Thank you for that wonderful introduction, Hanna. It is an honor to be here during Women’s History Month, and a privilege for me to talk to this dynamic gathering about gender equity and equality in foreign policy.
Before I begin, let me recognize a trailblazing woman born here in Massachusetts whose legacy helps frame today’s discussion: Lucy Stone. Lucy was an abolitionist, a suffragist, and a powerful advocate for women’s rights. She was the founder of the Women’s Journal in Boston – the newspaper that championed women’s suffrage efforts in the United States for nearly 50 years. In 1847, she became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. If she could see us now!
Lucy said, and I quote: “we ask only for justice and equal rights – the right to vote, the right to our earnings, equality before the law.” Well, that was almost 175 years ago, and we are not there yet! But we’re getting closer.
President Biden made clear that no country has achieved gender equality, including the United States, so in early 2021, he created the White House Gender Policy Council to advance gender equity and equality here at home and abroad. Within its mandate, the council leads a whole-of-government approach to implement the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. I’m confident that Lucy Stone would approve of the strategy’s imperative “to ensure that all people, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to realize their full potential.” President Biden’s vision is to advance gender equity and equality in domestic and foreign policy – and to demonstrate that families, communities, and nations around the world stand to benefit.
And the benefits are abundantly clear. Full participation of all people – including women and girls – is essential to the economic well-being, health, and security of the United States and of the world. Which is why, in a context of compounding global challenges, including war and conflict, food insecurity, and climate change, we elevated support for the rights of women and girls as a central tenet to our foreign policy. Turning ideas into action, the Biden-Harris Administration doubled its budget request last year for overseas gender work from $1.3 to $2.6 billion.
At the State Department, we are leveraging that budget to increase lifesaving support to women and girls in conflict and crisis settings. We are holding violators of human rights to account. We are ensuring women and girls are safe and free from violence in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. Let me highlight three more concrete and cross-cutting ways the State Department is bringing to life the National Gender Strategy internationally.
First, conflicts and disasters exacerbate conditions of inequality, uniquely impacting women and girls. The support systems that are supposed to keep them safe – their families, their communities, and their governments –often crumble in emergencies, drastically increasing the risks of gender-based violence and making desperately needed services nearly impossible to find.
The United States has significantly expanded protection for women and girls in these humanitarian emergencies. For instance, in Afghanistan, a sizable portion of the $1.1 billion in funding for humanitarian assistance provided since August 2021 supported organizations offering critical reproductive health services, protection assistance, and psychosocial support to Afghan women and girls. Our support to the United Nations Population Fund provided life-saving sexual and reproductive healthcare services, protection, and emergency supplies to over 9.3 million refugees, IDPs, and host community members across Afghanistan and beyond.
Similarly, in response to Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the United States provided more than $1.9 billion in humanitarian assistance since February 2022. A significant amount of this funding supports women and girls, who make up the vast majority of the 7.7 million Ukrainians forced to flee their nation. U.S.-funded humanitarian organizations are providing counseling, legal aid, mental health, and psychological support as well as sexual and reproductive health assistance to these women and girls. Again, U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund provided a lifeline to women and girls through the operation of mobile clinics across Ukraine that give qualified birth assistance, post-natal care, and support to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, a horrific element of Russia’s crimes again humanity perpetrated against the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, leading international humanitarian partners report increased cases of domestic and gender-based violence for women who stayed in Ukraine.
To address crisis situations such as in Ukraine and Afghanistan where women and girls are disproportionately harmed, the United States launched Safe from the Start ReVisioned in December 2022. This initiative supported the Women’s Refugee Commission to develop a toolkit for practitioners working in refugee settings, such as camps, to offer high-quality medical and psychosocial services and support to sexual violence survivors in a way that does not stigmatize or re-traumatize individuals. Safe from the Start is emblematic of the U.S. commitment to advance a gender-transformative approach in humanitarian response, promote women’s leadership, and prioritize gender-based violence prevention and survivor-centered response programming.
A second way we are integrating gender equality and equity into our foreign policy is by amping up efforts to prevent and fight gender-based violence globally. The scale and scope of this problem cannot be ignored. UN Women estimates that 736 million women and girls have been subjected to violence in their lifetime. Almost half of survivors never report their abuse, so the real number is unknown.
The U.S. is co-leading the global fight against GBV in a myriad of ways. We increased our contribution, now at $1.75 million annually, to the Office of the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. To further support survivors, President Biden’s Memorandum on Promoting Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, released November last year, leverages sanctions on perpetrators as a new tool to promote accountability. It also ensures conflict-related sexual crimes are considered alongside other human rights abuses. Additionally, it directs State Department policymakers to accelerate building like-minded coalitions and partnerships.
