Melanne Verveer. CREDIT: Billy Pickett.
Melanne Verveer. CREDIT: Billy Pickett.

Economics, Peace, Security, and "Women's Issues" with Ambassador Melanne Verveer

Mar 8, 2018

We have made tremendous progress, but there's still a long way to go, says Melanne Verveer, head of Georgetown's Institute for Women, Peace and Security and former ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. She looks forward to the day when "women's issues" are no longer seen as marginal, but as a mainstream component of peace and prosperity.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I am Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, and joining us today is Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who is the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Before being in this position, Ambassador Verveer was ambassador-at-large for global women's issues under the Obama administration.

Ambassador Verveer, welcome to Ethics Matter. Thanks for joining us.

MELANNE VERVEER: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I am going to start straightaway: How did you embark on this journey of global women's issues?

MELANNE VERVEER: It has been an interesting evolution in some ways. I had been long engaged on public policy issues, civil rights, of course, and when I became the chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, it was during the period when the planning was going forward for the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women. There was some sense of urgency that she should participate, and then the secretary-general asked her, personally invited her, to deliver one of the keynote speeches.

A lot of work went into the preparations, into the outreach around the United States, and into incorporating women at all levels, active in all sectors of society, so that there was a real sense of ownership. But it was not without its controversies either, both on the right and on the left; on the left because it was in China, and on the right because there were all those who said somehow it was going to be an anti-family gathering and create all kinds of terrible things that would befall our society.

But the short story of the long story is that it really was an induction in many ways into the extraordinary stories and journeys of women around the globe. It is so true that in many ways we seem different culturally in terms of backgrounds and views we might espouse, but in most ways we are very similar.

As Hillary Clinton took the podium that day, it was not clear what was going to happen. It was not clear what the reaction would be. But as she got into the stuff of her speech, which was about, "From this day forward, let us proclaim women's rights as human rights," and went through a litany of horrors that befall women around the globe, from not valuing girl babies in many places to honor killings and dowry burnings and rape as a tool of war and domestic violence, you could see the audience completely being touched where they were doing their own work and understanding that so many of them had been working, struggling, and here came somebody, the representative of the United States of America, saying, "This is a violation of human rights."

The reaction was utterly stunning in terms of both the immediate audience in the room that was on their feet applauding across the board. Many of the delegations said, "We came not united, we are leaving united," and then the reaction of the United States in terms of both what she had achieved, one of the newspapers saying it was her finest hour. But what it really was about, and certainly affected me and I would say her, was this resolution that we had to continue doing more in this space.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: This is 22-plus years ago. This was new territory for you in many ways. What do you think has changed? What were things that we took for granted? Now we talk so much about girls' education, about microcredit. It is part of the lingo in the non-governmental organization (NGO) world and in the women's rights world, but we did not know those things then, and it seems like yesterday. How was this new for you?

MELANNE VERVEER: You are so right about that because as I look back and think about some of the things that we were doing within our own government at the time, certainly investments in girls' education, which you so rightly said seems de rigueur today, everybody is talking about it, everybody seems to know it is among the most important investments that can be made because you transform not just the girl but her future family, her community, etc.

Microcredit was something that most people could not tell you what it represented, and today we know it as one of the single most effective ways to lift up the poorest of the poor and move them into economic independence, the great majority of whom are women.

I think we are much more connected today for sure, and it was the realization as these issues were being grappled with that we were in many ways all in this together. I think going from Beijing and seeing a reaction from so many different people across those 180-plus countries, and yet those differences all melded into a collective understanding of what the obligations were to go forward. I think it was that greater connectivity, greater awareness, and a real sense of resolution that from this day forward it could not be the same. After all, women's rights are human rights. Women are human. This is not something marginal to human rights. And we had to begin to work to reflect what that meant.

So when the State Department, for example—there were issues that were by any standard violations of human rights but really were not viewed as human rights those 20-some years ago and today are smack on the human rights agenda. So I think it was an awareness and a real sense of this is a coming together and one of those moments in history that was a spark, and that spark was lit, and that movement continues to this day.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Talking about that spark, sometimes you have to strike it right in the moment. What do you recall about that moment, as soon as you came back after Beijing, that you hit the ground running doing?

