Ambassadors for Gender Equality: Who They Are, What They Do, and Why They Matter
from Women and Foreign Policy Program and Women Around the World

Ambassadors for Gender Equality: Who They Are, What They Do, and Why They Matter

Since the United States appointed the first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues in 2009, ten more countries have followed, creating new posts focused on women's rights and gender equality.
Melanne Verveer, then U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, speaks at the launch of Mujeres Adelante (Women Moving Forward), an initiative to combat gender-based violence. Guatemala City, Guatemala. October 19, 2012.
Melanne Verveer, then U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, speaks at the launch of Mujeres Adelante (Women Moving Forward), an initiative to combat gender-based violence. Guatemala City, Guatemala. October 19, 2012. Jorge Dan Lopez/REUTERS

This blog post was authored by Alexandra Bro, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Rebecca Turkington, assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, new bipartisan legislation was introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress that would formalize the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and its ambassador-level director. The position, tasked with promoting “the rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy,” was vacant for three years until Kelley Currie began her tenure as the third U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in January of this year. If Currie’s role is permanently established by Congress, it would guarantee the longevity of this critical U.S. foreign policy post—one that has not only influenced U.S. policymaking but also inspired other governments around the world.

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Promoting gender equality has been shown to drive economic growth, improve health outcomes, bolster the chances of lasting peace, and strengthen democracy. In an era of growing global economic uncertainty, high-level commitment and sustained support to women and girls around the world is a strategic and vital investment.

Entering the World Stage

When former President Barack Obama appointed Melanne Verveer as the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in 2009, there was no equivalent post anywhere in the world. The role was established “to raise the importance of women’s perspectives and participation in all areas of our foreign policy engagement,” Verveer told us. “The Administration noted that this was in the interests of U.S. national security and [...] that we can’t possibly begin to solve our pressing foreign policy challenges—from growing economies and advancing peace and security to addressing climate change and more—without women’s full participation and engagement.”

Since then, a growing number of nations have taken steps to institutionalize gender equality and women’s empowerment as a policy priority in the areas of diplomacy, defense, aid, and trade. For a few—namely Canada, France, Mexico, and Sweden—this means an explicit feminist foreign policy that places equality at its center. For others, it takes the form of budget targets for foreign aid, ministry-wide strategic guidance, and personnel parity measures. And for some, it involves the appointment of high-level positions focused on women and girls.

In the past decade, ten more countries have followed the United States’ lead, creating an ambassador or envoy post within their ministries of foreign affairs focused specifically on gender equality. In 2010, the Seychelles established an Ambassador for Women and Children’s Affairs, currently held by Dr. Erna Athanasius. In 2011, Australia appointed its first Ambassador for Women and Girls, an office initially proposed by a coalition of civil society organizations. As in the United States, the post has lasted across administrations, and Julie-Ann Guivarra is the country’s fourth ambassador. And soon after the Swedish government launched the world’s first feminist foreign policy in 2014, it appointed Ann Bernes as Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy.

The creation of similar roles is accelerating. Norway created a special envoy post for women, peace, and security, held by Marita Sørheim-Rensvik, and Finland appointed an ambassador for gender equality, a position currently held by Katri Viinikka. In 2017, the United Kingdom designated Joanna Roper to Special Envoy for Gender Equality, and in 2018, Iceland appointed a Special Envoy for Gender Equality, while Spain named an Ambassador in a Special Mission for Gender Equality. And just last year, the Netherlands expanded the mandate of its Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights & HIV/AIDS to a broader ambassador post for women’s rights and gender equality, while Canada appointed an Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security.

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Setting the Agenda

The appointments of gender ambassadors and envoys have changed the way these countries do business, at home and abroad. While all are housed within their respective foreign ministries, their specific mandates vary: some are primarily focused externally, while others work to mainstream gender equality within their departments.

Former Australia Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, reports that she “was responsible for all the government’s work internationally on gender equality,” participating in bilateral visits and in regional and multilateral forums on behalf of the government. Much of the Australian ambassador’s work focuses on neighboring countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, her counterpart in Canada, the newly appointed Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security Jacqueline O’Neill, covers both global and domestic work. Her position was established “to accelerate the pace of change in implementing the WPS [Women, Peace, and Security] agenda in Canada and abroad” by advising the government and serving as “a boost of surge capacity.” Ambassador O’Neill’s mandate spans eight Canadian departments, and one federal agency, to ensure they share lessons, ideas, and challenges with each other.

In the United Kingdom, Special Envoy for Gender Equality Joanna Roper, promotes gender mainstreaming throughout the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where she has worked to build internal capacity on gender equality “through gender equality courses, induction talks to new members of staff, as well [as] briefing outgoing Ambassadors.”

In Sweden, Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy Ann Bernes leads a coordination team that works on policy and skills development, operational planning, communication, and representation. The team partners with the Division for Gender Equality at the Swedish Ministry of Employment to coordinate gender equality work across the government, and drafts the Swedish Foreign Service’s annual action plan on feminist foreign policy.

Making Progress

Experience from countries with ambassador and envoy positions for women and girls shows that these offices make a difference. Appointing a gender equality ambassador or envoy carries symbolic power, and indicates a state’s recognition of gender equality as a foreign policy priority. “When an issue is not a strategic priority, it often doesn’t receive the resources needed,” says O’Neill. She explains that her “role is at the level of ambassador to send a signal of Canada’s commitment. It enables unique access and helps confer importance—both at home and abroad.”

The role can also push the adoption of gender equality mandates across the foreign ministry. “There is no doubt that this role in Australia helped influence political and policy understanding of issues affecting women,” says Stott-Despoja. “There was a demonstrable change in the way diplomats and other personnel within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade focused their energies and programs on ensuring that gender equality was a key part of their work.”

Gender ambassador appointments can help change minds and organizational culture internally. In the United Kingdom, the “creation of the [Special Envoy] position recognized the need for gender equality to be taken seriously,” according to Roper, and in the United States, the ambassador post helped overcome skepticism within the American foreign policy community. “It made a difference that this was an ambassadorial level position and that was purposeful. An ambassador was given greater recognition by most foreign governments and often within our own government,” according to Verveer. “Moreover, the position directly reported to the Secretary of State and that sent a signal throughout the Department that this was important.”

The Way Forward

The creation of an ambassador or envoy post for women and girls is a small—but smart—investment that more governments around the world should undertake, not least during a time of tightening budgets and growing global concerns over the economic fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To enable these offices to accelerate the adoption of gender mainstreaming internally, and the promotion of gender equality abroad, they must be fully-resourced and installed at the highest level. Reporting directly to the foreign minister or prime minister improves accountability and ensures that their mandates are seen as a priority across the government. And on the home front, it is time for the United States to lead the way again as it did a decade ago, by institutionalizing the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and its Ambassador-at-Large position. These steps will not just reinforce the United States’ long-standing commitment to gender equality in foreign policy, but also bolster American economic and security interests abroad.

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