Eighteen years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave global women’s rights a major boost. At the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, then first lady, now Secretary of State Clinton set the bar high for the global inclusion and empowerment of women around the world. “Human rights are women’s rights,” she said. “And women’s rights are human rights.”
Fast-forward to 2009. When President Obama appointed Clinton to be his Secretary of State, she took her agenda of inclusiveness with her to the Foggy Bottom.
As diplomat-in-chief, Clinton called the subjugation of women a threat to U.S. national security, elevating women’s rights to the forefront of the national and international policy dialogue.
“The suffering and denial of the rights of women and the instability of nations go hand in hand,” she argued.
But more than words, Clinton wanted action. She created the office of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and appointed trusted confidante Melanne Verveer as the United States’ first ambassador for women.
Women’s empowerment and rights are no longer fringe issues in the U.S. government or the international arena, and Hillary Clinton has perhaps done more than anyone to accomplish that.
But what is happening to make sure that the lofty words of one of the world’s great feminist leaders are translated into real action on the ground?
To find out, we sought out six U.S. leaders whose work is making the lives of women around the world more inclusive, especially in countries that have suffered wars, extreme poverty, or natural disasters.
These women come from government, business, and the not-for-profit sectors. They are trailblazers in their own right, helping women in the developing world achieve a better life for themselves and their families. And they are linked by the common bond of “women helping women.”
Melanne Verveer, Maria Otero, Harriet Elam-Thomas, Helene Gayle, Charito Kruvant, and Esther Benjamin champion a vision that sees women as a key to unlocking the promise of development.
Melanne Verveer, Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues
Melanne Verveer’s mandate is clear—ensure that women’s rights are an integral part of U.S. diplomacy. After Verveer’s three-and-a-half years on the job, global women’s issues have become what Secretary Clinton calls a key tool of smart power.
One of the most important transformations has been the recognition that attention to women’s needs affects the outcome of U.S. assistance to other countries.
“We have special advisors on women in almost every U.S. government agency that provides foreign assistance support—the Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peace Corps,” says Verveer. “We ignore the role of women at our peril. Just look at Afghanistan!”
Verveer comes to the job with a long résumé that includes the creation of Vital Voices, a global women’s not-for-profit started with Clinton during her time as first lady. Vital Voices identifies and trains women around the world to effectively participate in political life and government and to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Verveer reached out to her network of women to jump-start a program that got Haitian craftswomen’s products featured at Macy’s department stores.
Until recently, when developing country recovery programs, the economic skills women bring to development were largely overlooked. One corporate leader who is at the forefront of change is Muhtar Kent, CEO of the Coca-Cola Company. In 2010, Coca-Cola launched the 5 by 20 Global Initiative, which will empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by giving them access to finance and model business skills by 2020.
“The 5 by 20 initiative is exactly the type of investment that we need to invigorate our economies and foster long-term, sustainable growth,” says Verveer. Coca-Cola even plans to resume business in Myanmar (formerly Burma) soon.
Today, development is all about empowering women to become self-sufficient so they can care for their families, farm their land, have access to education, and provide for their communities. Women who are the most vulnerable needed a voice in Washington. They have found one in Melanne Verveer.
Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and
That “women hold up half the sky” is an unquestioned truth for anyone who has worked in weak and fragile states. If you doubt this, just ask Maria Otero. Otero is an economist by training, and her passion is microfinance. The Bolivian-born expert on women’s economic empowerment now serves as the under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the State Department. To her amazement, she discovered she was the highest-ranking Latino in the department when she assumed her post in 2009.
It is no surprise that this tiny powerhouse of a woman has been given such a position. In 2005, Newsweek named Otero one of the 20 most influential women in the United States. At the time, she was president of ACCION International, a highly respected nongovernmental organization that provides poverty alleviation support through microfinance.
The status of women “is now a core principle of foreign policy in our embassies around the world, and right here at the State Department, [Secretary] Clinton has developed a brand of democratic diplomacy integrated with development and smart power that should last,” she says.
The department’s leadership team often meets with the private sector, and she is encouraged by their evolution. “There is recognition on the part of businesses that they can meet their own bottom line if they pay attention to these issues,” she says. “But unless we do this work with men, it always risks being a woman-to-woman issue.”