MELANNE VERVEER: I recall first of all the reaction. The reaction was so loud in terms of a positive reaction. One must understand that one was juxtaposing that reaction to what preceded us.

Going to Beijing was not something that was going to happen with absolute certitude because there was this opposition both from those on the left who said she should not go to China—it just happened to be a conference in China. It was not an endorsement of China. She in fact raised it in her speech in terms of violations of human rights. And on the right there was this sense that: "Oh, this gathering is going to be anti-family. It is going to create all these negative repercussions, and the taxpayers shouldn't have anything to do with this." So you had this volume of noise in many ways.

We were still clearing the way to do it when a human rights activist in China was imprisoned, Harry Wu. At that moment, it really did not seem as though she would go, but fortuitously he was released, and the trip was made. So you had this buildup, and then to come back to this sense of 'we did the right thing, America did the right thing, we accomplished something.'

Now we are charged with the platform for action that was adopted in Beijing, and it was adopted by 180-plus countries by consensus. It focused on women's economic and political participation, the right for women to be free from violence, to have their legal rights, to have a right to an education, to health. It was that platform that we had endorsed as well as all of the other countries, and now we had an obligation to do right by that in our own country.

What happened was we came back. The president had established a council on women's issues within the White House that reached into all of the agencies. Many felt empowered now to work on issues like childcare, issues that may not have been viewed as something that the Department of Transportation should be looking at or the Department of Health and Human Services. So it was front and center in terms of our own government operations. It was something that was picked up by large numbers of people across the country, particularly women, and it was something that began to demonstrate the force that it represented globally.

The first lady's activities also centered on what was happening around the world, and she traveled to some 60 countries in those years, really re-articulating, echoing, focusing on why these issues mattered and coming in and saying to leaders, "You know, Mr. President, I just saw the most amazing school for girls, or a microcredit bank that was transforming women's lives in your villages." And most of the time, the leaders were not aware of any of this. But instead of castigating them, it was: "It's happening here. Let's grow it, proliferate it, make it affect more people."

I remember vividly years after she had returned to India—she had been to India right before the Women's Conference and spoke out rather significantly on girls' education—there was a new leader, new prime minister, and he said: "You know, Mrs. Clinton, we heard you when you talked about girls' education. Have you looked at my budget that I just propounded?"

She said, "Sir, I don't think I have."

He said, "Well, I want you to know that we are going to invest more in girls' education."

So it was that kind of really trying—

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: The message had been delivered.

MELANNE VERVEER: —to send a message that this mattered. And it was not about an imperative that was issued from the White House, it was more about the fact that this was the right thing to do, and it was indeed the smart thing to do, and that it would be significant to the prosperity of countries and all of their people, men and women.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You were the first to hold the title of U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. What goes into the job description for something like that as a first?

MELANNE VERVEER: The most important aspect of the position, and that was made very clear to me by the secretary when the nomination occurred and I was confirmed by the Senate, that this was to be an integrated issue into the overall operations of the State Department. It was not just some nice women's programs. They are always wonderful, they make some people happy, they are good to do. But that is really not what this was about. It was about how do we take these issues—the participation of women, the perspectives of women—and factor them into everything we were doing in the State Department.

The State Department is engaged in economic activities, it is engaged in human rights, it is engaged in the world in terms of all of the geographies and the fact that in some places there are conflicts that are going on, how do we stabilize those conflicts, just a range of issues. It was appropriate to ensure that this consideration got weighted in terms of those decisions.

Why? For purely ideological reasons? Of course not. It was about making us more effective, ensuring that the outcomes that we wanted to see and however those were manifested would be that much more effective because women's perspectives were brought into full consideration.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So mainstreaming this—

MELANNE VERVEER: Mainstreaming, absolutely mainstreaming, and it is easy to say mainstreaming; it is hard to do mainstreaming. There are always skeptics. This was a new way of thinking in many ways. A big part of my job was persuading my colleagues that this was about all of us and about how we could be much more effective and they could be much more effective in particular in what they were trying to achieve.

