Ending Violence against Women: Official priority

February 9, 2010



Director, Office of Global Women’s Issues, US State Dept, Ambassador Melanie Verveer blogs:
Ending Violence Against Women Is a Foreign Policy Priority (February 8, 2010)

This comes in a week when a Bill to Combat International Violence against Women was introduced in the US Congress.

A feminist foreign policy, indeed, and we said it here a few weeks ago!

A Feminist Foreign Policy for the US?

January 21, 2010


Gender issues may not be new to the world of international diplomacy, but the high profile being accorded them by the Obama-Clinton led State Department seems new.


It’s just about a year since the Obama inaugural. That euphoric morning, the mantra of ‘change’ was everywhere. But in the life after the inaugural, the logic and process of government dominate to slow down the whirlwind and subdue it to the measured pace of administrations everywhere. One thing, this blogger would suggest, has changed. And that is the growing profile of gender issues in the discourses and programmes of the US State Department.

One of the very first things that President Obama did right after taking oath was to lift the ban on federal funding for family planning programmes that recognize abortion. From there on, take a look at these notes from the last six-seven months:

  • § On June 12, 2009, Melanne Verveer was sworn in as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
    § In July, Secretary of State Clinton and film star Aamir Khan spent a couple of hours during her visit to Mumbai speaking before a large audience about the importance of education, especially for girls.
    § Sexual violence against women received a great deal of attention from the Secretary of State on her visit to seven African states in August, including time taken to speak with activists in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (See also: Jane Morse, Conflicts in Africa Exacerbate Gender-Based Atrocities, August 3, 2009) During this visit, it was announced that the US would assist with a three-year program to provide medical aid, counseling, economic assistance and legal support to vulnerable women and girls.
    § In September, when the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to end sexual violence during armed conflict, Hillary Clinton spoke out against those states that had turned a blind eye to such violence in recent conflicts.  (See earlier ASI post on this topic.)
    § In November, the State Department’s Program on “Women’s Empowerment: Preventing Violence Against Women and Children” invited Take Back the Night Foundation to speak about its history and its work on preventing and ending violence against women to groups across India. Dr. Suraiya Baluch, an American of South Asian origin who sits on their Board, made the trip to cities across India during the global fortnight of advocacy against gender violence (November 25 to December 10).
    § In January, Clinton addressed the 15th Anniversary meeting of the International Conference on Population and Development with these words: “Now, as those of us gathered in the Ben Franklin Room on the eight floor of the State Department know very well, the topic of reproductive health is subject to a great deal of debate. But I think we should all agree that these numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable. For if we believe that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, then we cannot accept the ongoing marginalization of half the world’s population. We cannot accept it morally, politically, socially, or economically.
    …. So we’re here today to examine the distance that remains to be traveled before the world fully realizes the ICPD goals. This is a journey that the Obama Administration and the United States Government will travel with you. But we need to travel quickly, because we only have five years to meet our original goals.” (Italics added)

It’s fair to say that foreign ministers and foreign policy establishments issue hundreds of statements and press releases and really most of them are meaningless. But given the high profile of each of these, it could be said these are shifts intended to be noted.

What’s the history?

Traditionally, women and gender issues have only featured in international relations as victims—to be protected, lamented, assisted. A growing global women’s movement over the last half-century has forced a gradual accommodation of women’s issues on the global agenda.

Since 1975,  the international community has taken increasing cognizance of the separate and different experience of women in every sphere of life. Momentum gathered from that year dedicated to women’s advancement, through a similarly dedicated decade that culminated in the formulation of Forward-looking Strategies at Nairobi in 1985. These were reviewed in Beijing in 1995 following a decade in which the world had verily changed: the Cold War ended; the Soviet Union collapsed; ethnic conflicts seemed to replace interstate wars; new ideas about security were emerging; and perhaps most critically, information and communication technologies made globally networked advocacy easy.

