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Supporting the Empowerment of Women and Girls Globally

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Spelman College
Atlanta, GA
February 15, 2012

As prepared

Dr. Meadows, thank you for that introduction.

I greatly appreciate this opportunity and want to thank Spelman College and its Department of International Studies for hosting this event and the very warm welcome. I want to thank the students and faculty from Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College for joining us today.

It is truly an honor for me to be in Atlanta at America's oldest historically black college for women, particularly during Black History Month, to discuss some of the many ways the President and Secretary of State are supporting the empowerment of women and girls globally.

You already know that Spelman is widely known as a tireless advocate for the advancement of women and girls – that’s why you’re here! And I should add that some of Spelman’s notable and accomplished alumnae have risen to become prominent U.S. diplomats, including Ambassadors Adrienne O’Neal, Aurelia Brazeal, and Ruth Davis. And not only have your women alumnae done great diplomatic work, your current Diplomat in Residence Mr. Terrence Williamson and former DIR Paul Rowe have also made tremendous contributions to diplomacy at the State Department So it is entirely appropriate that I be here today to talk about issues that you are learning about, researching, and that are affecting so many fellow women and men around the world.

As Secretary Clinton and officials across this Administration have stated repeatedly, the major security, governance, environmental, and economic challenges of the 21st Century cannot be solved without the participation of women and girls at all levels of society.

As women progress, everyone in society benefits, including men and boys. Tapping into the limitless potential of women and girls is not only the right thing to do but it is the smart thing. That is why the United States and our international partners are invested in a historic effort to empower women globally.

As the Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, I am responsible for U.S. engagement across the United Nations system as well as with other multilateral institutions. In all those institutions, we are hard at work to find new ways, new actions, and new energy to empower millions of women and girls across the world.

In that context, allow me to make a bold statement:

The United States is not an island. Now, that may confirm what you all learned in third grade geography, but it may not resonate in the same way when we talk about political geography, cultural geography, economic geography, or environmental geography.

When President Obama was elected, he made clearly very early his intent to reengage with the multilateral community - the community of international organizations including the UN, with international civil society, with the global business community. He expressed that intent with a keen understanding of some important global truths, which I will summarize.

  • First, today’s shared challenges demand shared solutions. Consider just a few examples. Climate change, food security, water, public health, trade, transportation. Our modern world faces numerous challenges that cannot be effectively addressed or resolved in the absence of international conventions and agreements. That isn’t to say that international organizations are a guaranteed path to international cooperation, but it does indicate that the United States cannot stand on the sidelines while the rest of the world plays the big game.
  • Second, we must engage actively in international arenas because there are plenty of nations willing to fill any void we provide. New centers of power are emerging around the world to play larger roles on global issues. India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and others. If we are not at the table, at all the various tables where global issues are addressed, we cannot assume that our interests will be represented.
  • Third, I would note that non-state actors are playing more important roles in international affairs. There are many places where this is becoming obvious. Violent extremism remains a threat, as does piracy and other forms of transnational crime. Regional and sub-regional organizations such as the African Union and the Organization of American States are playing more influential roles on their issues.
  • And finally, I would note that in our globalized world, power and influence increasingly stems from being part of a networks. As a generation more connected, more wired that any previous, you understand what I mean. U.S. influence must now be much, much more than simply sending an Ambassador to Country X and relying on that relationship to guide our affairs We must be part of multiple, overlapping conversations between governments, publics, academic institutions, NGOs. And as we have demonstrated over the last few years, when the United States engages actively with those networks, we can accomplish a great deal.

Now, to the issue at hand. Women and girls around the world face a breadth of challenges - lack of education and basic literacy skills, sexual and gender-based violence, rampant discrimination, the lack of economic opportunities and political participation, and more. –

Access to education is another challenge on which we are working multilaterally to address. Today, women, mainly in the world’s poorest communities, represent about two-thirds of the nearly 800 million illiterate adults around the world. That is why the United States is working the specialized agencies such as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to expand girls’ and women’s access to education. Seeking to end this imbalance, Secretary Clinton spoke at to UNESCO last May to launch the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. In Paris, she joined UNESCO’s Executive Director Irina Bokova, world leaders, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, including American companies, in pledging to support education for women and girls.

