Ambassador Melanne Verveer
At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).
Blessing Nyong Ikpa (BI): First of all, Ambassador Verveer, could you tell us more about yourself?
Ambassador Melanne Verveer (MV): I am here talking to you at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security . We were established five years ago to focus on issues affecting women in peace and security. We know about the 1325 mandate from the United Nations Security Council, but the reality has been that progress is slow in terms of women’s participation, whether in peace negotiations, in peacebuilding and recovery, on the protection side, etc. We were established to engage in research to demonstrate what a difference women’s participation makes. We make the point that women’s participation is critically important to advancing peace and security. Prior to my coming here, I was the first US ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, where we focused in our state department and diplomatic work on women’s participation and perspectives. Prior to that I had started an NGO called Vital Voices - Global Partnership, which invested in emerging women leaders. That evolved from earlier work I had done as chief of staff to First Lady Hillary Clinton.
BI: When did you first decide that you wanted to work on gender issues? Did a particular person or an event inspire your initial interest in gender?
MV: I was, as a youngster, very interested in politics and public life. I grew up in a time when our young president said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It was when the Peace Corps was born and it was a time of embracing of politics as a way to make a difference. I did all my undergraduate and graduate studies here at Georgetown University. At the time I was focused on Russian studies, but my heart was always in politics.
When I got to the White House as Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, she was increasingly engaged on gender issues. I think one of the pivotal events in my life and her work was the Fourth UN World Conference on Women . Preparing for her to go to China was a mission fraught with all kinds of crocodiles. The right wing said she shouldn't be going to China, that the conference was going to destroy family values, etc. The Human Rights community, on the other side, was saying she shouldn't go to China because they are a major opponent of human rights. But a lot was riding on the conference in terms of progress for women globally.
Previous conferences had begun to make major changes that were affecting women’s lives in a positive way, and hopefully this one would take it that much farther, chiseling women’s rights into human rights law once and for all. The First Lady was coming at the invitation of the Secretary General of the UN and her speech was a closely held one. She got up in front of that enormous crowd of people in Beijing, where over 180 countries were represented, and she went through a litany of violations that occur against women all over the globe from honour killings to human trafficking, from killing a girl baby just because she's born a girl, to rape as a tool of war, to dowry burnings, to domestic violence and punctuated each of these violations by saying: “This is a violation of human rights.” It was a major moment in terms of understanding that women’s rights are absolutely critical, essential, and need to be part of international law.
I heard stories about how at the State Department,where they were working on human rights, and some wanted to work on female genital mutilation. Prior to this time, they were told “we don't work on issues like that”. These issues - what was happening to women in terms of violations of their human rights -
began to have a place they hadn't had and, certainly, governments became responsible for the protection of all of their citizens. So while it was African women who, at the Nairobi conference, began to put violence against women on the agenda, it was now very clear that governments had a responsibility and obligation to protect all of their citizens and that meant protecting women from violence. It was no longer a private matter, it was a cultural matter and a criminal matter that the states had responsibilities to prosecute and address.
BI: It seems like there was a big gap in time between the Beijing conference and the creation of your position as Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Was there something that sparked President Obama’s decision to create that position and integrate gender issues as part of US foreign policy?
MV: There were efforts in Congress to create a position like this, but it never really got anywhere. I have to believe, although I don't know the complete story, that a certain Secretary of State who was very mindful of why these were critical issues and had to play a role in our development work, in our diplomatic work, and in our work in the defense department, was influential in the position being created. She spoke with the President and got an agreement that we should create a position. Creating a position isn't the end all, but rather the beginning. It was a very symbolic move to say yes this does belong in the heart of our foreign policy, but then it was how that role evolved and what we were able to do, to demonstrate why it was important to do it.
BI: What were some of the biggest priorities that you had during your time as an Ambassador?
MV: I always used to say, and still do, that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. That's certainly true in the work of the state department, which is all about facing the world. Progress for women was uneven around the world and there were things that we could do and should do, whether it is access to education and to healthcare, women's economic participation, political participation, being free from violence, ending discriminatory practices. At the State Department, just to give you examples, economics was an issue area that the state grappled with and we had a number of platforms as part of our work coming together as nations. One of them while I was there was APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which is the coming together of 20 economies that hug the Pacific. One of my colleagues, the Ambassador to APEC for the United States, came to me and he said: “There is this conference coming up in Japan; are you going to send anybody?” I said “Why should we?” I had been looking at the materials of the platform of APEC and there was no reference to the role that women play in the economy. At the same time we knew from the growth in research and evidence-based work, contributed to by multilateral organisations from the UN to the World Bank, that women's economic role was absolutely critical if we wanted to grow GDP. The data was also telling us that in this region alone billions of dollars were being lost in economic opportunity, because half of the population wasn't tapped to the degree that it could be and should be. I said “Can we do anything about it? Can we move the agenda forward?” So long story short, I did go to Japan, I did have an opportunity to talk to the ambassadors of these representative economies and this issue began to make its way on the agenda. We had some very salient contributions, for example by Kathy Matsui on “ Womenomics ”, a study that correlated the Japanese economy’s growth with moving gender issues Forward.
The following year the APEC conference was in the United States and we really moved in a very significant way to add women in the economy to the agenda. There is still a lot of work that’s going on in this space, focused on women entrepreneurs, how to overcome barriers like lack of markets, barriers to training and to capital.
