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Conference on sub-Saharan Africa : Women's Inclusion and Participation
June 14, 2010

June 14, 2010


“As women, we find freedom in being able to earn our livelihoods and build for a future,” said Senegalese cloth vendor Isseu Sambe. (Photo credit:Karen Cobos/CRS Senegal)

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues

Diplomacy Briefing Series
Washington, DC

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Good afternoon to all of you. It is true that women confront some of the greatest challenges around the globe and that is certainly true in Africa. But they are also the agents for change. We know that in order to be fully participatory, to ensure that women can drive the progress of their countries forward–because it is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind–in order for them to be the agents of change, they need access to healthcare and education. They need to participate fully in the economies and the political life of their countries, they need to be ensured of their legal rights and they certainly need to be free from violence.

We know that investments in women correlate positively with poverty alleviation, with a country’s general prosperity, even with decreases in corruption. We also know that Secretary Clinton, because of all the mountains of data in terms of the best development investments, has said very straightforwardly that one of the core principles of our development efforts needs to be investing in women.

This year we are marking the 15th anniversary of the UN 4th World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing. All the countries that gathered adopted a platform for action. We have been looking at that platform for action to see what kind of progress has been made in the last 15 years. There has indeed been progress, but there is also a long road to go. I would like to touch briefly on some of the areas in which we are working to ensure that women can do all that they need to do and be free and well and educated in Africa.

First, supporting women’s economic participation; women have been benefitting from microcredit which has lifted up millions of women and their families. Small amounts of credit and training enable them to engage in the productive economic life and very micro-sized businesses. Women-run small and medium-sized enterprises really drive economic growth. They are the single best investment for driving GDP. We have been working with the AGOA ministerial that’s coming up to ensure African women, who encounter barriers, like so many women to training, mentoring, credit, and markets, have the availability of those resources. Thus they can be the drivers of economic growth that they can and should be. The other area that is critically important with respect to SMEs is that credit usually has to come from commercial lending institutions, which is a bit harder to tackle. So we are looking at ways in which more programs can be adopted in terms of guaranteed loans.

Also, looking at financial inclusion, in many ways the continent of Africa is still largely unbanked. There are explorations into cell phone banking and other ways to ensure greater financial accessibility, particularly for women, in the areas of credit, savings, and insurance, and so these are at the top of our agenda. I know that Assistant Secretary Fernandez will have more to say about these economic issues as well.

Food security is a major priority of the Obama Administration and as Ambassador Carson said, women are the great majority of the small-hold farmers. To that end, we have worked to ensure that the Feed the Future initiative, which is in the process of implementation, targets many countries in Africa for support and focuses on the needs of women farmers. Women and men farmers have different needs, therefore– to look at one group to the exclusion of the other and give both men and women the same kinds of resources is not going to result in the kind of enhanced agriculture productivity we would all like to see.

We also know that in addition to participating in decision-making and accessing training, extension programs, and markets, women also need land tenure rights. The lack of such rights is a major barrier to their enhanced stabilities in the agrarian sector. So, on the array of efforts to ensure greater prosperity in agriculture, we are also focusing on the role of women as the Feed the Future initiative goes forward.

Secondly, we’re supporting women’s political participation. There were hearings last week in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on this very topic because we know that democracy and the lack of women’s participation in the political life of their countries is a contradiction in terms. It is interesting that of the 24 countries that have at least 30 percent female participation at the parliamentary level, a full third of those are in Africa, countries such as Rwanda, South Africa, Mozambique, and so on. This has largely come about as a result of utilizing post-conflict situations, new constitutions being initiated and creation of new governments. These countries have engaged women in those processes, and the ones in which quotas were chiseled into the constitutions, are largely responsible for the kinds of opportunities that women are enjoying. Now women are trying to take their place effectively in the decision-making of their countries.

Another area in political participation that is vitally important, and one in which we are putting a great deal of focus is known as Security Council Resolution 1325. This is now a 10-year-old resolution that came out of the United Nations and has generated a lot of interest and support, but not enough for it to really have the impact that it should have. What it recognizes is that women, peace, and security are linked together, and women need to play a vital role in peace negotiations, in ongoing discussions about the future direction of post-conflict countries and in post-conflict reconstruction.

