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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at the Center for American Progress

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
July 23, 2012


Well, thank you so much, Neera, and let me just say it is a great personal pleasure for me to finally get over to CAP. I have been coming for months, but somehow we couldn’t get a date scheduled. But today has finally arrived, and I’m really delighted.

Let me say, because it would be remiss not to do so, that we all owe a debt of gratitude to John Podesta. I think it is fair to say that because of John’s leadership, CAP is one of the most powerful and influential forces for good, for the democratic values espoused here, for the progressive policies that are promoted, and for the difference it is making every day for our country and our place in the world. So, a huge thank-you to CAP.

In some ways for me, this is like a homecoming, because there are so many individuals with whom I have worked over the years, whom I admire greatly, who are truly among the best and the brightest and who are here in leadership capacities, on the staff, and as fellows, and that too makes it very special for me.

I want to say especially how proud I am personally that Neera is now at the helm of CAP. As you heard, I have known her now for more than a decade, and I remember vividly when she came to the domestic policy staff of the Clinton Administration. She worked in the First Lady’s office on many issues relating to health, education, to families and children. So often these issues are called soft issues, but there’s nothing soft about them. And they are so critically important. Neera has played an important role through those days in the White House, through her time in Senator Clinton’s office heading up her policy work there, and then playing the lead policy role on her presidential campaign. So I think it’s wonderful that her talents, experiences, leadership, not to say her energy, which is considerable, are now lodged here at CAP.

There is so much important work that goes on in this organization, and we were talking about that before I came into this room. So much of what developed here is so important to the country. I especially want to mention one area and that has to do with the Shriver Report and the serious work that has gone on here about the transformation that is taking place in the United States as greater numbers of American women have moved into the workplace.

Today, just about half of the U.S. workforce is female. Yet little has been changed in policies to address the opportunities and the challenges that represents for our society. From childcare to equal pay to education and so much more. I am very frequently asked in my travels around the world about the situation that women confront in the workplace in the United States. The Shriver Report, and the in-depth way that it went about analyzing where we find ourselves today and where we need to go, is critically important. There are many solid recommendations for policies that need to be adopted by government to be sure, but also by the private sector and civil society.

So I wanted to just say a great big thank-you for that, because sometimes it might be perspectives like mine outside of the everyday work here that can remind you just how essential your work is.

When Secretary Clinton was here last year, she spoke about America’s global leadership. In the process she said, “We have to work to empower women and girls around the world – perhaps the most consequential long-term opportunity to promote sustainable development, democracy, and economic growth.”

The Obama Administration and Secretary Clinton specifically have made advancing the status of women and girls a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, recognizing that until women around the world are accorded their full rights and afforded the opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.

In the process we are not only shortchanging the world’s women; we are shortchanging our world when the potential of half of our population is not being fully tapped. After all, it is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. And although women have certainly made significant progress, gender inequality still persists.

Women have made greater strides in accessing education and health, but in many ways economic participation and political empowerment lag behind. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic with enormous consequences to society.

Today, I want to talk to you about what the State Department is doing to address three vital areas: women’s economic empowerment, women in development, and the vital role that women play in maintaining peace and security and stability around the globe.

Now, as Secretary Clinton has so often said, this is not just the right thing to do – that is fundamental, it is absolutely bedrock – but it is also the smart and strategic thing to do if we want to tackle some of our most pressing challenges. First, in a world struggling to achieve economic recovery and growth, we need to recognize the critical role that women play in generating economic prosperity. The World Bank has put this simply: Gender equality is smart economics. The case for unlocking the potential of women and including them more fully in the economic life of our societies begins with acknowledging how much women are already doing to drive economic growth.

The Economist points out that the increase in the employment of women in developed countries like our own during the past decade has added more to global growth than China has. Now that, by any measure, is a lot of growth. As the Center for America’s Progress has noted, in the United States, women now receive half employer’s payrolls because they comprise half of the workplace workforce today. Women also own nearly 8 million businesses in the United States, accounting for $1.5 trillion of our GDP. The productivity gains attributable to this increase of women’s overall share of the United States labor market accounts for approximately one quarter of our GDP. American women generate more than $3.5 trillion per year, and that is a sum larger than the GDP of Germany.

So if women already are making such contributions to economic growth and prosperity, why is this still an issue that requires our efforts? Well, around the world, millions of women are still unable to find a meaningful place for themselves in the formal workforce or as entrepreneurs. Some of those who do are still entrapped in webs of restrictions that limit their potential. This loss is compounded because we know that women wage-earners disproportionately spend more of their earned income on food, healthcare, their home, education, all of the things that have a multiplier effect in their communities, investing in education, for example, not only lifts the standard of living but also affects the next generation as well.

