Exclusive Interview With Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues

For International Women's Day, I conducted an in-depth interview with Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, on the state of women and girls around the world, the work and efforts of her office, the intersection of awareness and action, national security and U.S. foreign policy, the Obama Administration's position on CEDAW, the role of men and boys in advancing women and girls, and challenges and opportunities moving forward.

President Barack Obama appointed Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. The President's decision to create a position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues is unprecedented, and reflects the elevated importance of these issues to the President and his entire Administration. In her capacity as director of the Department of State's new office on Global Women's Issues, Ambassador Verveer coordinates foreign policy issues and activities relating to the political, economic and social advancement of women around the world.

Rahim Kanani: Since your appointment as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues in April 2009, what have been some of the major milestones of your office in terms of addressing the challenges faced by women and girls around the world?

Ambassador Verveer: My major obligation or responsibility is to work to integrate gender issues throughout the work of the State Department. Whether we are addressing economic development or security, human rights or health, we are working hand-in-glove with our offices and bureaus in Washington, and with our Embassies overseas, to fully integrate a gender lens into policies and programs. To that end, you're probably aware of the recent completion of the QDDR review -- the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review -- that we've undertaken and completed for the first time. Gender issues have been mainstreamed throughout that review process to guarantee that we truly focus on integration in a way that allows us to carry out our foreign policy goals. Whether it has to do with the budgeting process or development or the role of our Embassies, the work that went on in the QDDR is certainly one way of working towards institutionalizing the gender lens in the State Department's diplomacy and development efforts. Obviously the real test will come in the QDDR's implementation over time, but the process represents a strong, solid commitment to bolstering our civilian power, and through that, incorporating a gender perspective to achieve effective outcomes.

Similarly, we have focused on ensuring that major Obama Administration initiatives, such as Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative, are successful in meeting their goals. In order to do that, women must be factored in. Feed the Future, for example, recognizes that 70% of the small hold farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and other areas of the world are women. Certainly, male farmers are equally important, but they have different needs and obstacles to overcome. If we want to enhance agricultural productivity, if we really want to make certain that more food is being produced and reaching the people who have the most to gain from it, then we must ensure that extension programs, credit programs, engagement in local decision-making, and land rights include women. As the initiative recognizes, there is compelling evidence that when the status of women is improved, agricultural productivity increases, poverty is reduced, and nutrition improves -- all critical components to achieving global food security. So it's a recognition that to meet the goal of the initiative, women need to be factored in. This is obviously true of the other initiatives as well.

We have also been very focused on the whole area of women in peace and security. Secretary Clinton has played a vital role in this arena. In 2009, she visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and highlighted the devastating role of sexual violence as a strategic weapon in armed conflict. We have since increased efforts to respond to and prevent sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC and around the world. Security Council Resolution 1888, adopted in 2009, created a UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence, and ensured that a team of experts would be deployed to conflict situations where sexual violence is likely to occur, in order to help governments strengthen the rule of law, improve accountability, and end impunity. Secretary Clinton also made a commitment to the formulation of a US National Action Plan to implement the role of women in peace and security. We are currently developing the plan under the leadership of the White House and in collaboration with USAID, the Department of Defense, and other relevant agencies, and in consultation with civil society groups and other countries around the world, to accelerate our efforts. These are important steps that we have undertaken. As Secretary Clinton and President Obama have emphasized repeatedly, it is critical to put women at the forefront of defense, diplomacy, and development -- the three pillars of our foreign policy -- not merely as beneficiaries, but as change agents who can drive peace, reconciliation, economic growth, and stability.

I would also like to underscore that we are heavily focused on women's economic empowerment. There is a growing body of research and data that correlates high yield outcomes to women who run small and medium sized businesses and there is a strong correlation to growing GDP. We have seen how small business development has been the engine of growth. We are ensuring that women's economic empowerment is a focus of the various international platforms in which we participate: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) agenda, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) agenda, and the Pathways for Prosperity agenda. The Pathways Agenda is focused on trade agreements in South America for example, and how women can participate in markets. Women often face barriers in starting or growing their businesses, especially in gaining access to training and mentors, markets, finance, technology, and even property rights in some places. So with these programs, we are addressing a whole array of issues focused on women's' economic empowerment -- including lifting the barriers that impede their success in being able to grow their country's economies more effectively.

Rahim Kanani: Are we at the point where global awareness of gender inequalities around the world is matched by the global will to act, or are we still climbing the hill to reach that point?

Ambassador Verveer: Personally, I want to believe we're at that point. I think there has been a great deal to demonstrate that we're moving in that direction, certainly over the past decade. Today, there is a focus on gender inequality in ways now that didn't exist before. There is certainly a growing body of data that correlates investments in women with a country's general prosperity; a recognition that no country can get ahead if half its people are left behind. Additionally, I think that there is a recognition not just on the part of the women's movement, if you will, or those aspects of civil society, but increasingly by governments, multilaterals and the private sector that all point in the same direction: the realization that when we fail to tap into the potential that half of the world's population represents, we not only short change women, but we also short change countries and their prospects for prosperity and economic growth.