As the Secretary pointed out at the Global Partnership launch, “No society can achieve its full potential when half the population is denied the opportunity to achieve theirs.” We know that opening the door for women and girls to greater education leads to more choices, opportunities, and useful information in how to live their lives. Indeed, we also know that birth rates, HIV infections, incidents of domestic violence and female cutting all decline when education rises.

That is why we are deeply committed to the Partnership because it has the power to transform the lives of women. Together, we are working to ensure that money and resources are best used to promote basic literacy training and secondary education for girls around the globe. Working together with other governments, NGOs, and private partners also allows us to multiply our impact, reaching more women and girls in meaningful ways than if we acted alone. It is because of the power of these partnerships that we have been at the fore-front of bringing together diverse groups of governments, foundations, and corporations.

For example, the United States helped broker an agreement between Procter and Gamble and UNESCO to fund literacy training for girls in Senegal. Today only 33% of Senegalese women are literate. This modestly funded agreement will impact 40,000 women in Senegal enhancing their literacy and increasing their income and quality of their environment.

We also have partners, like Nokia, with whom we work in multiple venues. Nokia is a partner in the UNESCO Global Partnership, but they are also one of our partners in the mWomen program. This initiative – led by the Cherie Blair Foundation and the GSM Association, a mobile telephone industry group – aims to reduce the gender gap in access to mobile technology of 300 million in the developing world, by 50 percent, in the next three years. By increasing women’s access to cell phones, the programs enables them to gain access to mobile education and mobile banking, which are critical tools for girls and women to strengthen their education and participate in developing markets.

Not only has this administration focused on how to help address the challenges that women face, this administration has also focused on ensuring that more women are holding leadership positions. We have seen progress on this front; year after year we see more women entering government and taking on senior positions, including heads of state. There is still much work to do, the road forward remains rocky and the numbers disproportionate given that women make half of the global population. When women are not serving in governments, when their voice and experience are muted, when they are not at the negotiating table their absence has direct impact on society, on peace and security, on strengthening democracy in the communities, nations and world in which we live.

The Administration is implementing policies and programs to bolster women’s leadership capacity in all areas of political participation and decision-making. To that end, we have worked to strengthen the institutional arrangements and mechanisms at the UN for support of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

We were at the forefront in 2009 and 2010 in leading efforts at the UN to support the consolidation of the UN’s existing gender-related institutions into a single more effective women’s agency. It was our goal at the UN to elevate women’s issues to their rightful status.

Our efforts were successful; UN Women formally began operations on January 1, 2011 with a comprehensive mandate to work on all issues related to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, is an impressive leader, as you know she is the former President of Chile.

UN Women has several strategic priorities, one of which is expanding women’s leadership and participation. The events of the Arab Awakening have focused international attention on the importance and fragility of women’s political participation. In some cases, gains previously made by women in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged, and women who had taken part in democracy movements are now excluded from negotiations on future systems of government. These trends jeopardize political stability, economic security, and human rights in countries undergoing transition.

To address these concerns, UN Women, in conjunction with the United States and other partners, held a high-level roundtable discussion during the UN General Assembly last September to examine the role of women during periods of political transition, like in the Middle East and North Africa. This meeting was the first debate on gender equality since the formation of UN Women in January 2011 convening several high-level government representatives from UN Women, the United States, Brazil, the European Union, and other member states.

Additionally, the Administration supports UN Women efforts to advance women’s political participation through technical assistance, research, and training, with a focus on countries in transition, including countries in the Middle East. We hope to complement ongoing UN Women projects aimed at greater political participation for women in Latin America and in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Another UN Women strategic priority is enhancing women’s economic empowerment. Executive Director Bachelet has often said that women’s economic security is a precondition for further improvements in their lives.

Every day, women are starting their own businesses. Between 1997 and 2008, women-owned businesses in the U.S. grew at twice the national average for all other business types. An estimated 10.1 million companies, 40% of all privately-owned firms, were owned by women as of 2008.

What we know is that women-run small and medium sized businesses in the U.S. and internationally accelerate economic growth, and many countries have made progress on laws and regulations concerning inheritance and property ownership, working hours, and retirement ages. Yet women face barriers in the U.S. and globally starting these businesses, including challenges connected with access to training, mentors, finance, technology, and markets. These challenges need to be addressed in order for women to fulfill their potential to increase their livelihoods and contribute to the broader economy.

