Smart Empowerment – Elevating Women and Girls in Foreign Policy

February 22, 2013 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

Gender equality has been a hot topic in the U.S. foreign policy arena lately. During Secretary Clinton’s farewell tour, there were lighthearted remarks by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas that Secretary John Kerry has “some fairly large Manolo Blahniks to fill” (later corrected by Tamara Cofman Wittes in Foreign Policy that the shoes were actually Prada). And yes, Secretary Kerry joked on Day 1 that he has “big heels to fill.”

But this isn’t (just) about really great shoes.

More importantly, this is about America’s foreign policy, which took a big step forward that week with President Obama’s Presidential Memorandum to “further strengthen the capacity of the Federal Government to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance” to address “one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time:” the empowerment of women and girls.

In response to the memorandum, Secretary Kerry emphasized his commitment to “promoting the rights of women and girls a priority, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because societies that empower the talents of their entire populations are more stable and more prosperous.”

Let’s talk about how.

First, the economic benefits to doing so are something the private sector figured out a while ago. Take for example Walmart’s 2011 Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative. This five-year initiative aims to bring more women-owned businesses into the retail giant’s supply chain. Why?  Because Walmart believes “empowering women economically will make it a more successful retailer” – not to mention the fact that most of its 200 million customers worldwide are women.

In addition, elevating the rights and treatment of, and opportunities for women and girls also addresses: (1) local, regional, and global security; (2) humanitarian and moral issues, including poverty, food security, and health; and (3) democracy and good governance (e.g., why the State Department’s blueprint for elevating American civilian power, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), wove gender equality throughout State and USAID development assistance programs).

Factor in Secretary Clinton’s farewell remarks that gender equality is “the unfinished business of the 21st century,” and you understand why the White House institutionalized it across three areas:

1.       Diplomacy: “…promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world…is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives”

The Office of Global Women’s Issues was created by Secretary Clinton and then run by the first Ambassador-at-Large, Melanne Verveer. The memorandum makes it a permanent addition at State.

2.       Development: “Recognizing the vital link between diplomacy and development, and the importance of gender equality as both a goal in itself and as a vital means to achieving the broader aims of U.S. development assistance”

The Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and advisor to the USAID Administrator position will also be maintained in order to plug the issue more effectively and consistently into the Administration’s development priorities.

3.       National Security: “The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs…shall chair an interagency working group to develop and coordinate Government-wide implementation of policies to promote gender equality and advance the status of women and girls internationally”

This part is new. By instructing the National Security Advisor to “provide strategic guidance, promote government-wide coordination, and spur new action across agencies” – in collaboration with the Ambassador-at-Large and the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls – the Administration amplifies the “hard” aspects of this soft power issue. Here’s the bottom line: empowering half the world’s population as equal partners is a smart step forward.