Harriet Elam-Thomas, Ambassador
Forty-nine years ago, Harriet Elam-Thomas went to France as an exchange student. The experience changed her life. In Lyon, this young African American woman found a sense of dignity and equality that inspired her to pursue a lifelong career in the Foreign Service.
Over the course of her career in government, Elam-Thomas broke down gender and race barriers, cracking the glass ceiling when she was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Senegal in 2000. “There were no female mentors, let alone people of color,” she says. The few minority Foreign Service officers, when posted in Washington, used to hold monthly luncheons, calling themselves “the Thursday Group” so as not to attract attention. “In those days, it was not politically correct to call us the Black Foreign Service Officers Luncheon Society. It was simpler to refer to us by the day we would meet.”
For Elam-Thomas, real change came during the Clinton administration. “Madeline Albright made women more prominent,” she says. “She took the lead in getting women promoted. For the first time, more women inside the system were promoted to the rank of ambassador than ever before.”
It was Elam-Thomas’s tours in Africa that increased her work with women and gave her new insights. “Tribalism and family relations can often inhibit a woman’s ability to grow economically,” she says.
Since her retirement from government in 2005, Elam-Thomas has dedicated herself to teaching and molding future diplomats. She leads the Global Perspectives Program at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. Both at UCF and at her alma mater, Simmons College, she carves out time to train young women leaders from African nations to hone the skills needed to build their communities, prevent conflict and violence, and help increase access to education.
Helene Gayle, CEO, CARE
Being first is nothing new for Helene Gayle. She studied medicine in the 1970s, a time when few women were admitted to medical school, and even fewer were women of color. As a young physician, she chose pediatrics as her specialty. Soon she was drawn to public health because “in public health the patient is the whole community.” Medicine became her means of addressing social injustice in the United States and internationally. “Extreme poverty is a social justice issue in its own right,” Gayle says.
She directed the first National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Through her work there, she saw the connection between empowering women as a first line of prevention against disease.
“Women became central to disease [HIV/AIDS] and thus were central to the solution,” especially younger women. Unless women were given a voice, and a way to help themselves, Gayle found, the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS would leave communities in peril.
Soon after joining CARE to fight global poverty in 2006, Gayle introduced a new focus on women and girls. It has already yielded important results. “When women have closer to an equal role in society, the outcomes are better,” she says. Gayle recently returned from Egypt where she saw the impact of a newly elected woman leader to a village council who said, “When I go before the village council, I bring out the practical, everyday living issues. If the council only has men, then they banter more about power politics.”
Under Gayle’s leadership, CARE has structured partnerships with the private sector in some of the poorest countries to integrate women directly into global supply chains. “If women can become part of the private sector value chains that are self-sustaining, this is a hopeful trend. The private sector’s ability to scale up is essential.”
Charito Kruvant, Owner and CEO, Creative Associates
Sitting in Charito Kruvant’s sun-filled kitchen in McLean, Virginia, you can see few signs of her journey. Fleeing the 1952 revolution in Bolivia, her family took up residence in Argentina. Today she is the owner of one of Washington’s most successful development companies, Creative Associates. As a child in Argentina, she endured the racial slurs of some classmates, who called her “la negra,” and she battled dyslexia. But her skills as an athlete and her friendly demeanor helped her overcome these obstacles.
Kruvant arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the late 1960s as a student teacher committed to early childhood education. She immediately recognized that the Puerto Rican community she was supposed to help was unlike other Latin American communities she had encountered. “It was the first time I saw poverty of the soul,” she recalls. To help Latino students and their families, she soon realized that “if you don’t change a system, you don’t have an impact.”
So Kruvant set her mind to changing the system for others who come to the United States to seek a better life.
