First Lady Jill Biden, Secretary Blinken, and the Women of Courage Awardees pose for a photo.

Closing out my second year serving as the Senior Official in the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, I believe more than ever that promoting the rights and empowerment of women and girls should and must serve as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy efforts.  This isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do.  Gender equality is both a strategic and moral imperative.  It improves the operational efficacy of U.S. foreign policy and demonstrates our democratic values of inclusion and participation – and I’ve seen this time and time again, especially over the past year of engagements, travel, and programming.   

Earlier this month, we celebrated 11 incredible women from around the world at our annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards Ceremony held on March 8, International Women’s Day.  Secretary Blinken spoke from data – and from the heart – when he said, “When we advance equality and defend the rights of women, we improve life for everyone.”  Over the past year, I have been inspired by the measurable progress the Department of State, working with our interagency and external partners, has made toward improving the lives and status of women and girls worldwide, and in doing so, advancing and protecting global prosperity, security, and democracy. 

This month also marks the two-year anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 14020, through which President Biden established the first-ever White House Gender Policy Council and committed the U.S. government to a comprehensive approach to advance gender equity and equality.  Last year, I shared a recap of the strides we made toward advancing gender equality in U.S. foreign policy during the first year of the Biden Administration.  (You can read more about the entire Administration’s progress on the Executive Order in the first progress report on the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality here.) Since that time, I am proud to share that our progress has continued apace.  We have significantly advanced and articulated our policy framework, we’ve invested in our bilateral and multilateral relationships, and we’re proud to be building programming guided by the voices of women and girls. 

I am so happy to share, in brief, just some of our accomplishments below. These policies – these programs – matter.  I felt that keenly when I was in Bangladesh earlier this year, where I met young Afghan women studying at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh through the support of a program our office has proudly supported for nearly a decade.    The words of one student in particular, Zulaikha Malekzai, a Master of Arts in Education student at AUW, about what it means to receive and benefit from an education, to have a life of opportunity ahead of her, reverberate for each member of this office when we open our eyes in the morning: “I feel like I have finally broken myself free, and taken flight with a new sense of purpose and direction.  As an Afghan girl, I see education as the only savior we cannot compromise on.  Leaving the country and coming to AUW does not make me more fortunate than the others; in fact, it puts an enormous weight on my shoulders to help empower those left behind, and I will continue to do so with every last drop of my energy and strength.”
  

Members of the AUW graduating classes pos. for a group photo.
Members of the 2020, 2021, and 2022 AUW graduating classes (State Department photo)

 Women’s Economic Security 

After a year-long consultation process with more than 200 civil society stakeholders from more than 30 countries, Secretary Blinken and White House Gender Policy Council Director Klein launched the first-ever interagency U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security, on January 4, 2023.  This strategy will guide and support U.S. government efforts to ensure women and girls in all their diversity around the world can fully, meaningfully, and equally contribute to, and benefit from, economic growth and global prosperity.  The State Department’s and USAID’s Gender Equality and Equity Action (GEEA) Fund will help support efforts to advance women’s economic security around the world, and the Department will develop an Implementation Plan for this strategy this year.  We’re already hard at work advancing the Strategy’s objective, including in our bilateral relationships: on January 26, the U.S-India Alliance for Women’s Economic Empowerment (Alliance) co-hosted the first U.S.-India Alliance Shatter Summit at the State Department with the Shatter Foundation, an Alliance member, which convened leaders representing the private sector, government, philanthropy, and civil society. And we’re hard at work advancing these themes through our multilateral engagement, including through the upcoming G7, G20, and APEC.  

In November 2022, we supported The Asia Foundation’s Bali Care Economy Dialogue, which took place on the margins of the G20 Leaders’ Summit and focused on investing in care infrastructure.  We were happy to announce this year further partnership in support of care, joining the Global Alliance for Care as an Associate Member. The year ahead will be a busy one – we will host the Women’s Economic Forum in August – and we will seek to continue building upon the work of the previous two years. 


SHE’s GREAT! participants from St. Lucia exhibiting their gender equality poster at the Learning Festival (State Department photo)

Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response 

Throughout 2022, in coordination with USAID and the White House Gender Policy and National Security Councils, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues led the interagency update and release of the third iteration of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally.  The Strategy, launched on December 12, 2022 will drive a unified, interagency response to gender-based violence (GBV).  Like the WES Strategy, we were intentional about the development of the Strategy, engaging in six months of consultations with over 450 individuals representing more than 200 organizations from civil society, bilateral and multilateral partners, faith networks, the private sector, academia, implementing partners, and U.S. federal departments and agencies.   