The women in Liberia are an extraordinary example of progress. Women nudge the peace negotiators to push the peace process forward with some impact and then elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female president in Africa. Also, places like Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire have created action plans or are in the process of creating action plans in post-conflict situations. Obviously, in an ongoing way. Sudan – Somalia has a transitional agreement with a percentage that is dedicated to women’s participation in that process.

In many of these areas, there is a recognition of what needs to be done, but there is not always the political will to ensure that it happens. We know that peace rarely holds unless women are also playing a critical role in the process. So there will be a great deal of focus in the months ahead as we mark the 10th year since 1325 has been in effect. Governments, including the United States, are looking at what we need to be doing, ensuring that this reality is what it is meant to be with the kind of impact we want.

Thirdly, we are supporting women’s access to health. Ambassador Carson mentioned the President’s global health initiative. This initiative is continuing to bring much needed resources in the areas of HIV/AIDs and other infectious diseases. But one of the new focal points , which is critically needed, is maternal and child health, particularly in bringing down the horrific numbers of maternal mortality. Every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a woman dies in childbirth and if she survives, many others will suffer from ongoing debilitating outcomes that prevent them from caring for their children and moving forward with their lives.

Sierra Leone has the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Many of the African countries are beset by this extraordinary challenge. There hasn’t been the kind of progress that needs to be made on this, certainly since the Millennium Development Goals were adopted. So this will be a major focus of the President’s Global Health Initiative, which is women-and-girls-centered health. This seeks to strengthen healthcare systems by creating greater integration and coordination. Therefore outcomes can be much more positive than what we’ve seen. Even though we’ve seen slight progress, we need to be doing much, much better.

We are also supporting women’s roles in climate change. As you heard, again, from Ambassador Carson, the consequences in Africa are grave indeed, as the climate change consequences become more and more felt. And we often talk – we too often talk about women as suffering the greatest impacts. They do, but we rarely hear the other part of that equation. That is the role that women must and should undertake in problem-solving, and in really addressing the climate change problem as they are attempting to do in many places. So far we have been focused on the role of women in adaptation and mitigation. We, along with our international partners are trying to look for ways in which we can enhance their resources to ensure that women can be better agents in addressing this problem, particularly in those areas in which they are already suffering tremendous consequences.

Fifth, combating violence against women is a global scourge and it is an ever-present threat in Africa. It is a terrible human rights violation. It exacerbates the HIV/AIDS problem. It undermines economic productivity and security. The most dangerous places for women are often the most dangerous places period. This is an issue that cannot be relegated to the margins of foreign policy, thus it is a focus that we have in many different areas, and we are trying to positively work to combat violence against women throughout.

It was the women in Africa who first put this issue of violence against women and girls on the international agenda. They did it at the Nairobi Conference, which immediately preceded the Beijing Conference. In Beijing violence against women was recognized for what it is: a violation of human rights, not a private matter, not a cultural matter, but criminal behavior. Violence against women is still seen in too many places and in too many different ways.

First, rape is used as a tool of war, a tool in the armed conflicts. Women in DRC and Sudan, for example, are being attacked as a deliberate and coordinated strategy. When women are the glue that holds communities together, are brutally attacked, those communities are dissolved, populations are displaced. This all, of course, is taking place in an atmosphere of impunity. There are some 1,100 rapes reported. Imagine those that aren’t reported that take place each month in the Eastern DRC. In Eastern Chad, Darfuri women risk rape when they leave camps to collect firewood.. In Kenya, among other places, women also risk attack.

Secretary Clinton, as many of you know, traveled to Goma some months ago to look firsthand at what was happening on the ground in Eastern DRC. She met with the survivors to assess their needs, with the UN peacekeepers, with the leaders of the country and others who were focused in, one way or another, on what was happening there. Obviously, impunity is a problem, and we are looking at ways in which we can provide assistance to the nascent system of justice and ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are prosecuted. That is the first and foremost way to deal with this ongoing situation in terms of the large numbers of rapes that are a deliberate focus. For police trainings, we are now working with a battalion and soldiers there, the FRDC, to ensure that they get gender-based violence training; including terms of why it needs to be prevented and why they shouldn’t engage in this kind of behavior. We were working to ensure that the MONUC, the UN peacekeepers, stationing in DRC are renewed.

