“There Is Clearly Much To Do” For The Obama Administration
In the lead-up to her first-year anniversary as Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues at the United States’ Department of State, Melanne Verveer spoke with AWID about the symbolic and practical implications of her office, how U.S. development assistance is focused on partnership rather than patronage, why rights cannot be constrained by culture and why the Obama Administration prizes small business development as a path to women’s empowerment.
By Masum Momaya
AWID: This is the first time in the history of the United States’ State Department that there has been an office and an ambassadorship dedicated to Global Women’s Issues. What are the symbolic and practical implications of this?
Ambassador Melanne Verveer (A.M.V.): President Obama’s creation of this position, and the office, is unprecedented and underscores the importance the Administration places on global women’s issues in the conduct of foreign policy. It recognizes that the toughest transnational problems that we face – with the environment, the economy, security or governance –cannot be resolved without the full participation of women. When women around the world progress and participate fully in the economic, social and political lives of their societies, they create a better world for all.
Practically, now women’s issues can be fully mainstreamed and integrated into U.S. foreign policy, throughout the State Department and our embassies around the world. We can work together across offices and bureaus to ensure that women’s perspectives, experiences and needs are incorporated into State Department work in economics, democracy, human rights and labor, climate change, and more.
AWID: In terms of women’s rights, what things have carried over from previous administrations and what things have shifted under the Obama Administration?
A.M.V.: The State Department has had a women’s office since the Clinton Administration, albeit with a different place in the organization’s structure, and different scope. The commitment to continuing that office was maintained under the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration – with the leadership of Secretary Clinton – has re-envisioned the role and organizational position of the office.
We are picking up a theme begun during the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing: women’s rights as human rights. As we approach the 15th anniversary of that conference, the Administration is renewing the commitment to women’s rights that was established during that conference. Those rights, which include women’s full participation in the economic and political life of their countries, the ability to access education and healthcare, and to be free from violence, are the cornerstone of the work of the current women’s office.
Across administrations, there’s been some continuity on women’s issues. Secretary Condoleezza Rice pushed for adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820, recognizing the role of women in international peace and security. Secretary Clinton built on that, campaigning for the successful adoption of Security Council Resolution 1888, which establishes a Special Representative to address sexual violence against women in armed conflicts.
AWID: In general, Secretary Clinton has been a forthright and forceful spokesperson for women’s rights and has also made it very clear that this government’s development agenda will be focused on partnership, not patronage. What do you think this will mean in terms of how the State Department, USAID and Obama Administration engage with women’s rights organizations on the ground? Can you give some example of some things that might shift in terms of how things are done?
A.M.V.: Civil society organizations play an important role in international development around the world. NGOs are doing important and urgently-needed work in addressing violence against women, promoting economic opportunity and breaking down the barriers that impede women’s economic participation, providing access to health services, working to ensure girls have safe access to high-quality education, growing women’s leadership capacity and ability to participate in all levels of government, and much more. In a recent speech, Secretary Clinton noted that the U.S. is taking steps to “put women front and center in our development work,” which means increased engagement with organizations on the ground.
To augment the support of USAID, the Office on Global Women’s Issues has recently established a small grants program to support the critical role of women’s NGOs worldwide. We’ve just received a round of proposals and will be funding organizations addressing economic empowerment, gender-based violence and sexual violence against girls, legal reform, food security, human trafficking, advancing women's political and economic knowledge, and climate change. We plan on financing projects up to US$100,000 that focus on empowering women and providing education not normally available.
Secretary Clinton is also establishing a special fund to encourage private investments in programs that empower women and girls and that support the crucial work of NGOs.
AWID: Who do you see as key partners in your efforts?
A.M.V.: We work with agencies of the U.S. government; multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations; other governments; businesses and corporations, foundations, academia and NGOs based in the U.S. and around the world. We particularly try to engage those who clearly have a stake in advancing women’s issues but who have not always had an active role, such as religious leaders and NGOs that focus on boys’ education and development or men’s role in stopping violence against women.
AWID: How are women’s issues integrated into the Global Health Initiative and the Food Security Initiative?
A.M.V.: The President’s Global Health Initiative is committed to employing a women- and girl-centered approach, which will seek to improve health outcomes for women and girls, both for their own sake and because of the centrality of women to the health of their families and communities. The Initiative will amplify programs that serve women and girls, including maternal and child health, family planning, nutrition, and HIV/AIDS programs.
In addition, the Initiative will support long-term systemic changes to remove barriers to care and increase access to quality health services by, for example, improving monitoring and evaluation of the health of women and girls, involving men and boys in addressing gender equality, and improving training of health providers on gender issues.
