An official website of the United States government

A/S Brimmer on Advancing the Status of Women Around the World
October 26, 2010

Resolution 1325 was the first effort by the Council to specifically identify and address the particular vulnerabilities of women in conflict zones. (Photo: USUN New York)

October 22, 2010

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

National Cathedral School: Educating Women for the World Speaker Series
Washington, DC

(As Prepared For Delivery)

Thank you very much for that very kind introduction. I’m thrilled to be back at NCS, and to be honored with the opportunity to speak to such an exceptional assembly of young women. I can almost imagine myself sitting there with you – I spent my formative years on the Close. I still love hearing the peal of the Cathedral’s bells when I drive home through Cleveland Park.

I return today in my role as Assistant Secretary of State, having happily accepted the invitation to speak to you about a priority I know we all share – the empowerment of women. Now, as intelligent, dynamic young women – as “polished corners” – you have doubtless already begun to define for yourselves what empowerment means, what empowerment should entail.

There is no one definition, of course, and certainly not all women around the world would approach such a definition from the same starting point. For you, as it was for me, empowerment might include being able to pursue higher education, an advanced degree, a successful career. For women elsewhere, empowerment might begin with access to a basic education, available health care, even the right to assemble. What is more important than the definition, however, is that we strive to narrow the gap between those realities and accelerate our efforts toward a shared vision of the fully empowered woman.

First, though, let me give you a better sense of who I am, where I reside in the U.S. government architecture, and how my responsibilities intersect with empowerment issues. As an Assistant Secretary of State, I work directly for Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, and am among the small group at the Department of State known as the Senior Staff – those key officials with leadership responsibilities for the Department’s programs, our embassies overseas, et cetera.

As the Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, I guide and oversee the State Department’s interaction with the United Nations system and a large number of other international organizations. You’ve heard of many of these bodies – UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program. Others are perhaps less known to you – anyone familiar with the Universal Postal Union? The World Intellectual Property Organization?

My bureau is not the largest of State Department bureaus, but nonetheless has more than 500 employees and manages a budget of nearly 5 billion dollars. You may also be surprised to learn that there are seven U.S. multilateral diplomatic posts around the world. Those include:

  • the U.S. mission to the UN in New York
  • the U.S. mission to UN agencies in Rome
  • the U.S. mission to the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, and
  • the U.S. mission to the UN agencies in Nairobi

Ok, the point being, the United States is deeply and broadly engaged with dozens of international organizations, and my bureau is charged with focusing that engagement in manners most likely to advance U.S. national interests.

Peace of cake, right? Well, not always. Multilateral diplomacy can be tricky, complicated, even frustrating. So, why do it? Why not employ a “my way or the highway” approach to our foreign policy priorities?

The answer to that question resides in the three organizational pillars of the UN itself: peace and security, development, and human rights. Obviously, the U.S. has clear interest in all three of these pillars – none of which can be easily or broadly addressed with bilateral or unilateral tools. In order to deal with regional conflicts or make meaningful progress on global issues such as climate change or the threat of terrorism, the nations of the world must have a forum in which these issues, these challenges, can be constructively and concretely approached. You all know this, and not just those of you who have participated in the NCS Model UN program.

So, multilateral engagement can be challenging. It is also crucial. When the President took office, he announced his intent to launch an era of engagement – an era marked by invigorated U.S. leadership on a host of global issues – climate change, food security, health, nonproliferation. That era is underway, and we’ll talk a bit about that shortly, but I want you to listen to my remarks today in that context. If we, the United States, want to play a leadership role on issues of concern to the larger world, including empowerment issues, we need to exercise that leadership in multilateral settings.

Let’s turn, then, to the issue of empowerment. To begin, I would propose to apply some definition to that issue in a foreign policy context. As I do so, and as we begin talking about specific topics, I want to issue a challenge. I challenge you to imagine yourself in my shoes, imagine yourself tackling some of these issues, working for an international organization, the United Nations – becoming a U.S. diplomat, working in foreign cultures, foreign languages. I don’t have to tell an assembly of NCS students that there is a big world outside these walls. In my view, your challenge will be less a question of access to that world than choosing among its myriad paths.

