Monday, April 30, 2012

It’s as simple as it is profound...

The Woman: Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues
Last week I had the honor of hearing Ambassador Verveer speak to a crowded room of incredibly impressive women -- the capstone to three days of events, courtesy of the Women in Public Policy bi-annual board meeting. While this post will certainly fall short of the event, I will try and capture just a smidgeon of the essence from someone whose impact is as simple as it is profound: focus on women.  

Four Areas

Ambassador Verveer stressed four areas critical to elevating the status of women: 
  1. Access to education
  2. Economic participation
  3. Access to basic health care
  4. Political engagement
These four simple criteria provide both the foundation, as well as the strategies, to gauge and increase the status of women anywhere in the world. And, unfortunately, nowhere does parity on all four of these criteria exist

Why are these areas important? 

Education: When women and girls are educated, it provides a positive feedback loop that breaks the cycle of poverty. Girls marry later, have fewer children, raise healthier families, and are more likely to invest in their community. It has an exponential, and extensive, ripple effect that raises individuals and communities out of poverty. It is often colloquially referred to as The Girl Effect.

Economic participation: When women have access to economic opportunities, they reinvest 90 percent -- 90 percent -- into their families, communities, and countries. They raise the standard of living not just for themselves, but the world around them. They invest in the education of their children, the resources of their communities, and their household and financial assets. In places where banking sectors are slim or nonexistent, increased assets in the form of livestock or crops often serve as a necessary form of capital to protect against financial shocks, usually for medical emergencies. 

However, it goes beyond this; in countries where women are economically empowered, the entire countries’ GDP rises. Goldman Sachs calls it “Womenomics”. At a 2011 APEC summit, Secretary Clinton remarked that, “by increasing women’s participation in the economy and enhancing their efficiency and productivity, we can bring about a dramatic impact on the competitiveness and growth of our economies.” Ambassador Verveer also gave this staggering statistic: $46 billion is lost in economic growth from restricted job opportunities for women. The numbers seem to speak for themselves, but they are infrequently echoed.

Healthcare: In addition to economic inclusion, and especially in developing counties, having access to basic healthcare services is critical to ensuring equality. Women and girls are less likely to receive necessary immunizations or medical treatment, and limited financial resources are often extended only for boys. However, when women and girls have access to basic medical care, they are less likely to die in childbirth, more likely to see their children live past the age of five, and tend to raise healthier families. It provides another mechanism to break the cycle of poverty while simultaneously decreasing maternal and child mortality rates. 

Political participation: Political engagement is paramount. In countries where women are not allowed to receive inheritance or are denied property rights, they lack the legal and political rights to change these laws and policies. Even in the U.S., women represent less than 17 percent of Congress. Holding such a minimal amount of power prevents the dialogue and discourse from tackling issues impacting 50 percent of the population -- equal pay, preventative health care, and violence against women. Outside the U.S., and in newly minted countries, constitutions are being written without a single female voice. The inclusion and acceptance of women in the political process is essential to increasing their equality.

While these four areas are essential, they are not exhaustive. Ambassador Verveer discussed several other arenas where the role of women are paramount, yet often neglected. 

Women, Peace and Security

In December of last year, the U. S. State Department released the U.S. Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. The plan calls for women to be integrated into peace processes, conflict-prevention, transitional committees, and negotiating teams. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a bold declaration from the U.S. government that women are essential, perhaps even the crucial linchpin, to continued peace, stability and prosperity for countries. Personally, I like to believe the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates send a similar international message. 

Women are the canary

Ambassador Verveer said the State Department often views the role of women in a society as the canary. In regions where international security concerns are heightened, the role of women can speak volumes about the direction the country is headed. While the Ambassador did not mention specific situations, the metaphor easily translates: when the role of women is silenced or compromised, countries often find themselves headed towards instability.  

The importance of allies

Ambassador Verveer added an additional, often overlooked, component to the discussion - the importance of allies, specifically men, in securing the equality and inclusion of women. Allies are fundamental to encouraging this paradigm shift in women’s economic and political participation.  “Women’s issues are still perceived as ‘soft’. In reality, women’s issues are the hardest issues out there.” However, this asymmetry in power can be broken, especially when groups are familiar with the social, moral, and economic justifications of women's rights.  

Melissa Sandgren is a MPP1 at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program.

*Photo cpyright World Economic Forum ( / Photo Eric Miller

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