As part of the policy conversation, our office has brought heightened attention to specific forms of GBV over the past year, including and especially technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).  Along with the Gender Policy Council, my office launched the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, during a side event at the 66th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Since then, the United States has supported the growth of the Global Partnership to 12 countries, three UN agencies, as well as a Global Advisory Group, to tackle the growing and alarming trend of online violence, harassment, and abuse – work we continue to raise and progress on, including at this year’s CSW. 

Our office also worked in the multilateral sphere to put a spotlight on preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV)– incidents or patterns of sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, sex trafficking, forced pregnancy, and forced sterilization, that occur in conflict or post-conflict situations.  Whether it was spotlighting this issue at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, or working with the White House to lead an inter-agency small group process on the use of sanctions and other tools to promote accountability for CRSV, our office was proud to lead efforts culminating in the November 2022 release of the first-ever Presidential Memorandum on Promoting Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. This Presidential Memorandum is a significant step forward for the United States, committing us to fully exercising existing authorities to promote justice and accountability for acts of CRSV; devoting necessary resources for reporting on incidents and training on gender-based violence issues; and broadening engagement with partners to encourage establishment and use of their own tools.   

Our multilateral engagement and consultation with civil society also enabled us to work quickly and effectively to send a strong message of support for the human rights of women and girls in Iran by successfully removing Iran from CSW.  

Women, Peace, and Security 

Over the past year, in support of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act of 2017 and the NGS, our office led the data collection, analysis, and compilation across the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and USAID for the second U.S. WPS Congressional Report.   We were proud to use this process to enhance monitoring, accountability, and information-sharing on U.S. WPS efforts with the public, congressional members, and civil society.  As we look ahead in 2023, our office will be working on the required update to the 2019 U.S. Strategy on WPS, and next progress report on the Department of State Implementation Plan.  

Building partnerships through our diplomatic bilateral engagements, as well as ensuring senior leadership participation in global forums, are vital to demonstrating continued U.S. leadership and commitment to the WPS agenda.  To further this line of effort, my colleagues and I participated in a number of high-level bilateral and multilateral platforms on WPS across the globe last year, including in the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, the Republic of Korea, Bangladesh, Switzerland, and South Africa.  

One of our key partners in these efforts the WPS-Focal Points Network (WPS-FPN), which brings together like-minded partners through the UN Women Secretariat to advance WPS efforts globally.  In October 2022, UN Women extended an invitation for the United States to co-chair the WPS-FPN for the 2023 calendar year, alongside Romania, which we gladly accepted.  We are looking forward to working with Romania to advance our priorities and drive the global WPS agenda, specifically by partnering with countries to promote WPS Centers of Excellence around the world.  

Empowering Women and Girls’ Leadership in Efforts to Address the Climate Crisis 

In July 2022, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of its Innovation Station initiative, which amplifies women and girls developing solutions to climate-related challenges in their communities.  By the end of 2022, more than 75 women and girls from the United States and around the world comprised the network, with expertise ranging from sustainable fisheries to ethical clothing, and their Innovation Station events and podcasts have engaged audiences in 115 countries and 48 U.S. states and territories.  Through virtual and in-person network-building, the Innovation Station has helped women and girls develop over 330 new relationships to-date and expand their impact by sharing best practices, speaking at events, and deploying their solutions around the world. 

Advocating for Afghan Women and Girls  

As the Taliban double down on their indefensible decisions to ban women from universities, keep secondary schools closed to girls, and restrict women’s participation in aid delivery, we have worked closely with allies and partners to collectively advocate for the rights of Afghan women and girls and support their humanitarian needs.  Since December 2021, our Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights, Rina Amiri, and Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West have spearheaded these efforts.  In July 2022, we established the U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism (USACM), a public-private partnership with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security; the Sisterhood is Global Institute; and the U.S. Institute of Peace, to facilitate meetings between diverse Afghan women and civil society and senior U.S. government leadership to integrate Afghan women’s voices throughout the stages of U.S. policymaking.  The USACM is the culmination of over 100 consultations Special Envoy Amiri held with Afghan women, at-risk ethnic and religious community members, journalists, disability rights advocates, and LGBTQI+ advocates, during which many recommended deeper and more systematic engagement with U.S. policymakers on Afghanistan.   

 On the sidelines of the 77th United Nations General Assembly, I joined Secretary Blinken, Special Envoy Amiri, and Special Representative West at the launch of the Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience (AWER), a public-private partnership with Boston University established to mobilize commitments from the private sector, philanthropic organizations, and civil society to advance Afghan women’s entrepreneurship, workforce participation, and educational opportunities in Afghanistan and third countries.  AWER’s first initiative, the Million Women Mentors Initiative for Afghan Women and Girls, aims to accelerate private sector and civil society commitments to mentor one million women and girls over the next five years.  