For example, I often note, because we've done so much work on APEC and will continue to do so (especially since the United States is leading APEC this year), a UN study demonstrates that, collectively, the 21 countries of the Asia Pacific region lose between $42 to $46 billion of GDP annually by not tapping into women's economic potential. According to a recent Boston Consulting Group survey of 12,000 women from 22 countries, "women" is the world's largest and fastest growing market. Women will spend 5 trillion dollars or more over the next several years, more than the commercial potential represented by the growth of the consumer economies of India, Russia, Brazil, or China.

I think it's these kinds of understandings that are now finally beginning to come to the forefront. We've always known that women's equality is a great moral imperative. But it is also in the best interests of countries to support women, and certainly in the best interests of the kind of world we want to create. This is all becoming clearer, as there is an increasingly robust amount of data to support what we have long believed.

For example, the business community recognizes that emerging markets are absolutely essential to selling both products and services. Yet if women in these markets are not educated, if they're not part of the talent pool for the workforce, if they're precluded from participation, if they're not employed in ways that enable their consumer power to be unleashed, then business will suffer. So, in a nutshell, there is certainly greater awareness today. There is much more research on this and certainly a movement in the right direction. Whether it's a discussion on how we are going to achieve the Millennium Development Goals or how we are going to grow GDP, the answer in many ways is the full economic, political, and social empowerment and engagement of women.

Rahim Kanani: Would you agree that the 21st century is the century for women?

Ambassador Verveer: It was Muhtar Kent, CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, who talked about this in a speech he gave several months ago. He was making the case that if we're going to have the kind of economic growth, job creation, and prosperity we need to see around the world, we must include women. For its part, Coca-Cola has committed to empower and train 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020. This demonstrates the value the company places on women, and I think that the point their CEO was making, was that the empowerment of women is absolutely essential. And so, while there is still much work to do, the 21st century needs to be the century of women. It is the smart thing to do and it is the right thing to do.

Rahim Kanani: Often, when we talk about the challenges facing women and girls around the world, there is a lack of conversation about the role of men and boys in addressing these inequalities. How do we bring men and boys into the fold of this conversation?

Ambassador Verveer: I think men and boys are absolutely essential in this conversation. For example, we will not be able to successfully respond to the global epidemic of violence against women and girls without the inclusion of men and boys. Fortunately, there are some very innovative programs that I've seen firsthand that involve men and boys in generating solutions. In India, at the community level, young men are playing an absolutely essential role in changing the cultural norms and deeply held practices concerning women. They are doing this in a way that not only empowers women and girls, but really empowers the young men as well. Tata Group, a large Indian multinational company, sponsors courses in many of the public schools to change negative views of women. Also, imams and religious leaders have played an essential role, in Afghanistan and other countries, in speaking out against violence against women as contrary to Qur'anic values, which has tremendous impact. They have also encouraged men to allow their wives to participate in midwife training programs and leave their families for several weeks of study, so that they can come back and make a difference for their communities.

Looking beyond these specific initiatives, it is also important to recognize that men hold the great majority of leadership positions in government and private companies. Men's voices are going to be critical to achieving meaningful change because they're in positions of decision-making. The World Economic Forum produces an annual report on the global gender gap, which measures parity between men and women in a given country on four significant measurements. The report demonstrates that there is a positive correlation between a country's competitiveness and its gender gap; countries with greater gender parity possess better economic performance, competitiveness, and greater prosperity.

And it's going to be men in the critical decision-making positions that will have a great deal to say about achieving greater parity. For example, the President of the World Bank has been a strong proponent of the message that "gender equality equals smart economics." Robert Zoellick's voice is obviously a powerful voice. It is critical that more people recognize that women's progress is about economic progress, political progress, and actually about global development. We do need more men expressing their support for greater participation on the part of women. And, we must focus on the role that men and boys have to play, at all levels, in addressing issues of gender parity and problems like gender-based violence. This is absolutely critical.

Rahim Kanani: In recent statements, both you and Secretary Clinton have linked the safety and security of women and girls around the world to challenges of extremism and instability. I'm wondering if you could speak to that connection and also frame your response in the context of what that means for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

Ambassador Verveer: We know that the most dangerous places in the world are more often than not the most dangerous places for women, where women are denied their rights and oppressed. These are the places that are unstable, and where extremism often takes hold. It is no surprise that President Obama's National Security Strategy notes that in our experience, "countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity."

Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionately those places where women have been most marginalized, where women don't have a place in the economy or political life of the country, or in their society more generally. These are issues that impact on our own national security. This link to national security is an important one, and it's one of the reasons that we are also focused on the role that women play in ending conflict. Women are essential in efforts to reconstruct and rebuild societies. Their participation is essential in transitioning to peace, as well as to ensuring the potential for peace will not be subverted. Women must be able to participate as agents of change to ensure that mediation efforts and post-conflict institutions are more effective. Their voices must be heard and incorporated in political, economic, and social arenas to generate a sustainable peace.

Rahim Kanani: In my discussion with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, she expressed that the Obama Administration is in full support of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. What are some of the efforts currently underway to build that support within Congress towards ratification, and how would you characterize the apprehension towards the Convention for such a long time?

