Center for American Progress

Continuing Former Secretary of State Clinton’s Efforts to Elevate the Global Status of Women and Girls Is a Must

Continuing Former Secretary of State Clinton’s Efforts to Elevate the Global Status of Women and Girls Is a Must

Taking the baton from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, John Kerry must ensure that women’s issues remain center stage in world affairs.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, accompanied by then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), left, talks about the START Treaty on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 17, 2010. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, accompanied by then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), left, talks about the START Treaty on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 17, 2010. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

During her four years as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a global advocate for women’s rights and championed the security, health, and empowerment of women and girls throughout her record-breaking number of trips and meetings with world leaders and communities around the world. Her leadership and well-known personal interest in these issues dismantled silos and integrated women’s and girls’ issues across programs and offices at the State Department. But the promotion of international women’s issues as a key component of U.S. diplomatic and development efforts cannot begin and end with Secretary Clinton’s personal interest and hard work.

Newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry can ensure that the initiatives and funding for women’s and girls’ issues championed by former Secretary Clinton continue over the next four years. Kerry’s record as a senator and his past statements on international women’s issues are promising, and the institutional framework established by former Secretary Clinton is sturdy. Moving forward, Secretary Kerry will have the opportunity to further integrate international women’s issues into effective diplomatic and development strategies that recognize the direct importance of women’s empowerment to global economic progress and stability.

Looking back

Advocating for equal rights and opportunities for women is not only morally aligned with American values, but it is the right path forward for successful societies. Research shows that communities are prosperous when they promote women’s health, security, and economic, social, and political empowerment, both in the United States and around the world. Secretary Clinton took this as a guiding principle in her work at the State Department and paved the way for women’s issues to be a central component in U.S. development and diplomacy, stating that “The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women’s rights in every country, on every continent.”  The first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues were two of the former secretary’s early moves toward a comprehensive approach to women’s issues.

Secretary Clinton tapped Melanne Verveer to lead the effort as the first-ever ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s issues, tasked with the job of integrating women’s issues into U.S. foreign policy. Under Ambassador Verveer’s leadership, the Office of Global Women’s Issues oversaw the development of two women’s security strategies—the Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally and the Implementation Plan of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. The broad frameworks provide U.S. government agencies, embassies, and consulates guidance on protecting women around the world. The two strategies recognize that women cannot progress politically or economically unless they are safe and protected from violence and conflict.

Moreover, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review commissioned by Secretary Clinton stated that women should be central to U.S. development and diplomacy and listed six specific areas in which women should be a key consideration, including sustainable economic growth, food security, global health, climate change, democracy and governance, and humanitarian assistance.

In addition to these overarching institutional directives, the State Department established various partnerships with both nongovernmental organizations and private companies to promote women’s economic empowerment. Secretary Clinton began the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership to discuss the advancement of women in international business and economic policy globally with American and foreign leaders of both private and public organizations. She also championed for the inclusion of women in economic growth in multiple meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, asserting that “We need the economic engine that women can provide in every one of our countries, and I pledge that the United States will continue to work with you as a partner as we make progress together.”

The Women’s Entrepreneurship in Americas, or WEAmericas, which works with public and private partners to train women entrepreneurs and help them launch small- and medium-sized enterprises throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, is an example of the United States’ commitment to women’s economic empowerment. The Techwomen program also provides support for emerging women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math from the Middle East and Africa for a professional mentorship and exchange program with women in the United States. This initiative is coordinated by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, demonstrating that women’s issues have diffused across departments and do not stay solely within the Office of Global Women’s Issues.

More recently, Secretary Clinton launched several initiatives in October 2012 on the eve of the first International Day of the Girl Child to protect girls from child marriage and promote education, including a pilot program in Bangladesh to address child marriage and ensuring schooling for thousands of adolescent girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Along with the Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative and the Techie Exchange Program for Teenage Girls, the State Department has shown its commitment to girls as well as women.

The cross-cutting nature of women’s issues in the State Department’s overall work is perhaps the most important legacy that Secretary Clinton leaves behind—more than one standout program or initiative among many. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review highlighted the need for greater integration of women’s issues across development and diplomacy programs and there is evidence that this is happening. From the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID , to the various bureaus, the action plans and programs across the State Department reveal awareness that men and women are affected differently in U.S. foreign policy and development initiatives, and we must actively engage with women and girls to promote the progress of women globally. The further institutionalization of women’s issues at the State Department is the task for Secretary Kerry.

Looking forward

While Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Verveer—now heading Georgetown’s Institute on Women, Peace, and Security—have left office, they leave behind a legacy of institutionalizing the importance of international women’s issues in American diplomacy and development policy. On January 30, Secretary Clinton’s penultimate day in office, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum on the “Coordination of Policies and Programs to Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls Globally.” This memorandum plays a key role in promoting the institutionalization of international women’s issue going forward by directing the secretary of state to appoint a coordinator with the rank of ambassador-at-large to run the Office of Global Women’s Issues—providing an enduring upgrade in status to the position formerly held by Ambassador Verveer. The next ambassador heading the Office of Global Women’s Issues will continue to report directly to Secretary Kerry as well.

Moreover, the memo enhances the institutionalization of international women’s issues across the foreign policy apparatus. It also orders USAID to maintain a senior coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment to “provide guidance to the USAID administrator in identifying, developing, and advancing key opportunities for U.S. development assistance.” What’s more, the memo directs the National Security staff to work with the White House Council on Women and Girls and the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues to form an interagency working group that will “develop and coordinate Government-wide implementation of policies to promote gender equality and advance the status of women and girls internationally.” This group will include “senior representatives” of major cabinet agencies, including the State and Defense Departments, the intelligence community, and development agencies such as USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peace Corps.

Secretary Kerry therefore has clear presidential guidance to continue the work begun by Secretary Clinton, and he has vowed to maintain “the momentum Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Verveer have built through their innovative office and laser-like focus.” But as with any endeavor, vigorous implementation will be critical to maintaining and increasing that momentum. Secretary Kerry’s Senate record, however, gives hope that implementation will not be lacking going forward.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Kerry sponsored and led the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act of 2010 out of his committee. In addition to codifying programmatic and emergency response plans to violence against women abroad, this legislation would have written into law many of the provisions institutionalizing international women’s issues in government agencies contained in President Obama’s executive memorandum. Unfortunately, then-Sen. Kerry’s international violence against women legislation failed to receive a vote in the full Senate. But Secretary Kerry now has an equally important opportunity to implement and further institutionalize many of the goals he pushed for in that legislation as head of the State Department.

In addition to this important, albeit failed, piece of legislation, Senator Kerry supported moves upgrading the importance of women’s issues in international forums and American foreign policy. He issued statements supporting the creation of a consolidated U.N. Agency for Women, condemning attacks against girls in Afghanistan, and applauding additional funding to combat gender-based violence through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, program. As Planned Parenthood recognized when his nomination was announced, “Senator Kerry has been a consistent supporter of women and their access to health care here in the U.S. and around the world.”

Since becoming secretary of state, Kerry has maintained the rhetorical commitment to international women’s empowerment established by Secretary Clinton. In major public remarks at the University of Virginia, for example, he noted “that countries are, in fact, more peaceful and prosperous when women and girls are afforded full rights and equal opportunity.” Similarly, speaking at USAID, Kerry said that in Afghanistan “we can be proud that even as we’re engaging the government and working to build their capacity of governance, we are also building it around a set of principles that are our values about those opportunities women ought to have.”

In the near term there are some important issues to watch that will indicate whether Secretary Kerry is following through on the institutional legacy of Secretary Clinton. First and likely most visible will be the implementation of President Obama’s memorandum, especially the appointment of a replacement for Ambassador Verveer as head of the Office of Global Women’s Issues. The formation of the interagency working group on international women’s issues will also be a critical signal of continued forward momentum. On more specific policy issues, further international initiatives on violence against women and, in particular, efforts to maintain the status of women in Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S. military forces and negotiations for a political settlement will serve as important indicators.

Secretary Kerry faces a daunting array of issues in his first weeks and months as America’s chief diplomat, from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s civil war and fortifying relations with Europe while increasing attention to Asia and the Pacific. But these challenges do not obviate the imperative of building on the institutional and programmatic legacy on international women’s issues left by Secretary Clinton. This legacy serves as a sturdy foundation on which Secretary Kerry can build and strengthen the role international women’s issues play in American diplomacy and development policy.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress. Arpita Bhattacharyya is a Research Assistant on the Executive Team at the Center. The authors would like to thank Rachel Curley, intern on the Executive team, for her help on this column.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Arpita Bhattacharyya

Policy Analyst