U.S. Foreign Assistance on Gender Equality 

Through Executive Order 14020, President Biden committed to prioritizing gender equity and equality in his budget requests going forward – and on International Women’s Day last year, the President announced that the FY 2023 Budget would request $2.6 billion for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equality worldwide, more than doubling the amount requested for gender programs.  We remain committed to achieving and expanding upon this goal.      

The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues supports foreign assistance programs in more than 60 countries across every region to address the discrimination, systemic barriers, and human rights abuses that inhibit women and girls, in all their diversity, from reaching their full potential.  In 2022, our office awarded seven new projects, including several funded by the Gender Equality and Equity Action (GEEA) Fund, advances the economic security of women and girls globally.  New 2022 grants included:  

  • Support for Afghan Women Students supports scholarships for Afghan women to attend Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, providing access to higher education for Afghan women who otherwise would not be able to attend due to the Taliban’s edicts closing secondary schools and universities to women.   
Senior Official in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues Kat Fotovat speaks at the Asian University of Women Commencement Ceremony in Chattogram, Bangladesh.
Senior Official in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues Kat Fotovat speaks at the Asian University of Women Commencement Ceremony in Chattogram, Bangladesh on January 21, 2023. (State Department photo)
  • SHE WINS (Support Her Empowerment: Women’s Inclusion for New Security) builds the capacity of local women and local women-led civil society organizations to advocate for, lead, and monitor national and localized Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) efforts in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan, Papua New Guinea, and Yemen.   At an event organized by the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and Search for Common Ground in November, we also announced the SHE WINS Rapid Response Fund, which provides agile, easy-to-access funds for urgent projects that advance the role of women peacebuilders.  Check out a video re-cap of this event, which convened leading women peacebuilders from around the globe to discuss the importance of inclusivity in local peacebuilding,

      

Speakers Komila Zakirova, Caryn Dasah, and Pamela Derom pose for a photo with Senior Official Fotovat from S/GWI and Search for Common Ground at the SHE WINS program at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, in New York City.
Speakers Komila Zakirova, Caryn Dasah, and Pamela Derom are pictured with Senior Official Fotovat from S/GWI and Search for Common Ground at the SHE WINS program at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, in New York City on November 14, 2022. (State Department photo)
  • WE-Champs (Strengthening the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem by Networking Regional Women’s Chambers of Commerce and Business Associations) supports women’s chambers of commerce and business associations across 18 countries in Europe and Eurasia to strengthen services for women entrepreneurs and address barriers to their economic participation, an effort Secretary Blinken highlighted in the launch of the WES Strategy
    Our programs are achieving results, translating into real-life benefits for the women and girls across the globe who are most in need of assistance.  Through our office’s support in the past year:  
  • 12,288 people were able to access gender-based violence services, including health, legal, psycho-social counseling, shelters, and hotlines.  
  • More than 452 women in Sub-Saharan Africa were supported as they played a substantial role in peacebuilding processes with assistance, in line with Women, Peace, and Security efforts.  
  • 51,879 people, participated in programming designed to increase access to productive economic resources, advancing women’s economic security.  
  • 95 human rights organizations (of which 70 were women’s organizations) were trained and supported with S/GWI assistance.  
  • 99 civil society organizations engaged in advocacy on gender equity and equality with our support, representing a four-fold increase from last year in organizations and a doubling of organizations engaged in advocacy.  
  • In partnership with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, our office allocated $9 million for Afghanistan gender-based violence programming.  

It is hard to put into one note everything this office has done over the past year in the service of advancing gender equality. My hope is that if you’ve read this far, you already know our commitment to partnership, engagement, and transparency.  And while we take a moment today to celebrate our accomplishments, and the immeasurable and diverse accomplishments of women and girls worldwide, we also recognize the substantial challenges that women and girls continue to face.  This is imperative.  In the words of Vice President Harris, “addressing gender equity and equality is essential to addressing every other challenge we face.”  As we enter the third year of the Executive Order, our office will continue, in our diplomatic and development efforts, to make every day International Women’s Day.  

About the Author:  Katrina “Kat” Fotovat is currently the Senior Official to the Secretary of State in the Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), where she leads a team of gender experts promoting gender equality efforts including support of women, peace, and security, countering violent extremism, promoting women’s economic empowerment, and combatting gender-based violence. Ms. Fotovat has more than 20 years of experience advocating for gender and human rights globally, specifically in conflict and post-conflict settings.

U.S. Department of State

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