There are other studies that show women-run small and medium-sized businesses, SMEs, the so-called “missing middle” in the economy, promote growth. Micro-businesses make all the difference in enabling women to bring incomes into their families. And of course, we know about the other end of the economy, but it is in the middle where jobs are created and where growth really occurs, and those are the small and medium-sized enterprises.

Yet everywhere, including in this country, women face constraints that hinder their ability to start or grow businesses. Some of it has to do with laws, customs, regulations that create enormous roadblocks for them, but among the toughest challenge everyplace is access to finance, to the credit they need. Often, if you meet with a group of women someplace in the world who are successful entrepreneurs, they will tell you that their initial financing has come from their families because it is so difficult to get the money they need from commercial lending institutions. So much work is going on today to try to innovate ways to enable women to get the finances they need.

Other big problems are access to markets, to grow their ability to sell their services and products; to technology; to the kind of training that will make a difference in their being successful; and to have the mentors they need and the networks. Networks sound like such a simple proposition, but they are incredibly influential when it comes to women’s ability to grow their businesses.

A Goldman Sachs report shows that a reduction in barriers to women’s labor force participation would increase America’s GDP by 9 percent, Eurozone’s by 13 percent, and Japan’s by 16 percent. Research also shows a strong correlation between higher degrees of gender diversity in the leadership ranks of businesses and the performance of companies. I think this whole issue of diversity today used to be a quiet conversation that only women engaged in. Today, increasingly, the business community understands what is at stake for the bottom line of their enterprises when they don’t have the kind of diversity that makes a difference in terms of product design, strategic planning, and so much more in their companies.

Now, another reason that this issue of diversity is so important is because income means increased spending, which in itself fuels growth. A Boston Consulting Group survey shows that globally, women will control $15 trillion in spending by the year 2014. By 2028, that goes up to two-thirds of consumer spending worldwide. Now, imagine if you don’t have the kind of diversity in a company that enables you to better take advantage of what this consumer power represents.

Let me give you a macro example of what we’re talking about. According to a UN study, the Asia Pacific region is shortchanged in excess of over $40 billion a year in GDP because the potential of women is still untapped. Now, that’s in perhaps the most dynamic economic region. At the State Department, we have put a strong focus on women’s economic progress, and in many ways we have done that by working more strategically and significantly in the many multilateral platforms in which we participate. One of them being is the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, in which 21 economies come together and work to grow their success.

We were able in the last couple years to get this issue on the APEC agenda. Last year, when the United States hosted APEC, we held the first-ever high level ministerial and private sector summit on women and the economy. It was a combination of governments and private sector representatives coming together, and they adopted what has become known as the San Francisco Declaration, which was a commitment to help women across the economies to overcome hurdles to growing and starting businesses. It specifically focuses on finance and markets, training, and women’s leadership, because if the economies are to achieve the sustainable, balanced, and increased growth we all hope for, women’s participation and entrepreneurship are critical elements.

We have also promoted access to markets for businesswomen through the Africa Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, through Pathways to Prosperity in the Western Hemisphere that allows women to be better able to take advantage of trade agreements, something we find, in all too many instances, remains a challenge. Further, we need to find better ways to ensure that they can become export ready to profit from those opportunities. We have worked to promote financial inclusion in the G-20 agenda.

We’ve also worked for adoption of a gender initiative at the OECD, one of the premier data collection institutions, to ensure needed data on women’s education, employment, and entrepreneurship. There is much that needs to be done if we’re going to ensure better policies that take data into consideration. .

We know from the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report shows that on four metrics – health, education, economic participation, and political empowerment – in those countries where men and women are closer to being equal–and in no place are they are fully equal—but where that gap is closer to being closed, those countries are far more economically competitive and prosperous.

The WEF report also shows, for example, that no Arab country has ranked above the bottom seventh of all countries to close that gap significantly. Some have begun to do so on educational attainment, but the economic participation and political empowerment gaps between men and women have actually continued to grow in recent years. This also comports with an earlier UNDP Arab development report that showed that progress in the MENA region, the Middle East North Africa region, is being held back because women are not participating in any ways that are significant to move progress ahead, through economic and political participation.

The United States has put a focus on the economies in the post-Arab Spring countries, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. We recognize in the work that we are doing, in the programs that we are supporting, how critical it is to support women’s economic participation. All of this underscores my point that when we liberate the economic potential of women, we elevate the economic performance of communities, nations, and the world.