Ambassador Verveer: I think much of the apprehension, if that's the right word, is misplaced. There have been all kinds of charges against CEDAW that are gross inaccuracies, ranging from undermining America's sovereignty to somehow interfering in our own domestic policies. CEDAW is all about eliminating discrimination against women -- as simple as that -- and it addresses areas that are crucial to women's equality.

It says a lot about America's moral leadership in human rights for us to stand tall on an issue like this. I have had the fortunate opportunity to travel around the world on behalf of the U.S., and if I am asked anything repeatedly, it is "When will America ratify CEDAW? When will America ratify the Women's Treaty?" And because I think much of the world follows these issues, there is an inconsistency with our commitment to human rights and the fact that we have yet to ratify a treaty that we are already adhering to. We are living up to our own obligations under this treaty, but by not ratifying it, in many ways, we're deprived of using a powerful tool to combat discrimination against women around the world.

You know, this issue is often raised by our detractors -- they say the United States hasn't ratified CEDAW and in not ratifying we keep company with other major rogue states like Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. "Well, what does it matter? There are a lot of other countries that have ratified the Women's Treaty and in those countries women aren't doing anywhere near as well as they are in the United States." There may be something to that argument, but I would argue that it is because those countries ratified CEDAW that women and men who are struggling to ensure an end to discrimination against women are able to use the convention as a tool to hold their countries responsible and accountable.

And for the United States to be able to stand with them in their struggle is an important role that we can play. So, as the President and the Secretary of State have said, we will be working with others in the Administration and with the Senate to help move this forward in hopes that the Women's Treaty will be adopted once and for all, and the United States can join the vast majority of all the other countries of the world in that ratification.

Rahim Kanani: How crucial are women -- women alliances in the movement for equality?

Ambassador Verveer: Well, I think it's already made a difference. When Secretary Clinton, then First Lady, went to Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, she helped spark a movement for the Platform for Action that 185 countries adopted. That Platform for Action is still very much a critical guidepost for all of us today -- simply put, it states women's rights to education, to healthcare, to participate in the economies of their countries, to participate politically, and to be free from violence. It has been the movement and energy of women in these alliances that have worked to further progress on these and related issues around the world.

But at the same time, I don't want to discount the very important role of men, as we discussed earlier. I believe that every good cause has many good men as advocates that stand with women to further these issues. While many of these issues apply to women specifically, to be sure, men also have a great deal to say about them because they impact the kind of world that we want to create for our children. This is about women's progress, but it's also about the progress of families, communities, and nations. When women progress, everyone benefits.

So, it is uniquely about women, but it benefits everyone. We need to grow broader coalitions of interests, partnerships between the private sector, government, and civil society -- which, of course, include both men and women. But there is no doubt, as Zainab has said, that without women coming together to really spark these kinds of actions around the globe, in country after country, progress will not happen.

Rahim Kanani: What would you say is the toughest challenge you face in your position?

Ambassador Verveer: The toughest challenge is to ensure that the resources, power, credibility, spotlight -- all the tools that the United States has to really make a difference -- can enhance the critical role that women play around the world. This is the challenge -- to enable change, to help protect women's rights and fulfill their God-given potential in a way that makes the critical difference, not just for women and their families, but for the world itself.

I feel that responsibility most deeply. Working with my colleagues -- here at the State Department, within our government more broadly, and with partners in other sectors -- to make that happen is what will, in the end, be most fulfilling. Ultimately, the success of this effort will be measured by improvements in the daily lives of people around the world.

Rahim Kanani: And as you look ahead into the next decade, how would you characterize the movement, challenges and opportunities moving forward?

Ambassador Verveer: I think one of the big problems in our world today is that in too many places, girls still are not valued. Many harmful traditional practices continue to testify to this reality -- from female feticide to child marriage to depriving girls the right to attend school and receive adequate healthcare -- and so much more. These are terrible human rights violations that are linked to the perceived lack of value that a girl has in too many places, which then contributes to the low status of women around the world.

To reverse this phenomenon -- to ensure that girls, and the women they will become, can really make a difference in their society -- is something that I think holds tremendous promise. While this is clearly not the work of a day or year, to the extent that we can tap into the potential of half the world's population, and confront serious challenges over time, we will see the remarkable differences that women can make. And this holds great promise for the kind of world we want to see as we look ahead to the next decade and beyond.

The progress that women make will say much about the progress our world will make. So while this is an issue that does affect women and girls, it is really an issue that affects us all. And that's what I hope, that we will be able to grow those steps, not just women alone, obviously, but all of us coming together in ways that will make a real, tangible difference for communities and countries.

Rahim Kanani: Ambassador Verveer, it's been a great pleasure and an honor to speak with you today. Thank you very much for your time.

Ambassador Verveer: You're very kind; thank you both for taking the time and for caring about this issue.

This interview is part of an in-depth series on advancing women and girls worldwide. Previous interviews include Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE USA, and Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Future interviews include Maria Eitel, President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, Tiffany Dufu, President of The White House Project, and many more. Please visit World Affairs Commentary for more information.