Advice for Secretary Kerry on International Women's Day

As he marks his first International Women's Day as America's secretary of State, here are three areas where John Kerry can advance Hillary Rodham Clinton's work over the past four years on behalf of women and girls.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Then-Sen. John Kerry is greeted by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Capitol Hill Jan. 24 before his confirmation hearing. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Mass. looks on. Op-ed contributor Ambassador Melanne Verveer says 'Kerry can galvanize governments...around the world to join in the work of advancing women, in fighting gender-based violence, and ensuring the peaceful and prosperous world we all seek.'

On his first day in office, Secretary of State John Kerry joked that he had “some big heels to fill,” referring to the fact that he was succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton. And there's no doubt those heels are indeed very big when it comes to Secretary Clinton’s efforts to ensure that advancing the status and protecting the rights of women worldwide became a cornerstone of US foreign policy, and essential to the work of the State Department. 

But as he marks his first International Women's Day as America's secretary of State, I am confident that Mr. Kerry is more than committed to following in Ms. Clinton’s footsteps. And I am hopeful that he will seize the opportunity to make his own large footprint in promoting global women’s issues though US foreign policy.

Over the last four years at the State Department, we worked to ensure that women’s issues were not just special-interest issues relegated to a tiny office but fully integrated into the everyday work of America's diplomats. The officials working in Washington and in US embassies around the world know that we cannot tackle challenges to security, the economy, democratic governance, the environment, and more unless women are participating at all levels of society.

Global stability, peace, and economic prosperity, can never be achieved without the full participation and empowerment of women. There's a volume of research and data showing that greater investments in women's health and education can lead to greater economic growth and more robust societies. Experience shows that when women’s voices are fully integrated into peace negotiations and security efforts, conflicts can be avoided and peace is longer lasting. When women participate equally with men in political and civic processes, governments can be more representative and often more effective.

As Clinton has said time and again, strengthening women and girls around the world is not simply the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do.

Already in his first month in office, Kerry has demonstrated both his leadership and commitment. At his Senate confirmation hearing at the end of January, he “committed to the ongoing significant efforts that Secretary Clinton has invested in” to integrate women’s issues into the State Department, and to advance the status of women around the world.

He pledged to maintain the Secretary’s Office of Global Women's Issues, and to support the work of an appointed Ambassador at Large who could lead the Department’s efforts. And he emphasized the vital importance of integrating women's issues into department’s key activities – especially when it comes to promoting peace in conflict regions.

Here are three areas where I believe Kerry could advance the work of the past four years – and make a lasting difference:

Women, peace, and security

The vast majority of peace treaties in the past have broken down because they failed to include the voices of women and deal with the issues that women know must be addressed. To build lasting peace agreements, governments must ensure women are at the negotiating table and fully empowered in all post-conflict decisionmaking. This will be especially important in Afghanistan during this period of transition. At his confirmation hearing, Kerry recognized this truth. “There can't be an effective peace, and there won't be, in Afghanistan if we can't hold onto the gains and continue them, continue the progress that is being made with respect to women’s participation in Afghan society,” he said.

As the US works with Afghanistan to prepare for the withdrawal of US forces in 2014, I hope that Kerry will do everything in his power to ensure that Afghan women are allowed to participate fully in the decisions that indelibly affect their futures, and that their hard won constitutional rights are respected.

Kerry has spoken approvingly of the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, launched by President Obama and Secretary Clinton in December 2011, to further US-led efforts to integrate women into peacemaking and conflict prevention efforts around the world. Kerry now has the opportunity to work with his colleagues at the Department of Defense and USAID to ensure that the plan is fully implemented and that women from Burma to South Sudan to Syria are recognized and empowered as key players in peacemaking and progress.

Women and the economy

As the world slowly climbs out of recession, the reports of economic experts show that women can be leaders in that revival. Egypt’s economic woes, for instance, cannot be solved without also focusing on the role and status of women in the country’s economy. Women-run small and medium-size enterprises are the engines of economic growth. And yet women’s potential to help grow the global economy is still largely untapped.

Barriers such as access to credit, training, and international markets still limit many women’s ability to grow their businesses. Experts believe that reducing such barriers could lead to a 14 percent rise in per capita incomes by the year 2020 in countries such as China, Russia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Republic of Korea.

Clinton worked to raise women's issues at all international economic forums – from APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) to the G20 to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). She launched regional networking and training programs for women entrepreneurs and formed many robust public-private partnerships to promote women’s economic empowerment. Kerry can build on all these efforts.

Personal diplomacy

Finally, Secretary Kerry can recognize that he himself can make a powerful impact of the status of women around the world through the force of his personal diplomacy. One of the first meetings he took as secretary of State was with a group of Burmese women leaders, and one of his very first tweets as secretary was of a picture of this meeting. The symbolism of this meeting to so many women – and men – around the world was powerful. I urge him to keep meeting.

Kerry should pointedly make time to meet with groups of women activists, entrepreneurs, and leaders in his travels. He should also raise women’s issues with foreign ministers and other high-level officials who are not used to hearing about these topics from their international counterparts, especially from their male counterparts. By doing this, Kerry could send a powerful message around the world that advancing women and protecting their rights is not merely the concern of women alone – but of men and of all people who care about international peace and progress.

As a father of two daughters and husband to an activist wife, Kerry can galvanize governments and fathers, husbands, and brothers all around the world to join in the work of advancing women, in fighting gender-based violence, and ensuring the peaceful and prosperous world we all seek.

Global progress and prosperity will depend on nothing less.

Melanne Verveer was the United States’ first Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues from April 2009 until February 2013.

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