Secondly, let me just talk briefly about the role of women in global development, because that is also an important role that we are engaged in, largely through USAID. When Secretary Clinton issued the Quadrennial Report on Diplomacy and Development, the so-called QDDR, she underscored the fact that women are a key pillar of development, because we know that investing in women and girls is one of the most powerful and effective development tools for alleviating poverty and for contributing generally to the prosperity of nations. Since the release of the QDDR, USAID and the State Department have adopted a gender guidance policy for diplomacy and development to ensure greater effectiveness in both our missions.

One of the key development initiatives of the Obama Administration is Feed the Future. This is a $3.5 billion commitment to strengthening the world’s food supply. Now, why do I mention this? Because women are critically vital to the agriculture sector. In many of the developing countries, they are the backbone of the economy, and they comprise the majority of the small farmers. Yet their work is usually not counted as economically active employment.

I remember when Neera and I were working together, the Secretary made a trip to Africa, and at one stop she was listening to an economic official opine about the state of the economy in his country. And we were riding in a van, and he was going on and on and on about how women really had no role in the economy of the country. Finally, the Secretary—then First Lady, had had enough, and she said, “Sir, I’d just like to interrupt you a minute. As far as I can see, the women are bent over, often with children on their backs in the field. They are doing the cultivating, getting the food that will be on the table for their families. They are carrying the water. They are carrying the wood that will make for the fire that will enable the food to be cooked, and you’re saying they have no role. Well, if they stopped but for one day, your country would stop.” That put him to a more quiescent state for the remainder of the visit. (Laughter.)

The point here is that women farmers are often at a severe disadvantage. Certainly, many of them don’t have property rights. Many of them can’t even secure land tenure rights. This is a very big issue. And often they don’t receive the training they need through extension programs or other resources, from access to the credit they need to buy what they will need to cultivate their next yield, seeds, fertilizer, machinery, and everything else. Last year the Food and Agriculture Organization, which is the premier UN organization focused on agriculture, showed that there is a resource gap between men and women farmers, and that when this gap is closed, it can produce yields for women equal to those of men, if not more, yields that would in turn improve overall agriculture production between 2.4 to 4 percent, a very significant amount, and reduce the number of undernourished people by up to 150 million. So in a time of headlines about hunger crises, this is another area that we clearly need to focus on. Women are vital to the agriculture sector. In Feed the Future, we are ensuring that there is an integration of gender into the implementation of the program in the targeted countries.

Another significant initiative is the Global Health Initiative, which is a commitment to strengthening health systems worldwide, and we know it’s a big issue in the United States as well. This development initiative is focused on a women-centric model of care. Now, why is that so? Because we recognize that women not only face unmet health needs, but they are also the critical caregivers for their families and their communities. There is a great need to reduce maternal and child mortality, which is finally beginning to move in the right direction in terms of reduction. We know we can get there, but there’s much more that needs to be done, and that includes expanding access to voluntary family planning, which is an absolutely critical public health tool and a great need around the world.

We’re also working to reverse the infection rate of HIV/AIDS, and I think this is particularly important to mention as so many thousands and thousands of people are gathered here in Washington for the International AIDS Conference. At the conference there will also be a real focus on the importance of women and girls. There are still significant increases in infections occurring among adolescent girls, and we know there is a connection between sexual violence and the infection, as well as other factors that need to be addressed.

Thirdly, as part of our Global Climate Change Initiative, we have prioritized the role of women. Studies show that it is often the women who are on the front lines and suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change, and that’s pretty much where the discussion begins and stops. Where it really needs to go next is to recognize that women are also a very powerful force for addressing climate change, including in areas like agriculture, energy access, sustainable fuel, forest management, and so much more.

We have been working to support initiatives like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which prioritizes creating green economic opportunities for women and also addressing significant health and environmental issues, as well as providing opportunities for women to engage more significantly in decision making on these issues.

Technology has the potential to transform women’s lives around the world by providing critical access to information, mitigating severe health and safety risks, and creating an opportunity for financial security and independence. Yet there is a gender gap of some 350 million women who do not have access to the simple cell phone.

Now, why does this matter? Because it is one of the most transformative instruments for providing critical health information where otherwise they may not be able to get it, even for women who are illiterate. I have had very small micro-entrepreneurs tell me how their lives have changed, because by using their cell phone, they were able locate where the market is on a given day so they don’t needlessly have to walk for miles and miles only to find out there is none. It has proven to be a protective mechanism for women in areas of conflict. I think we have yet to see what will, I believe, be its most transformational component, and that is to give the millions of un-banked poor people around the world their ability to bank through the cell phone: to transfer their finances from the husband who drives the cab in the city, for example, to the family that’s left behind in the village: to being able to keep their money safe and make financial transactions.