I think when you look back and think about all of the challenges that confront our world, the challenges that we at the State Department, that our government is obviously concerned about, whether it has to do with growing economies or it has to do with peace and stability or it has to do with climate or with democratic governance, whatever it is, to write off half the population of the world in achieving those solutions is hardly a sensible approach. Part of our effort had to do with demonstrating, often through an evidence-based case, through data, why it did make a difference and how it made a difference.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Ultimately, this is not just about women having "a seat at the table," an expression that is so commonly used, but it is about decision-making. Talk about this in the political context. How valuable is it to have women involved in political decision-making?

MELANNE VERVEER: It is about a seat at the table, but it is about being effectively functioning at that table and being taken seriously. Take politics, which is the area in which women have made the least progress in terms of advancement. Women have experiences that men do not have. We have perspectives, talents. When they are not tapped, I believe that makes the product that is being created, laws that affect everybody, less than they could be.

In our own Congress in the United States we have about 20 percent women, which is not a great record compared to other places or just for the United States to have that record, but women have come together across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, on a number of issues that would not have been addressed had the women not come together, issues like violence against women. We have a very strong law. Yes, the good men joined them, but women said this is an issue we have to address, and others came forward on both sides as well as those on the outside who were trying to make it happen.

Issues like Title IX. Think of what Title IX has done to unleash women and girls' talents in sports. We are so proud when they come back with the medals and when they have their high levels of achievement. But it would not have been possible had that not been mandated in the laws for public institutions to have equal access to resources, and had it not been for the women and the good men who pushed it forward. You can go through any number of issues like that in our own Congress.

In India, for example, years ago the Indian government mandated a quota for the lowest level of legislative electives, and it was the Panchayat level, local government, the village-level government. Today there are literally tens of thousands of women in Panchayat roles. They are not by any stretch all quota resultants today. They have come in on their own because it has been demonstrated how effective they can be. This has been called a "silent revolution" in democracy in India.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It is like a word of mouth?

MELANNE VERVEER: It is because what has happened in those villages—and I have been to many of them—the women focus on sanitation, they focus on the things the community needs, that they have been pleading for. Education is a primary focus, health needs are being met. Many of these women are not even literate, but they know what needs to be done, and bringing them into this decision-making capacity has made a difference.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It has been transformative, sure.

MELANNE VERVEER: It is not you and I saying it has made a difference. It is the data, it is the research studies that show how their participation has correlated into better outcomes.

It is important to tap all of the talents of our people. The World Economic Forum has not been accused of being a women's organization. It has a lot of the top thinkers on the economy and all kinds of important actors in society. But they put out an annual gender gap report.

Why do they put out a gender gap report? What this report does is measure, look at, the difference between men and women, the gap, if you will, on four metrics: health, education, political participation, and economic participation. Why? Because where the gap is closer to being closed—and nowhere is it closed—those countries where it is closer to being closed are far more economically competitive, far more prosperous, because all of the talents of their people are being tapped.

One of the things we do know today much more than 22 years ago is what the data and research shows, that this is a smart and strategic approach to decision-making, whether it is economic decision-making or political decision-making or in any of those areas that affect society.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Sometimes common sense is challenging to implement, I would think. How is your presence received in cultures where traditions dominate, and yet you might show up with an idea of including women at the political decision-making table, for instance, or in a community or something like that?

MELANNE VERVEER: That is a great question, and I really like your understanding that common sense does not always dominate. But as a representative of the United States, there would always be cordiality. Protocols would be followed. But I often had the sense of maybe a little bit of condescension just because of the portfolio I had.

I remember several times where a leader would say something like, "You know, it's such a pleasure to meet you, but I have a very busy schedule today, and while I'd like to spend a little time, there is this young woman on my staff who'll engage in a conversation with you, and I'm sure you'll cover everything you want to cover."