This Administration continues to address some of the most troublesome challenges facing women and girls, such as the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women, the role of women in peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building and combating sexual and gender-based violence

It is a priority for the U.S. in areas of post-conflict and transition, to ensure that women participate in peace processes, political transitions, new constitutions, and the electoral process. Thus, we have been blunt in urging others join us in implementing the series of UN Security Council resolutions on these topics, including those we have taken leadership on, such as Resolutions 1325, 1888 and more recently 1960.

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised during the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in October of 2010, the United States has developed a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security that will guide our approach to this issue in the coming years. It focuses on the four pillars of 1325: participation, prevention, protection, and relief and recovery, and outlines how the principles of 1325 will be integrated and institutionalized in the United States' work in conflict-affected environments over the next several years. Our ultimate objective is to fully incorporate women and girls into our diplomatic, security, and development efforts – not simply as beneficiaries, but as agents of peace, reconciliation, development, growth, and stability.

The NAP is accompanied by an Executive Order mandating that, within five months, key departments and agencies will develop comprehensive agency-level implementation plans. Secretary Clinton gave two speeches on December 16 and 19 highlighting the critical role of women in building peace around the world, particularly in conflict-affected zones.

In making this promise, the Secretary also committed nearly $44 million in U.S. funding to a set of initiatives designed to empower women, with a large share of the funding to support civil society groups that focus on women in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been adamant that rights of Afghan women will not be sacrificed.

Resolution 1888 was a major achievement for the Administration because it established a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict as well as a team of experts to support accountability mechanisms targeting impunity for rape as a weapon of war. The Special Representative position is currently held by Margot Wallstrom.

Resolution 1960, passed at U.S. urging last December, further empowered the UN to address sexual violence in armed conflict by establishing monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements, and mandating annual reports to the Security Council on progress towards implementing resolution 1888.

Today we are continuing to work hand in hand with Special Representative Margot Wallstrom to lead and coordinate efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence against women and children.

The United States is also playing a leading role, along with international partners, in supporting empowerment of women, within the UN system, through our participation in the Commission on the Status of Women. The theme of the spring 2011 UN Commission on the Status of Women session was “Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science, and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.”

At that Commission meeting, the U.S. pointed out that the emerging green economy is shaping employment opportunities, and women can gain a stronger position in the workforce through green jobs. The Department of Labor is leading efforts domestically along with policy-makers, employers, workforce professionals, educators, and trainers to focus their efforts on having women participate in and benefit from the new green economy. Women have made great strides in some male-dominated occupations, but still make up only a small portion of the workers in these jobs.

At the Spring session, and with the goal of further advancing the capacity of women in addressing climate change policy, our delegation led by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, announced a new international exchange program, which will target women climate leaders from the developing world and the critical role they play in developing climate-related policies.

Participants will travel to the United States for three weeks to learn about the development of new policies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as information about cutting edge small scale clean technologies and how to promote women’s entrepreneurship opportunities and markets for them in their countries.

Building on the Administrations’ strong commitment to expand educational exchanges and new opportunities in entrepreneurship and science, the U.S. launched the TechWomen Program in 2011 to promote professional development and sustainable relationships for women technology leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the most prominent U.S. technology companies are committed to participating in the program. Last summer we saw the first graduates from this program, thirty-seven women from places such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the West Bank and Gaza. Building on the success of the TechWomen program Secretary Clinton also announced a similar initiative called TechGirls that will bring teenage girls from the Middle East and North Africa for educational programming in the United States.

Earlier this month, we commemorated the Ninth Annual International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. Female genital mutilation/cutting occurs in many countries around the world transcending cultures and religions. In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the procedure carries with it severe short and long-term health risks: including hemorrhaging; infection, including increased risk of HIV transmission; birth complications; and even death. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed, violence toward women and girls isn't cultural -- it's criminal. We have supported efforts to abandon this egregious practice since the early 1990s, and consider it not only a public health issue, but a violation of women's rights and dignity.

Challenges like FMG reveal why institutions like the UN are essential. Through multilateral engagement, we can exchange ideas and rally international support to address these issues.

Before concluding, I want to highlight the Obama administration’s firm commitment to working with the United Nations and international partners, as well as the NGO and private sector communities to advance the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women. President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy recognized 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 lag behind.”

We know our goal to empower women and girls is an historic effort that will not be achieved overnight. It will require persistence and a long-term commitment of the United States and international community to realize the lasting change we seek for women and girls on a global scale.

I will end there. I look forward to your questions and comments.


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