More broadly, the Initiative will link women’s health programs to efforts to remove the economic, cultural, social, and legal barriers that create obstacles to obtaining care. For example, the current and unacceptably high global rate of maternal mortality is directly linked to persistent gender inequalities, including gender-based violence, harmful traditional practices such as early and forced marriage, lack of education, lack of economic opportunity, and unequal access to adequate health services and facilities.
The food security initiative recognizes that the great majority of small farmers in parts of the world are women. If agriculture productivity is to be enhanced and hunger ended, food policy needs to recognize women’s specific needs for training and access to credit. Also, there are broader linkages in play. Although women represent the majority of farmers in some areas, they seldom own the land they work. The reform of land tenure rights and property and inheritance laws can help women succeed in farming and help secure the world’s food supply.
AWID: Secretary Clinton has also made it a point to link the wellbeing of women to political stability and conditions that stave off anger, helplessness, insecurity and terrorism. Has this linking served instrumental as well as political purposes in terms of directing more funding to women, pushing for more gender-sensitive policies, etc.?
A.M.V.: Most definitely. We recognize that women tend to be forces for moderation and democracy. Studies have shown a correlation between women’s access to education and to economic integration and the political and economic standing of nations. Places that exclude women from public life and constrain and marginalize their lives are the same in which extremist ideology finds a receptive home.
In Afghanistan, our development policies focus on the education of women and girls, access to income-generation programs, protection from violence, police training, and capacity-building for women judges and women in government. Also, we advocate for full implementation of UN Security Resolution 1325 there, which recognizes the importance of women’s participation in conflict resolution and peace processes. The recently released Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy reflects these policies and precepts as well as our longstanding commitment to promoting universally-recognized human rights for women.
AWID: The funding of reproductive health services for women worldwide has often caused controversy, particularly in the Bush Administration. How has this been handled so far?
A.M.V.: The current Administration recognizes that women need full and accurate information about family planning in order to make the best decisions about their health care. President Obama lifted the Mexico City Policy shortly after taking office, and we have increased U.S. contributions to international family planning resources through USAID and UNFPA.
Through the Global Health Initiative, the Administration is also addressing the unacceptably high global rate of maternal mortality and also the prevention and treatment HIV, a health issue that increasingly has a woman’s face, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
AWID: In its global development work, the U.S. government often face questions around and accusations of cultural imperialism, i.e., imposing western values on cultural contexts where this is not appropriate. This kind of accusation is often used to justify not intervening in human rights violations against women. Have you encountered these sentiments in your work thus far and, if so, how have you addressed these accusations?
A.M.V.: It is very important to strongly respond to accusations like these. Universal human rights are exactly that: universal. They are not constrained by culture, religion or anything else. They recognize the dignity and equal worth of each person, male and female. Those who justify violence against women or the abrogation of their rights as cultural are mistaken. Diminishment of women’s rights is the diminishment of human rights.
One exciting development right now is the rise of vocal proponents of women’s rights from within communities of faith. Muslim women, for example, are increasingly turning to religious scholarship to demonstrate that their faith is not inconsistent with women’s progress.
AWID: In 2010, your office will focus on two fundamental issues: promoting women’s economic opportunities and working to ensure that women around the world are safe from gender-based violence. Can you share the rationale for this? And will these be coupled with a push for macro-level economic reform, especially amidst the global economic downturn?
A.M.V.: Combating violence against women and promoting women’s economic participation both contribute heavily to the achievement of our other goals. Violence against women – in so many forms – is endemic around the world, and addressing it requires a coordinated and multi-sectoral strategy. Since the Beijing conference, laws have been passed to combat violence against women in many countries; however, too often these laws have not been implemented or enforced. We need to support strategies that enable successful advocacy for vigorous implementation and build additional influential allies.
Everywhere I go, women tell me that we have to find ways to engage men on this issue. I agree with them. Moreover, we have to reach out to religious leaders who can be influential in advocating women’s education and protection from violence. We have found that in Afghanistan, for example, mullahs have often played key roles in supporting girls’ education, the training of women to become midwives and in opposing violence against women.
Economic empowerment transforms the lives of individual women and lifts communities out of poverty. Where women have economic independence, they are also less likely to be victims of violence. I remember asking a group of women in India who were empowered by microcredit and training, how the program had changed their lives. One woman proudly answered, “I am no longer afraid.” Because she was able to earn a living for herself and her family, her life was transformed. We know that microcredit continues to be a critical tool and needs to be expanded to savings, insurance and other areas.
Small business is the engine of economic growth, and women-run small businesses can become the drivers of GDP if women have access to training, mentors, markets, networks and credit. Much more has to be done, including on the macro level, to release women’s potential. Women lack market access, and, for the most part, cannot take advantage of the expanded opportunities of globalization. We are focusing on ways that women can better take advantage of trade opportunities and ways they can develop markets. There is clearly much to do.