MELANNE VERVEER: And I would say something like, "Well, you know, Mr. President or Mr. Minister, it's really too bad because I wanted to talk to you about growing your economy here." And all of a sudden the conversation changes. Somehow that is an important message whereas anything that was contextualized with "women" was not so strong.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Because what is the perception? What might you be talking about as a women's issue that can be misconstrued as simply a women's issue?

MELANNE VERVEER: I think that is exactly right, these things that women want to talk about and think about, which by many are viewed, frankly, as marginal.

I remember going to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, this is the platform of the economies of the Asia-Pacific region. It is a very powerful group. It includes the United States and China, but it also includes a number of smaller countries.

My colleague at the State Department had come to me, and he said, "Are you sending anybody from your staff to the APEC conference?"

I said, "Well, I looked at the agenda, and I don't see anything relevant to what we're doing, but there is much that we could do." For example, there was all kinds of data about how much the region was losing in economic growth because the potential of women was not tapped.

I said, "Is there anything we could do?"

And he said, "Well, you could come to Japan"—which had the chair that year, it was a rotating country chair—"and you could make a pitch to my ambassador colleagues about women and the economy."

So I said, "Okay, I'll go."

As I sit here, I remember the reaction, this sea of representatives. I talked about issues having to do with the data on women's economic participation, how women spend their resources, what we know in terms of correlations between that economic activity and outcomes.

The first person, a gentleman, came up to me and said, "My, you talked about economics."

And I thought, What a strange reaction. Maybe he thought I was going to talk about—


MELANNE VERVEER: —a women's manifesto or the feminist something or other.


MELANNE VERVEER: But it was language that resonated with what they were about, and today that is a major part of the APEC agenda because we know how critical women's entrepreneurship is to growing economies. We know what this does in terms of jobs creation and raising incomes. We know what a difference it makes for societies. And Japan, of all places, has "womenomics" as a pillar of their economic platform for reform of their government's economic structures.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That is pretty ironic, though. We talk so much about the fact that women gain enormous independence as soon as they are financially independent. They can make decisions on their own. Is there an education to be made to men about this newfound autonomy, be it in microcredit or in any other way? What has that been like?

MELANNE VERVEER: That is a great question, because men are absolutely essential to what everyone involved is hoping to achieve, not just male champions but male beneficiaries. This is about society. I wish there was a different way sometimes of describing these issues other than "women's issues," because that immediately seems to say: "Oh, those issues, they are in the margins, on the side, the nice issues. But we are dealing with these very important issues, and they hardly mesh with these issues."

I think what is happening is as men are persuaded both in terms of the database case, the smart, strategic case, that is certainly creating large numbers of significant changes in policies and programs. The private sector is an example of tremendous work going on in this space. Yes, it is benefiting women enormously, but yes, it is also a win-win for the business and the bottom line, and they get that. So there is that kind of benefit.

But there are also the benefits that come out of policy areas. For example, Sweden's paternal leave policy, where dads and moms can take leave or are encouraged to spend time with their newborn. At first, the men were not taking that leave as much as the moms were, and the government really tried to incentivize it more because the point was really this is important to society.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: This is an important time. Yes.

MELANNE VERVEER: It is an important time, and I think there was just this sense of, "Well, how will I be looked on at work," or maybe somehow it would create obstacles or—

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Toward my advancement or something, right.

MELANNE VERVEER: —hurdles of some kind in the office.

But what men are saying now as they are taking it in huge numbers is: "Why was I ever deprived of this, to be able to bond with my baby, to have this special time together? It has been extraordinary for me personally and certainly has strengthened our family unit." So the benefits are obvious when they might not have been.

There was a group of men through a program that the United States was involved in, fighting against violence against women, which is such a horrible scourge around the world. They were doing skits because they were mostly played out in villages and small communities, and a lot of the people were not well-educated. The men adopted all of the roles, and it was, you know, you don't lift a hand on a woman, you don't engage in this kind of physical abuse. As I came back to this country, they wanted to tell me the difference they were making, and it was not just that the women felt safer in the villages. They were eager to tell me how they had changed and how they no longer felt bound by these stereotypes that had largely been viewed as the macho way to behave and now were freed of that.