We have also been looking why the FRDC, the soldiers and the DRC soldiers often rampage on the citizens. One of the reasons, among others, is that they are not paid, for the most part. Ways in which we could help is to ensure, through a system of mobile banking, that they get the kind of payments that they should have as soldiers. Also ensuring at the same time that they not engage in the kind of horrific behavior that has become far too commonplace. So with the DRC, there have been many levels of engagement; from the political, to assistance to victims and much more in between. Alas, the conflict goes on, the violence continues, and we are trying to make every effort, both with our partners on the continent and through the international bodies, ensuring that what we are doing within the country brings a better result.

Also, as you may know, after the Secretary traveled to Goma, she worked diligently to ensure that the Security Council has new tools at its disposal. Also, the UN has new tools at its disposal, and she worked for a U.S.-backed resolution called 1888. This provides these new tools to enable a greater effort to deal with the sexual gender-based violence that took place, certainly, in DRC, but in many other places as well. 1888 was passed unanimously by the Security Council. It provides for the first ever UN special representative to deal with sexual gender-based violence. Also a team of experts were deployed to look at the conditions before they become the kind of conflict that we see in DRC, and to address those conditions before it’s too late. So a new representative has been named to that position, and we are working closely to ensure the position and the other tools that are available are unleashed in a way that can have a positive impact.

Violence against women also manifests itself through rape in the still growing and disturbing rate of the HIV/AIDS infection. Adolescent girls, especially, are part of the trend upwards, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that anti-retroviral drugs get to those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS. Women are now 60 percent of the people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls are two to five times more likely to become infected than boys. Violence against, particularly against adolescent girls, is one of the prime reasons. Working with PEPFAR, we’ve just announced a new initiative to deal with gender-based violence to really impact bringing the disturbing rate of HIV/AIDS infections down. Initially, we were looking at three countries to focus on, Tanzania, Mozambique, and DRC, in scaling up GBV prevention and response efforts in those initial countries.

Human trafficking continues to be a very big problem in Africa. It is rooted in economic deprivation. There are those criminals who take advantage of people in their situations, promise them all kinds of possibilities, that only result in nightmares. And so we have the specter of modern-day slavery of women, girls, men and boys, but predominantly women and girls being bought and sold like commodities. The Secretary today released the 2010 Anti-Trafficking Report. The Watch List includes countries that are not doing anything, and haven’t been doing very much for a long time, those that need to really get their acts together. There are 18 African countries on that list. At the very, very bottom, four out of twelve countries in tier three are also countries in Africa.

Lastly, let me just touch on child marriage, which is a terrible phenomenon that continues, resulting in great death and disability, particularly with respect to fistula. According to the United Nations, over 40 percent of African women are married under the age of 18. We have seen better results on female genital cutting/ mutilation, particularly when working with communities, at the village level, to work to end this practice from the bottom up. As more laws are passed and the top and the bottom come together, we are seeing progress in that area. But obviously, the challenges are great, but so is the progress that is beginning to take place.

But these are just some of the areas in which we’re working and we know that unless women can take their rightful place and be able to participate fully, gain an education and be free from disease, they will not be able to play the critical role that they need to play to make Africa the extraordinary, prosperous, peaceful place that it can be. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MR. CROWLEY: Given the tyranny of the schedule, I think we have time for one question. Go ahead. Wait for the microphone.

QUESTION: Ambassador Verveer, thank you for your work. I’m Monique Beadle with Falling Whistles. We’re a grass-roots campaign for peace in Eastern Congo. You’ve said repeatedly that women are the key to building peace. And I know that Eastern Congo has a vibrant civil society sector led by a number of women. What specifically is the State Department doing to include women in peace-building in Eastern Congo? Are there specific civil society leaders that we, as NGOs, can also be partnering with?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, in terms of the specific leaders, we probably should get together at some point and talk through who those are who should be included and who may not be included. This morning we had some of our top people back from the ICC big meeting that took place in Kampala, Uganda. One of the things that Ambassador Rapp, who’s the special ambassador for war crimes, was eager to tell me was about the extraordinary positive meeting they had with the DRC delegation. It included some government folks, but particularly civil society leaders and specifically focused on the kind of role that women can play. So this is an area that is a top priority. We want to see more tangible ways in which that should occur. And obviously, especially, as we begin to try to move a process forward, to drive down the ongoing hostilities.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you. (Applause.)

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