Interview with Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Recipient of ICRW’s 2013 Champions for Change Leadership Award

Article Date

11 November 2013

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, currently Executive Director for the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, served as the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, a position to which she was nominated by President Obama in 2009. In her position, she traveled to nearly 60 countries, coordinating foreign policy issues and activities relating to the political, economic and social advancement of women around the world.

Ambassador Verveer is the recipient of ICRW’s Champions for Change Award for her lifetime of contributions to women and girls globally. ICRW sat down with Ambassador Verveer to talk about her experience, current challenges women are facing, and what can be done to advance women and girls in the coming decade.

Can you tell us about your experience, major milestones and challenges you faced in your role as the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues?

First of all, the mission I was given was to integrate these gender issues across the work of the State Department. Whether working in Africa or Europe, the integrative model was very important.

Secondly, we made major policy advances of the integrative model- women’s economic participation was taken to a new level with respect to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), across the board, we had a very strong women’s participation focus. I think we made great strides engaging women in the process at a time when everyone is trying to grow their economies.

Another major point of consideration is adapting the first ever U.S. National Action Plan On Women, Peace and Security, which focuses on protecting women as agents of peace, and involving them in preventing, and resolving conflict. That had implications across the board, and all over the world. Another area was creating a strategy on gender-based violence and how to combat it globally. Those are the policy areas.

My observation the last four years reinforced what I saw – women are at the forefront of change in every place. And that as actors for change there’s a great deal that they can do, and they certainly deserve our support. One of the impressions we wanted to underscore was that of women as leaders – not as victims.

What do you think is the most pressing under-reported issue right now on women and girls?

I think there are a number of things – certainly the extent of violence against women and girls. We see the jarring headlines of reports of violence against women in Africa, India, and so on. However, the fact is that this is a global scourge. We need governments to address it at the highest levels in terms of its implications. And the role that women play in moving economies, promoting social progress, participating in politics, and decision-making – it is all still underrepresented. These issues do not have the focus that they deserve from the highest level of decision makers.

We know how important education is for girls – and how prohibitive some of the obstacles are to accessing it.  And stories like Malala’s have brought even more attention to the issue as of late.  What are some of the solutions you’ve seen that are helping more girls stay in school?

Certainly one thing – especially places where girls face tough challenges because of parent’s views and customs, places where boys get all the benefits – we need to make more of an effort in creating incentives to send girls to school. For instance, cash transfers have been extremely effective to ensure girls get sent to school.

It is vital that decision makers comprehend the benefits of educating girls, whether it is the ability to earn more in the workforce to the nutrition of their children – the benefits to society are enormous. The number of girls who have access to education is still much less than the number of boys. We have been doing a good job comparatively, but we have to ensure quality and ensure girls go through secondary education. This is a huge gap we need to close.

How has the shift been from your role as Ambassador to your new one as Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security?

I always say the way I move my chair or the way I change office is always going to be tied to issues that I care about. Though I have left the State Department, I still have a strong focus on many of the issues I worked on – issues of women, security and peacemaking, and the role of women in working to stabilize societies in post-conflict zones.

My focus here is to put a spotlight on how critical their role is in resolving conflict and shaping major political transitions from conflict to peace.  Women’s agency is absolutely critical and this is one area where there is a great deal of progress to be made.

What can be done to better protect women and girls’ security?  And what role do you think research can play in furthering peace and security for women and society?

This is something ICRW understands well, works to understand what’s working and what is not through evaluation, measurement, and by creating indicators. That’s what we’re doing here at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, working to ensure we have good research, scholarship, and data, to make the case more significant.

How does the inclusion of women’s voices shape more secure, more peaceful societies?

We know the role women played in Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Liberia, and many other places worldwide – we know they have a strategic role to play. We need to ensure that this experience is not only documented for what it represents, but to ensure that lessons learned and best practices can help those who are dealing with comparable challenges in other places.

How do you respond to those who may regard women’s issues as marginal?

It’s a real problem. We are not talking about a special interest group. We are talking about half of the worlds population. Their rights need to be protected. Working to advance the rights of women is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart and strategic thing to do. If there were a better grasp of the latter, maybe there would be better efforts in terms of moving these issues from the margins to the center where they belong. We can address challenges and resolve conflicts as long as women are truly participating and we are tapping their talents and potential.

What do you think are some of the major challenges that must be addressed in order to make more progress towards advancing women and girls in the coming decades?

We are at a particularly important time; soon we are going to mark the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing in 1995, where 185 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for the advancement of women around the world. Now is the time to look at the progress made and the distance we have yet to travel.

Similarly, we are collecting new information with the process laid out by members of the High-level Panel that the Secretary General adopted to look at the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and advise on the next development framework as we come to this point by which they are to be achieved. The High-Level Panel has done a report, others are commenting and absorbing it, and its focus will provide a better understanding of where we are and where we need to go.

The world has changed; a lot of progress has been made although it’s been uneven. We have new tools available and this provides us with the opportune time to recommit ourselves to the important goals of advancing progress for women and girls everywhere.