There is a lot of work going on today in research, in the literature, on these kinds of issues that are showing the co-beneficiary results for men in working on these issues that have been viewed as women's issues.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I need to shift a little bit to a touchier issue, which is there are conflicts happening today that are way too long to list, but if we think of Syria, of Yemen, the terror of Boko Haram in some African nations, so many of the victims are women and girls. How do you think the negotiations would go if more women were involved politically in trying to stop this?

MELANNE VERVEER: You know, Magalie, that is one of the reasons that the institute that I run at Georgetown University was created. It is the Institute for Women, Peace and Security. It really responds to a mandate from the United Nations and growing recognition that the nature of war today in many ways is different, largely civil wars that are ongoing. The victims are significantly civilians. Women, as you pointed out, are right there in the front line.

What the United Nations had propounded some 15 years ago now was that there is a distinctive link between women's participation, the need to protect women because of the nature of these wars where rape is an actual tool of the war, viewed as one of those strategic means to execute the outcomes that the armed combatants want to see, that it is critical for women's participation and protection to have peace and security, that link between women and peace and security.

Yet the record, I must say, is nowhere near what it needs to be. This Security Council resolution which has been enhanced over the years rests on various pillars, four pillars specifically, that women are essential to prevention. If you look at the conditions of women, they are often the first warning sign of worse to come. They are like the canaries in the mines.

In fact, we at Georgetown just did a major study, the creation of a women, peace, and security global index that we did in concert with the Norwegians. The reason we did it for the first time was to bring together the dimensions of inclusion—so the condition of women, it is about the condition of women—education, obviously something that is measured a lot, economic participation. But also bringing in justice, the kind of discrimination that women often confront, and justice indicators, and security. What happens to women in their homes? How safe do they feel in their communities beyond the kinds of civil war outbreaks that they are confronting?

Why? Because if we look at the condition of women, where there is growing oppression, where their rights are denied, oftentimes that is the first sign of greater instability and ultimately conflict to come. So we should be investing in prevention, which is something we do not do well and we do not do often enough. But also protection, given how women are on the receiving end of some of the worst atrocities imaginable in conflict after conflict after conflict.

And participation: What happens at peace tables? More than half of the peace agreements end in the first five years after they are signed. They are abrogated. And we know from a lot of the research that is going on, as we have been engaged in it and others have, that when women participate they bring issues to the table that have to be discussed and resolved if there is going to be a sustainable peace: human rights issues, issues having to do with economic opportunity, having to do with healing divisions across society, reconciliation. If it is just the armed "bandits," so to speak, on both sides, the resolution is hardly a lasting one.

So the more and more that we can see that women have this incredibly important role to play, the more it should be incorporated. And that goes for post-conflict. You lay down the arms, but is that society being rebuilt? Is there economic opportunity? Is there a better future? Is there transitional justice? Has there been accountability that the horrible crimes that were perpetrated have had a justice recourse?

There is so much in this space that we ought to be doing that we are not doing, and the hope is that decision-makers will be increasingly persuaded, whether they are political decision makers or in the military or in other ways engaged, in ensuring that women's concerns, women's leadership, participation, etc., are part of the solution.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It is interesting that you bring up the rebuilding of the society even when the arms are put down and treaties are signed. Probably the best example I could think of is maybe Rwanda, where women are really a part of the political process.

But it seems to me, though, that with all that has been achieved for women in the last 20-plus years globally, do you still feel in your role, because there needs to be an Institute for Women, Security and Peace, that you are just scratching the surface?

MELANNE VERVEER: I wish there did not need to be an institute focused on this. I wish there did not need to be an ambassador for global women's issues, because what that would say is that we have fully integrated, mainstreamed as you said, these kinds of issues, concerns, perspectives into our decision-making across the board.