Since Beijing, we have seen the emergence of gender-related norms into the mainstream of international relations. The mass-rapes in Bosnia brought an old reality to light: the use of rape as a weapon of war. In 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the impact of war on women and posited that women should be a part of peace-making and peace-building. Outrage has steadily mounted to culminate in the adoption by the Security Council in 2008 of a resolution condemning war rapes. The 2009 UN Security Council Resolution takes 1325 further, condemning sexual violence during conflict and mandating peacekeeping and postconflict operations to take women’s needs into account. Finally, it should be noted that the third Millennium Development Goal relates to gender equality: “Promote gender equality and empower women.”

Bosnia and Rwanda first brought gender violence during conflict into newspaper and talkshow agendas in the US, but the email petitions that were circulated by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the mid-1990s seeking support to condemn the Taliban’s policies on women and women’s education seem to me to mark a watershed in the way global gender issues entered into ordinary homes and offices.  Activism surrounding these petitions and the news coming out of Afghanistan certainly contributed in some measure to the post-9/11 support for US intervention in Afghanistan. For a few years now, the State Department has been recognizing women around the world that it identifies as exceptional advocates for women’s right and advancement.

In other words, these issues are not entirely new to the world of international relations or diplomacy; it’s the high profile they are now being lent that is new. And interesting.

Why this high profile activism now?

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that it is the culmination of a thirty-year global change.

But what sorts of international relations observers would we be, if we did not cynically ask: What is the realpolitik of this change, if we do accept that there is change? FP establishments tend to be status quo, and if they are embracing this change, then it is tempting to subject to a realist reading: what’s in it for the US? It’s hard to buy into the idea that genuine idealism and humanitarian interest motivate any administration, anywhere. As President Obama pointed out in his Nobel lecture, we face the world “as it is.”

So why high-profile social activism in the foreign policy establishment? Does it have to do with Hillary Clinton being Secretary of State, not just because she is a woman but because so much of her work in the past has related to these issues? Does it have to do with a changed domestic environment in the US where economic downturns are forcing attention to social hardship?

While this is probably a question best answered by historians, such a change raises other interesting questions that we might take the opportunity to revisit.

Two interesting questions

1. Do women make a difference in decision-making roles?

“Where are the women?” is the famous point of departure for liberal critiques of international relations. It is a moral given that women should be well represented and that women should be able to participate in every sphere at every level. There is more ambivalence about whether the mere presence of women makes a substantive difference in favour of women’s interests, broadly generalized.

The essentialist assumption that women will extend a caregiving, nurturing presence to the policy sphere is not substantiated by history. It is common to cite recent examples of Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher to illustrate that women in power make the same decisions on the same bases as men. Furthermore, gender issues do not necessarily find space on their lists of priority.

But the coincidence of Hillary Clinton’s swearing-in and the raising of the profile of gender issues in the State Department makes it worthwhile for political and diplomatic historians to take this opportunity to explore this question.

Take a look at:

David Rothkopf, It’s 3 a.m. Do You Know Where Hillary Clinton Is? Washington Post, August 23, 2009.
Megan Carpentier, Ms. Magazine publisher Eleanor Smeal talks Hillary and international women’s rights, Madam Secretary: FP Blogs, January 23, 2009.
John Meacham, Meeting of the Diplomats, Newsweek, December 21, 2009.

2. What are the elements of a feminist foreign policy?

Feminism has been defined as the “radical notion that women are people” (Cheris Kramarae) The advancement of women’s issues and interests worldwide, a gender perspective on other issues and a structural rather than de-contextualised view of the world surely must make up some elements. But what would a truly thoughtful, comprehensive list comprise?

Here are a couple of links, to which I will keep adding as I come across interesting links.

Christine Stansell, The War on Women: Establishing a Feminist Foreign Policy, Dissent Magazine, June 26, 2009.
Nona Willis Aronowitz, Searching for Feminism on America’s Roads, Women and Foreign Policy: The World Affairs Blog Network, December 26, 2009.

Surely, this is not the last post on this subject!

Postscript (A little confession)
Found a paragraph on a campaign we run here against gender violence on America.gov. We are not funded by the US government, don’t invite guests through the local consulate, pretty much are a local, community initiative. But if the official radar are now sensitized to pick up such obscure signals, it must mean that they have been tuned to do so.