There are so many reasons that something so simple can be so significant. That is one of the reasons that Secretary Clinton has put forward an initiative, the mWomen initiative, in concert GSMA, the operating association of cell phone operators who have made a commitment to cutting the gender gap in access to mobile technology in half. Through the work of USAID, it has developed model business plans that make the case that even people at the bottom of the pyramid are a very good market and create both economic value and significant social value. So those are just some of the ways in which we are ensuring integrating women and girls into some of our significant development initiatives.

Lastly, let me mention the role of women in peace and security, because advancing women and girls is not just about the economy and development, which it is, but it is also about global security, something I know we all think a great deal about. The President, in his national security strategy, noted that: “Experience shows that countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity. When those rights and opportunities are denied, countries often lag behind.”

The Deputy Administrator of USAID, Don Steinberg, whom some of you may know, was our ambassador to Angola back when Angola was coming out of its conflict and trying to reach a peace agreement in 1994. What happened is an example of why women need to be at the table when agreements are being put together, so the experience that they have from where they lead their lives every day, are addressed. If a country is going to move from conflict to greater stability to economic opportunity, the issues that women bring need to be on the table.

But as he reminds us, women were far from the minds of men who signed the Lusaka Protocol that ended two decades of civil war in Angola. The commission established to implement the protocol consisted of 40 men and not one woman. De-mining efforts focused on roads and failed to target fields, wells, forests where women grew crops, fetched water, and gathered firewood, which say a great deal about the future of the country as well.

Following this conflict in which rape was used as a weapon of war, the male negotiators granted each other amnesty for the crimes they had committed against the women. And just four years after that was adopted, war began anew. This is the pattern we are trying to reverse. President Obama released the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security last December, and signed an Executive Order directing the plan to be implemented. Together, the Executive Order and the NAP mandate that the United States Government institutionalize efforts to advance women’s participation in preventing conflict and keeping peace. These documents represent a fundamental change in how the United States will approach its diplomatic, military, and development-based support to women in conflict. This came out of an intensive interagency process that involved the StateDepartment, USAID, certainly the Defense Department, as well as many other agencies—from the Justice Department to Homeland Security.

The efforts of the NAP focus on four areas. First, women and conflict prevention – women are like the canaries in the mine. What’s happening in a society to women is often the first sign of the greater instability to come. The most dangerous places for women are often the most dangerous places for everyone. And the suffering and denial of rights for women and the instability of nations goes hand-in-hand.

The second area is women’s participation, their role in negotiations. We’ve seen in peace processes from Northern Ireland to Liberia that women can work to help build a durable peace. The Secretary often mentions that in 2006, when a Darfur agreement was being negotiated, the negotiators—none of them women, needless to say–were deadlocked over a dispute on river rights. And it wasn’t until this deadlock continued over many, many days that the women informed the male negotiators that there hadn’t been water in that river for some time. (Laughter.)

Thirdly, women need to be protected. We know that, increasingly in armed combat, it is the women who bear the consequences of those actions, and increasingly they who comprise the largest numbers of casualties. We are seeing that it is often the purposeful strategy of the armed combatants to employ rape as a tool of war, as well as other forms of sexual violence. Protection of women and girls is a critical element to be addressed.

Also, fourthly, we need to ensure that women who are key actors in the post-reconstruction and economic development process, and are able to access the resources to make a difference in the societies that have been torn apart by war and are now able to build a new future.

One night when I was in a discussion in Afghanistan with a group of women there, I have never forgotten what one of them said to me. She said, “Please do not look at us as victims, but look at us as the leaders that we are.” I think one of the problems is that too often in areas of conflict, we merely look at the women as victims. They have indeed been victimized in horrible ways, but they have a critical role to play as leaders. When women are silenced or marginalized in these processes, the prospect for peace is likely to be subverted.

In the last many peace agreements, more than half of them have not lasted more than five years. So we have a lot of work to do in this area, and that is one of the reasons we have put such a strong focus on women, peace, and security. I think when the Nobel Peace Committee last year announced the peace winners were three women–two from Liberia and one from Yemen–they got it right. They said we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.

It’s been said that women’s equality is the moral imperative of this 21st century. I think that is true. It is also one of the best investments that can be made for a better world. This is not just a women’s issue. This matters for everyone. It is a prosperity issue, a peace and security issue, a sustainable development issue, and more. It is in the vital interest of the United States. When women make progress, we all make progress.

So I wanted to come here today and thank the Center for American Progress for all that the Center does each and every day to advance this common cause. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

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