All of this contributed to the new mantra that progress for women isn't just the right thing to do. Investing in women and girls is fundamentally about equality and women’s rights, but it is also the smart thing to do. There were still many people, decision makers in government, mostly men, but certainly women too, who don’t see why these issues are central to what they are doing and I think that’s one of the differences an evidence-based case provides. How do you ignore evidence? If you really want to make progress, then you have got to factor that in.
BI: You were integral to the creation of the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Can you talk more about the process, and the status of its implementation now?
MV: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and its subsequent resolutions advised States to put together a National Action Plan (NAP) for how 1325 would be integrated into their operations. Some operations would be world facing, other operations would be post-conflict. In our case, it was focused on how do we do our diplomatic mission better if we factor in the perspective of women and their participation in issues having to do with peace and security. In those days it was about what we were doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Sri Lanka - all of those places where we were engaged in significant ways, and needed to include women and their perspectives if we were to reach the kinds of solutions we wanted to see in those countries. It wasn't an exercise to develop a plan, it was a relevant plan that was to impact our ongoing work. When the President promulgated the NAP, which was accompanied by an executive order, he said this means we do our diplomacy differently, our development work differently, we do our defense work differently in terms of training soldiers in other countries, in terms of our anti-sexual violence policies, in terms of really understanding that women have a critical role to play in peace and security. It is now up to leadership and the advocacy community to use the tools that the NAP represented, and especially internally for government employees and decision makers of all stripes, to factor the NAP into their work as appropriate.
BI: As you have served in the past as representative on gender issues on the status of women to the UN, but also you are currently the Special Representative on Gender Issues to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE ), could you talk briefly about how you see these international organizations affecting the foreign policy of their member states?
MV: That’s a good question, because clearly the member states come together in this umbrella and the organization works towards achieving certain goals. Take the OSCE, it operates under three dimensions. There is an economic dimension, a security dimension and a human dimension, which is basically human rights. That all dovetails with the mission of the OSCE in terms of security and economic co-operation in Europe that came out of the Helsinki Accords preceding this.
The OSCE has special teams that monitor Eastern Ukraine , for example, and other conflicts including Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or Georgia . We see there is much work that must continue to happen and that work has a gender overlay, whether it is in female mediators, or focal points having to do with the gender of the monitors, or women who are getting involved to influence those conflict areas and how they can be supported. It is taking this larger understanding, some member states are far ahead of others in how they look at these issues, but the mission of the overall multilateral remains, and how we affect that mission is part of the cajoling and the negotiating and the work that goes on.
BI: Can you talk more about your position here at the Institute as the Executive Director and the priorities of the Institute as well?
MV: Our main priority is to create an evidence-based case, because I think there are still a lot of sceptics who don't quite grasp what role women have in preventing conflict or in affecting the outcome of peace negotiations, or even why they should participate in them. There have been very few women in formal peace talks for example, but when we look at where women have played a role, whether as part of a negotiating team as they did in the Philippines or in Northern Ireland, and what issues they bring to those negotiations, what difference it makes – we find they are instrumental in moving the discussions or the outcomes forward.
At the Institute we look at the range of ways that women's participation has impact and why countries should learn from that in terms of their own work in the space. We have conducted dozens of research studies. Last year we promulgated the first ever Women Peace and Security Index that looked at the condition of women not just through the lens of inclusion - which is important to consider how women are included in education, in the economy, etc. - but also how women access justice and how secure they are. How are women discriminated against? What are the rates of domestic violence? You can have high numbers in girls education, but if she cannot go to school safely, or confronts problems in her own home in terms of her personal security that is going to impact her condition. What we know is that gender equality is a major contributing factor to growing instability and potential conflict. We have to understand the condition of women. What this study does is ranks 98% of the countries (and that’s all the countries from whom we could get data and populations) in terms of those that are doing best in terms of enhancing women's conditions and those that are at the bottom. Most of those at the bottom are countries that are now in conflict.
Georgetown is a global university; our reputation is global and so we can bring top decision makers to our campus in Washington, DC and elevate these issues in the eyes of important people. And then, of course, we work with the next generation of leaders. We have got a lot of top talent here, a lot of the students are interested in this area.
BI: I am just graduating and trying to figure out what to do next. What advice do you have for young women, women of colour, or other people of marginalised communities in terms of working in the foreign policy field?
MV: I would say get the best education you can get and learn all you can, which doesn't end the day you graduate. Join networks and be in those places where you can stretch yourself and know what's happening and have that kind of solidarity with others. I would say passion. What is your passion? Develop that as best as you can because I think knowing yourself and what you deeply, deeply care about you will really impact a lot of the decisions you make and how you participate.
I wrote a book with a friend called Fast Forward and the reason we wrote the book was to make the case that if we are going to make greater progress, and women and girls are to make greater progress, we have got to do a lot more than we have been doing. Fast Forward’s premise is that we all have to contribute in this space, each of us. If we follow our passion and figure out what it is we want to do, we all have power. We have got power as students, in entry-level positions, and we certainly have power at the top. We illustrate a lot of the ways that no matter where women have found themselves—and with the good men who support them—they have really made a difference in how they've utilised their power. Besides knowing your power and your passion it is connecting with others. That is what we do today, we can connect in all kinds of ways, including all over the world through social media. I think it is knowing what you really like and the kind of change you want to be a part of that will ultimately enable you to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.
Interview by Blessing Ikpa, former volunteer staff at CFFP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The interview was transcripted by Leonie Schmid, who is a volunteer staff in the Communications team.