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FP: Why Women Are a Foreign Policy Issue

Author: Melanne Verveer
May/June 2012

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The most pressing global problems simply won't be solved without the participation of women, writes Melanne Verveer for Foreign Policy.

On a trip to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, not long after my appointment as the U.S. State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, I stopped for dinner with a group of Afghan women activists in Kabul. One woman opened our conversation with a plea: "Please don't see us as victims, but look to us as the leaders we are."

Those words have stuck with me as President Barack Obama's administration has endeavored to put women at the heart of its foreign policy. For generations, the United States too often viewed the world's women as victims of poverty and illiteracy, of violence and seemingly unbreakable cultural traditions -- essentially, as beneficiaries of aid. Women's issues existed on the margins, segregated from the more "strategic" issues of war, peace, and economic stability. Now, in a time of transformative change -- from the rise of new economic powers to a growing chorus of voices against repressive regimes in the Arab world -- promoting the status of women is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one; it's essential to economic prosperity and to global peace and security. It is, in other words, a strategy for a smarter foreign policy.

In the past, U.S. diplomacy and development efforts were conducted in a manner that was gender neutral at best. The United States regularly supported peace talks that left women out of negotiating rooms and treaty documents, an omission that weakened the chances of forging durable peace agreements. The country designed development programs without consulting women or considering the crucial role they played, whether it was agricultural training initiatives that targeted men even though women often represented the majority of small farmers, or building wells in areas where women could not go, never mind that women were the ones responsible for fetching water.

As a growing body of research shows, however, the world's most pressing economic and political problems simply cannot be solved without the participation of women. That's why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to ensure that advancing the status of women and girls around the world is fully integrated into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. As of this spring, with the release of a first-ever secretarial policy directive on gender, advancing the status of women and girls worldwide is officially a requirement in every U.S. diplomat's job description. As Clinton said in March, the United States will use "every tool at our disposal" to support this crucial cause.

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