In 1977, Kruvant and three other women started Creative Associates, a for-profit consulting group. Creative Associates broke new ground for women contractors with the U.S. government when it lobbied successfully for the first set-aside contract for women small-business owners. Today we take for granted this important preference, but Kruvant made history when the United States Agency for International Development awarded Creative Associates the grant. It also launched the company on a path to becoming a leader in the implementation and evaluation of development programs. Kruvant is proudest of what she has done for girls’ education. “Today the case for empowering women and girls is well accepted,” she says. “Everyone knows that access to education is key.” Her company’s work in Afghanistan supports teacher training and addresses the growing demand to enroll more girls in school.
But, she cautions that the education of girls is still unfinished. It must become a sustainable part of any project to help countries diversify their economy. “If we forgo the opportunity to work with youth, we forgo the opportunity to improve the world,” she warns. In Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, her company works to help former gang members train for new jobs and a better life.
For Kruvant, running a multi-million-dollar business with nearly 850 employees worldwide is as much an expression of passion about people succeeding as it is a journey to help women have more choices—about their education, their families, and their communities.
Esther Benjamin, Director of Global Operations, Peace Corps
Esther Benjamin’s story is the American Dream. The daughter of a Methodist minister from Sri Lanka who immigrated to America in the midst of that country’s civil war, Benjamin learned the importance of giving back to her community from an early age. By her late teens, she had penned her life’s mission: “To connect first world resources with third world needs.” She has been driven by this commitment ever since, as her career in development and global public health has taken her from the United Nations to the White House to the Peace Corps. Along the way Benjamin always has dreamed that her labors would help bring about a better, more peaceful world.
Her first job working on famine relief in Somalia, in 1993, exposed her to the horrors of war. But her skills as a mediator among tribeswomen in their search for peace and security was rewarded by trust these women had in Esther’s abilities to give them a voice. She gave these women access to UN officials who were charged with feeding and supporting those affected by the crisis.
The same passion that brought her to humanitarian work led her to positions in the private sector for companies seeking to expand markets in the developing world. She says that skills like financial management, human resources, operational effectiveness, and putting programs into operation through development of strategy enabled her to translate her passion for women and development into something concrete.
This became clear when she served as executive director for resource development at the International Partnership for Microbicides, where she “leveraged political support to transform the lives of millions of women who are at risk of HIV infection.”
At the Peace Corps, President Obama appointed Benjamin to her position to ensure that those in the field implement effective programs. “Fulfilling President Kennedy’s vision is an honor,” Benjamin says.
Today, 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women. “Women bring passion to the job, a commitment to international work, and a spirit of volunteerism that also prepares them for careers in education and international work when they return home,” she says, adding that they are naturally drawn to the program.
Among Benjamin’s proudest achievements is the creation of Girls Leading our World (GLOW) camps, which support young women in 65 of the 70 countries where the Peace Corps works. Each year, 50,000 girls participate in training that promotes leadership and a commitment to gender equality by providing young women a safe and supportive learning environment. By helping to improve self-esteem, the program empowers young women to participate in discussions about wide-ranging topics including HIV/AIDS prevention, critical thinking, and gender roles.
When asked about her mentors, Benjamin is emphatic about the role men have played in her career. Her boss, Aaron Williams, head of the Peace Corps, is one of her heroes.
She also notes that, at the Peace Corps, diversity is a central tenet of the workplace ethic, a feature of the organization since its first director, Sargent Shriver, said that “the women of our country have much to contribute to the peoples of other lands.”
Among Benjamin’s next challenges will be the creation of a loan forgiveness program for service. This, she said, will ensure that women continue to play a central role in the agency’s work now and into the future, so that volunteering in the Peace Corps will no longer be a choice between service to one’s country and the burden of paying off college loans. DW
Johanna Mendelson Forman is senior associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies
Michele A. Manatt is chair of the Council on Women’s Leadership at the Meridian International Center.
Eighteen years after Hillary Clinton laid down a marker in Beijing, the ranks of women helping women are growing more numerous and effective. The six women profiled here are carrying out a shared vision of women’s empowerment through their work in the public, not-for-profit, and private sectors. In 2012, recognition of women’s rights globally is a part of every conversation about how to create a safer, more secure world. Their inspirational work echoes Clinton’s vision laid forth in her landmark speech at the 1995 women’s conference.
“However different we may be, there is far more that unites us than divides us. What we are learning around the world is that, if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish.”