We are not there yet. For sure we are not there yet. In some ways our progress has been slow. In other ways it has been much more aggressive and successful. But there is a lot of work to do. There is still a long journey ahead, and I think there is—I can speak personally—gratification in terms of what has been achieved, but there is also a recognition that we do have a lot more work to do, and that while we may be making critical advances, others are not in the same boat and we need to be concerned about them as well.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: How do you maintain your eyes everywhere? You visit so many countries. You go to so many conferences. You meet with many heads of government, and yet when you leave how are things maintained and promises kept and fulfilled?

MELANNE VERVEER: It happens in myriad ways. One way is through civil society, which is very engaged and very active, and I think we do not always appreciate those who are in the front lines of change around the world—and many of them are women, many of them risking their lives doing extraordinary things when the deck appears by any observation stacked against them. Yet to come in, to validate them, to put a spotlight on them, to give them a sense of protection in some ways is really important.

I think often there is strength to people in politics who are trying to get changes made or to, again, civil society actors that enhance the role they have been playing in the societies. It is not a matter of coming in from the outside and saying, "Here's what you should do." It is really a matter more often than not of embracing the extraordinary work that is going on in country after country, many times unrecognized, many times very slow, but yet so important to spotlight and to really stand by the people who are doing it.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: We find ourselves now in this extraordinary time of women saying "Never again," "Time's up." There are these catchphrases that are very valid and valuable. But you have been at the forefront of the crucial importance of women's political participation globally, especially the role of women in security and peacekeeping. What is different, though, about right now, about this time?

MELANNE VERVEER: For one thing, there has been progress. There is a lot of pushback, but there has been a lot of progress. I think that is something that is encouraging and creates that sense of 'we just need to keep going.' When you look at the gap on girls' education, it is a different place from where it once was. The progress is data-driven and visible. We need to do better at a secondary level in many places. There are other kinds of changes that have occurred.

There is this sense—I look at women in our own country running for office in record numbers never before seen where organizations that deal with these kinds of opportunities that women want to pursue are just unable in many ways to deal with the kind of interest there is. We have the #MeToo campaign that has affected in very significant tangible ways us in the United States in saying, "Enough already," as you said. And these are not private matters, these are not cultural matters, these are not matters that can be tolerated anymore. These are, in many cases, criminal actions that need to be dealt with, and there has to be accountability across the board.

This #MeToo campaign is affecting other countries as well. I have had many women tell me that when they get up and look at the news on any given day they are astounded at how it has penetrated into making a difference in ways they never really thought possible.

So I think whether it is in the United States or whether it is around the world, there are movements that are gaining steam. At the same time, there are efforts that are pushing back, and it is in many ways a struggle. But I would say that we are more on the positive end of progress than on the fact that we are just not making any progress.

I think today—this is one of the things my co-author and I wrote about in the book Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose, that women are in positions of power as we have never been. We are not clearly where we need to be in terms of equality, but in many ways have made great inroads, and we all have power wherever we sit, whether it is in a corporation or whether it is in an office that has to do with policy, whatever it is, to look at what we can do to make a difference as we come together with others and we can connect as never before, as these movements demonstrate.

I think that recognition that I, as an individual working with others can really make a difference, is permeating our societies more and more. And I have to believe that if we truly recognized what each of us has the capability and the capacity to do, we really could have a transformative impact where we would not wait another 200-plus years for women's progress on this or that, but where we could really accelerate that progress.

MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Ambassador Verveer, thank you very much for joining us.

MELANNE VERVEER: It has been a pleasure. Thank you.

You may also like

Women's March, Baltimore. CREDIT: <a href="">Elvert Barnes</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)

FEB 26, 2018 Article

Sexual Exploitation: The Dynamics of Gender and Power

The Harvey Weinstein scandal ignited a crusade against sexual assault, which has expanded internationally. "This pivotal movement has made one thing absolutely clear: sexual harassment ...

Osakabe in her apartment, November 2014. CREDIT: Devin Stewart

FEB 2, 2015 Article

Abenomics Meets Womenomics

Working women have long struggled to make their way in Japan, even in comparison to their counterparts in other advanced countries. But now many Japanese ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation