What were the major challenges and opportunities you encountered during your tenure as the former (first-ever) U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues? 

I think first we need to put the position in context. As Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, it was important [for me] to integrate issues affecting gender throughout the work of the State Department. It was not an office to be siloed, if you will, [or] just to work on specific projects, but an office that really was to be integrated into the overall mission of our foreign policy operations. That meant affecting economic policy, conflict and stabilization issues, human rights, etc. 

In terms of the challenges, I think the challenge that we all find in this space still, although I believe it is changing, is that “women’s issues” tend to be marginalized and not viewed as significant - not insignificant - but certainly not viewed as critical to foreign policy. 

So, one of the most important challenges was working with my colleagues across the Department to demonstrate that bringing in the “gender-lens” or women’s participation would enable their work to be that much more effective. It would enable us, collectively, to have better outcomes. We really could not address issues ranging from the economy to security, ranging from the climate to governance, unless women were fully participatory. So the integration of these issues throughout foreign policy was certainly a fundamental challenge but also an important opportunity. 

I think we also worked to enable a greater understanding of why these issues, [(women’s issues)], are critical. Certainly, they are a matter of human rights, a moral imperative, but many decision-makers are not moved by the rights argument. Therefore, it was also important to make the point—as we increasingly can because of a growing body of research and data—that this is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart and strategic thing. We had to demonstrate how these issues contributed to operational effectiveness: why investments in women’s economic participation or inclusion in peace-building and security contributed to better outcomes.

Can you give our readers examples of countries in which women are playing an active role in post-conflict reconstruction or other peace and security efforts? 

On the range of issues affecting peace and security, women are on the frontlines of change around the world. In Colombia, for example, the Peace Agreement that was adopted recently was the product of women’s extensive participation in the peace process.

There were decades of on-and-off efforts to achieve an end to hostilities in the Western Hemisphere’s longest-extending conflict that lasted over fifty years. The women organized a summit at one point— a critical juncture— and determined that they needed to push a peace process forward, which they did, and they offered suggestions on key issues. 

If you look at the agreement, it covers issues having to do, for example, with transitional justice. The women’s participation on this was critical, in their testimony and in their responses to the decisions as they were being put forth. The agreement reached provides a model both in the structure that was adopted (a sub commission on gender) and in the provisions, for example, relating to sexual violence in the conflict and transitional justice.

We can also look at the Arab Spring, (which did not turn out to be a “spring”). The role that women in Tunisia played in drafting the constitution was dispositive in many ways. There was an effort to delete gender equality from the existing constitution and to replace it with “complementarily,” but the women came together, both those in the Constituent Assembly and those who demonstrated in massive numbers, to prevent that from occurring. 

I really could go on and on. Yesterday, at the United Nations, I participated on a panel that included women who came together from eastern and southern Europe and central Asia—a region with many ongoing conflicts— to begin a process of understanding across divisions, a process in peace-making. They were working to understand each others’ perspective and to try to move forward in some small way the peace processes in their respective areas that were at a standstill.

Women across the world have spent countless decades fighting for gender equality and female empowerment. You, yourself, have spent more than twenty years in this space. What inspired you to become the champion that you are for women, not only in the U.S., but around the world? 

In many ways, this is true the world over: women are struggling for their rights. If you look back at our own history, in the United States, to the time of the Equal Rights Convention that took place in upstate New York, in Seneca Falls, [you will see] that women were struggling at that time for the right to vote, the right to keep the meager wages that they earned, the right to have better access to education, and the right to be able to get divorced if they were in a terrible marriage. I heard recently that there was only one survivor of the “equal rights journey” to Seneca Falls, who was alive when the right to vote was achieved. So these, in many ways, are long-time struggles.

I think I was most inspired to work on these issues because of my experiences in the White House when Hillary Clinton was First Lady. In 1995, the 4th world conference on women was taking place in Beijing and she was invited to give a keynote address. Tens of thousands of women from all over the world had gathered in Beijing, both in the official conference and in the NGO gathering that took place outside of Beijing.

Today, when you hear that she said, “Women’s rights are human rights,” you probably ask, what is so novel about that? Back then women’s rights were still not included in international law and efforts were being made to underscore that women are indeed human and “women’s rights are human rights.”

States did not have an obligation to protect their citizens from domestic violence. It was the fist time that violence against women was recognized as a violation of human rights. When the First Lady, in her address, recited a list of horrors perpetrated against women— from honor killings to rape as a tool of war—she punctuated each by saying, “This is a violation of human rights.” Women, who had long struggled to have these actions recognized as the crimes they were, reacted instantly and positively to her message. 

Having a powerful leader from the US say these things and witnessing the reaction of the audience—one of instant identification with her call to action—had a profound effect on me. We have to continue the struggle to ensure that women’s rights are protected in the law and enforced. Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world, this is about women everywhere. Women came to recognize that although we have many differences among us, we have more in common than separates us. 

A woman in her village knows very well, even if she’s never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that she should not be abused. 

In your opinion, what remains the most pressing issues of concern for girls and women around the world? 

We have seen considerable progress. You saw that in the evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals. For example, the gender gap in primary education for girls is almost closed, but adolescent education still has a ways to go. There is much yet to be achieved. 

In women’s political participation there is also a long way to go. It remains the hardest gap to close. Yet, there is some progress. Quotas adopted in some places have enabled women to be elected to office where it would otherwise have been almost impossible. 

When women are shortchanged in the political process, public policy is deprived of women’s talents, perspectives and experience— which should be brought to and inform decision-making. At the same time the decisions that are made without women’s participation affect them and their families. 

In many places the numbers of women in elective office remain very small. In the United States Congress, women comprise only about 20%. There are a few countries where women form a critical mass—30%—in the parliaments. In India’s village councils, the panchayats, the quota has made a positive difference for the communities. Studies show that public resources are spent on sanitation, education, health, etc: on projects that benefit the people. It is critical that greater progress be made on women’s political participation. 

Violence against women is a global scourge. Many countries have passed laws but they are too often not implemented or resourced. We also know that women play a crucial role in peace processes to end hostilities and sustain peace. Yet, there are few women still in a position to effect decisions on peace and security. Growing research demonstrates that where women are influential in peace processes, conflicts end sooner and peace is longer lasting. On the other hand, where they are not, half the peace agreements that are adopted are abrogated in the first five years after enactment. 

We do have a road yet to travel, but that is not to discount the good work that has gone on, and the progress that has been made. You are benefitting from the progress that women ahead of you have made in our own country. But that goes on everywhere in the world: some are farther ahead, some are farther behind, but I think that there is so much that collectively we still need to be engaged in.

In 2011, you became the Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Can you elaborate on your role and the initiatives the Institute has recently undertaken?

The reason that we were established here is the recognition that even though the United Nations adopted a series of Security Council resolutions linking women’s agency to peace and security as well as the protection of women, the progress in its implementation over the last fifteen years has not been what it should be. Today’s hostilities largely emanate from civil wars instead of the state-on-state wars of the past. For the combatants, rape is often their strategic tool of war and women and girls are largely the targets. 

Women, however, are more than victims. In addition to protection against the sexual violence, the UN resolutions focus on women’s participation in conflict resolution and peace-building. Our work at the Institute has been focused on making the evidence-based case for women’s critical participation in peacemaking. We published a study called “Women Leading Peace,” in which we examined four different conflicts— Northern Ireland, Guatemala, Kenya and the Philippines— and showed that women played key roles in varying ways, from participating directly in the peace talks to working through civil society. 

Also, we work to bridge the gap between academic scholarship and policy-making. In bridging theory and practice, we bring experts and practitioners together to grapple with some of the most pressing issues with the hope that it will benefit decision makers, as well as the research that is undertaken. We also put a spotlight on these issues through public convenings in the United States and other parts of the world focusing on some of major issues of our time.

It is all with a focus on making the case for the role of women in peace and security. 

As I am sure you are aware, President Trump recently reinstated the Mexico City policy, otherwise known as the “global gag rule.” How do you think this will affect women’s safety and health in nations around the world? 

This is obviously a very serious issue. Family planning is a critical unmet need in much of the world. Over 200 million women still have critical needs that are not being met. When Melinda Gates, for example, became engaged in the leadership of the Gates Foundation, she engaged in extensive conversations with women in many of the developing countries and realized how critical access to family planning is for them to better themselves and their families.

The global “Gag Rule” aggravates an already difficult situation. Those who have promoted it have done so with the goal of ending abortion. In fact, abortion rates go down when there is access to reproductive health care and family planning. 

When I worked with Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, I saw the stark implications of government’s intervention in this area. In Romania, the dictator Ceausescu mandated that women bear children in great numbers. We saw the rooms where women had been examined every month to ascertain that they were indeed bearing children to fulfill the government’s command. On the other hand, in China where the One Child Policy was in effect, abortions were coerced to address deviations from the rule. Government does not belong in these decisions. 

What efforts, big or small, can young women and men undertake to improve women’s rights around the world?

I think this is such an important question. The engagement of young women and men is critical for the improvement of women’s rights globally. 

I remember so well meeting a group of young men in India who were participating in a project to stem violence against women by staging skits in which men played the parts of men and women. They staged these in villages to demonstrate to men that they should not abuse women. Over time, they realized that they were not only making a difference in helping to reduce violence against women in their communities, but they also realized how much they as men had benefited in improving their own lives. They told me they felt freed from the stereotypical practice of what constitutes manhood. They were liberated from the view that it was somehow the norm to abuse women. In this case, the lives of everyone were improved: the women and the men. 

To engage on these issues is one way to provide meaning and purpose to your lives. One young woman I know in the US started a NGO called “Girls Who Code” that is reaching close to a million young women who ordinarily would not have the opportunity to develop facility in computers. It will change their lives and enable them to more readily access 21st century jobs in the future. Other young women I’ve met started NGOs to enable young women who would not otherwise have been able to go to college. Some are working with young women from overseas and others are working in the United States. We are only limited by our own creativity and our willingness to engage in making a difference. 

The issues you and I have been talking about this afternoon are not just about women and girls, they are really about all of us. Men and boys and the kind of world we want to see. And we will not see that kind of world if only half the population progresses, and the other half of the population is left behind. When we all can make progress, we will have a much better future. So I hope that you and your cohort, male and female, will be increasingly engaged in ways to really make a difference, whether here at home or anywhere in the world.