Co-leadership means partnering with valiant civil society champions who are leading the way in ending GBV globally, like Rosa Melania Reyes Velasquez from Honduras. Rosa fights violence against women in her country by confronting aggressors, abusers, gang members, and at times, representatives of her own government. In her 28 years at the Women’s Movement for Colonia López Arellano and Surroundings, she assisted more than 7,300 women in their fight for justice. I had the honor of meeting Ms. Reyes Velasquez last month as she was recognized by our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor for her tenacity and leadership in defending women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms in a nation that has one of the world’s highest per capita rates for femicide. She was named one of the State Department’s Human Rights Defenders of the year for her courageous and consequential work.
To build on Rosa and other defenders’ life-saving efforts, the State Department and the Avon Foundation support the Voices Against Violence Consortium. This public-private partnership provides medical, livelihood, and legal services to GBV survivors, with over 3,500 women and girls having received assistance to date. This program has been able to respond quickly to crisis situations, including providing support for Yazidis and other victims of ISIS as well as Afghan women escaping the Taliban.
Additionally, our Embassies around the world work with local leaders such as Rosa to develop and fund tailored programs that meet local needs. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Kigali supported a grant to the Rwanda Association of Deaf Women to provide sign language training to the Rwanda Bureau of Investigations to conduct outreach and assist with gender-based violence reporting within the deaf community.
A third line of effort in our campaign for global gender equity and equality is deepening our partnerships with trusted allies and strengthening relationships with emerging partners, from every corner of the world.
In solidarity with the brave Iranian women and girls who took to the streets and the internet to decry the senseless and unjustified killing of Mahsa Amini, the United States supported an initiative by Germany and Iceland to call an unprecedented UN Human Rights Council special session on Iran’s human rights crisis. Together with our like-minded partners from all over the globe, we adopted a resolution creating an independent fact-finding mission on Tehran’s escalating brutality against peaceful protesters, which has included sexual violence against women and girls seeking to exercise their universal rights. In the wake of such horrors, the United States, along with 28 ECOSOC countries, voted to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women, sending an unmistakable message of solidarity to the heroic Iranian women and girls who demanded this step and continue to reject oppression.
The Summit for Democracy, which President Biden will host again at the end of this month, is another vehicle for broadening the global chorus for gender equality. Under the Summit framework launched in 2021, 100-plus governments made over 750 commitments to strengthen democratic governance, and many of those commitments related to improving gender equality and equity.
For instance, Nepal passed new legislation strengthening the punishment for GBV such as rape and acid attacks against women. Denmark launched a global platform to protect women activists from online hate and harassment. For our part, the United States announced a five-year, $5 million program to advance local women’s leadership in peacebuilding and strengthening democracies. The program equips women-led organizations and initiatives in Yemen, Uzbekistan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the resources to influence and drive peace efforts.
The efforts I described are just a snapshot of the global initiatives we fund and the daily diplomatic outreach we conduct to support women and girls throughout the world. Our drive and commitment to safeguard the rights and opportunities of women, girls, and LGBTQI+ persons, both in the United States and around the world, is unwavering. In fact, it is central to everything we do.
I just returned Thursday evening from a trip to Jordan and Oman. While in both nations, I had the honor of meeting with inspiring women diplomats, refugees, civil society leaders, and entrepreneurs, who defy many of the western stereotypes which linger about Arab women. During my meetings, I was struck by the common bonds we share and remarkable courage of these women working tirelessly to build a better world. It was inspiring to realize that while we still face systemic discrimination and barriers to our full participation in society all over the world, including in the United States – we will not stop challenging the status quo.
Our collective efforts to shatter the glass ceiling are bearing fruit, and Lucy Stone would be proud. Last year, Pakistan appointed its first female Supreme Court judge while Peru and Honduras swore in their first female presidents. Here at home, we witnessed the historical appointment of the first African American women to the highest court in the land. Being at the table and making decisions is a critical component of achieving equity and equality.
So, as we look to where we have been, what we accomplished, and what more we must do, I recall a line in our National Gender Strategy – “This moment demands a bold and united response—a commitment to do more.” And I will add do better. I am confident that we can. The energy and intellect that is in this room and that brought us together today can drive us forward to achieving gender equality and equity and hold us to account.
Thank you again for inviting me here today. I look forward to discussing these issues more in depth with you Hanna and hearing from our virtual and in-person audience as well.