technology also has the potential to transform women’s lives around the world by providing critical access to information, mitigating health and safety risks and creating an opportunity for financial security and independence. For example, mobile technology is an essential tool to enable poor women to transform their lives. The simple cell phone is being use today to protect women from violence, to give women in the most remote areas access to vital health information, to teach literacy. The cell phone is being used to provide small entrepreneurs or farmers with access to information on the market on any given day, saving them from walking miles needlessly, or informing them on weather forecasts, it can transform their lives significantly.

And probably the most impactful way, as this technology develops, that this will occur, is through mobile banking. The great majority of the poor are unbanked and through cell phone banking they will be able to have access to ways in which they can save their earnings safely and to be able to transfer their income as they want to do so.

One big challenge is the gender gap in cell phones. For some 300 million women in low and middle income countries, having that simple technology out of reach. We have teamed up with GSMA, the association of mobile operators to address this gap. GSMA has come together with Secretary Clinton and committed in the next two years to reducing the gender gap by 50%. And USAID is a part of this collaboration and is identifying a model for businesses that will demonstrate there is a strong business case for extending the technology market to women at the bottom of the pyramid.

Thirdly, The Role of Women in Peace and Security

And Claudia very brilliantly, I thought, explained the commitment of the principality of Liechtenstein to this area and why they are so engaged. Advancing women and girls is not just about the economy and development, but it is also about global security. As the President’s national security strategy notes, “experience shows that countries are more peaceful and prosperous where women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity,” and the other side of that is that those countries that don’t do so, lag behind.

Yet today, women are largely shut out of negotiations that seek to end conflict as well as the decision making processes that shape post conflict reconstruction. More than half of all peace agreements end; fail in the first five years. So clearly, we need a new approach that focuses on the link that the UN Security Council has made and what has been referred to already, resolution 1325 which links women to peace and security.

In December of last year President Obama launched the first-ever United States National action plan on women, peace and security --- it is a roadmap to accelerate and institutionalize efforts across our government to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace, through our diplomatic, military and development efforts. And this holds true for our work from Afghanistan to Nepal, from Sudan to the DRC. Some 30 countries have already developed their own national action plan ahead of the U.S., including NATO, and it is having an impact on the way those countries through their policies work to further peace and security around the world.

There are four areas that are part of this national action plan– women and conflict prevention. You know women are like the canaries in the mines. If you look at the condition of women in a given country you can often see, depending how that condition is deteriorating, the instability and conflict that will likely come in more significant ways down the road. The suffering and denial of the rights of women and the instability of nations go hand in hand.

Secondly, women’s participation – in peace negotiations. We’ve seen in peace processes from Northern Ireland to Liberia how women come together to help build a durable peace and bring issues that must be resolved to the negotiating table. It’s been said that when the discussions that were taking place in 2006 to try to end the conflict in Darfur, the negotiators were deadlocked over who would have rights to the river. The deadlock continued for some time until the women pointed out to the men, when they heard about their debate, that there had been no water in that river for some time. It is important that the issues that people deal with everyday on the ground are on the table when these discussions take place because if life is to improve those very issues have to become a critical part of the resolutions.

The Deputy Administrator of USAID, Don Steinberg, whom I’m sure many of you know, is a very strong champion of the role of women in peace and security because of what he saw firsthand, when he was the US Ambassador to Angola as the civil war was coming to an end there. He said that what he has come to realize is that too often the male negotiators, as was the case in Angola, simply focus on the need to grant each other amnesty for the crimes they’ve committed against the women.

Thirdly, the need for protection of women. As Claudia pointed out, women are seldom the cause of the conflicts and they more often than not are the bearers of the consequences of the combat. And in too many places today, rape is being used as a strategic weapon in armed conflicts. Violence against women needs to be addressed in this framework of women in peace and security.

And finally the fourth pillar - women need to be key actors in post conflict reconstruction - from economic development to the humanitarian assistance in post conflict societies economic opportunity often represents an essential way to move from instability to stability, from conflict to a sustainable peace. So in regions torn apart by war, it is critical to enable women to come together in a way that can make a difference.

This really hit me one night when I was in Kabul in a discussion with some of the Afghan women and one of them started the discussion by saying, and actually pleading: “please do not look at us as victims, look at us as the leaders that we are.” And I think far too often women certainly are the victims in many of these conflicts, but far too often we only look at them through this prism and we fail to see them as the critical actors that they must be in negotiations, and in creating the conditions that will lead to sustainable peace. And the worry always is that when women are silenced or marginalized, any prospects for peace will likely be subverted.

Our ultimate goal is as simple as it is profound: to empower half the world’s population as an equal partner in preventing conflict and building lasting peace. Achieving this goal is critical to our own global security. And I think when the Nobel Peace committee awarded the peace prize last year to three women, two from Liberia and one from Yemen to make this very point they stated rather succinctly, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence the developments at all levels of society.”

Nick Kristof said, and rightly so, “The great moral imperative of this 21st century is women’s equality.” It is the great moral imperative. It is also one of the best investments that can be made for a better world. It is not just a women’s issue. This is an issue for all of us, men and women, because when women make progress, everyone makes progress.

I hope that each and every one of us will be what this lecture series is all about - Champions for Women Globally.

Thank you very much.

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