I’m done preaching, I promise. To the matter at hand. Here is the one sentence I would like you to recall from my talk today. The United States, as represented by President Obama, Secretary Clinton, myself, and many others, has never been more determined to advance the status of women around the world.

This determination is evident in our leadership, it is evident in our actions, and it is central to the Administration’s efforts to engage more robustly and more effectively with international organizations. Why the determination? I believe Secretary Clinton said it best just recently, when she said:

“Too often, still today in 2010, women and girls bear the burdens of regional and global crises, whether it’s an economic downturn or climate change or political instability. They still are the majority of the world’s poor, unschooled, unhealthy, and underfed. They are rarely the cause of violent conflicts, but increasingly they bear the consequences of such conflicts. We’ve seen that from the Congo to Bosnia to Burma.”

Clearly, we remain a considerable distance from reaching that shared vision. How, then, do we make progress toward the goal? First, we need to acknowledge that we have made progress, we are making progress. It is that progress which spurs us on and gives us confidence that further effort will yield further results.

For example, this month marks the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. This resolution was the first effort by the Council to specifically identify and address the particular vulnerabilities of women in conflict zones. It responded to a long, long history of women falling victim to atrocities, including sexual violence, during conflicts.

Resolution 1325 recognized that women, who, after all, comprise over half the world’s population, must have a key role in resolving conflict, and that the absence of that role only inhibits conflict resolution. This was quite a departure for the United Nations – a breakthrough in how we conceptualize conflict, how we define peace and security issues.

Since Resolution 1325 was passed, there has been incremental progress in efforts to address the themes the resolution addressed. The U.S. has been a leading voice in that regard, of course. In more recent years, the United States has successfully advocated for two additional UN Security Council Resolutions, 1820 and 1888, which gave the UN concrete tools to address sexual violence and encourage Member States to do more, to take demonstrable action, to combat this evil and assist victims.

Next Tuesday, I will have the privilege of joining Secretary Clinton in New York to participate in a Security Council session marking the 10th anniversary of Resolution 1325. She will take this opportunity not just to mark the occasion, but to renew the call to action and outline new efforts by the United States to see the Resolution find its full implementation.

In a similar vein, the United States has been a leading advocate for increasing the role of women in peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. For too long we thought of peacekeeping only in terms of putting United Nations “blue helmets” between conflicting parties. We know that is not enough. We know that women must have voice in defining how peace is made and kept in their communities. We know that peacekeepers must be better trained and better equipped to manage the very particular security threats women face in and after a conflict.

I would also note that the United States would like to see more women peacekeepers! Today, there are some 3,000 women serve in peacekeeping missions around the world, out of more than 100,000 total. That doesn’t strike me as appropriate representation – how about you?

Global health is also a key Administration priority that will have significant multilateral components. Last month the President outlined an innovative new U.S. approach to development. Part of that new approach is the Global Health Initiative, which includes expanded investment in maternal and child health, family planning, nutrition, and infectious diseases. That investment is rooted in the firm belief that focusing on women and girls is a force multiplier.

In terms of education, we must also do more. While it is true that nearly two-thirds of developing countries have met the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of eliminating gender disparity in primary education, it is also fair to point out that one-third have not. It is also fair to state that gender disparity is only one element of education empowerment.

Consider the fact that more than 70 million children still have not access to education at all. The majority of these children are girls, and almost 80 per cent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Not acceptable. The bottom line is this: as long as girls do not have access, and equal access to education, that empowerment vision will remain out of reach, and the correlated goals of healthier families and healthier communities will remain out of reach.

Again, the United States is injecting new and renewed energy into the effort to extend the benefits of education to women and girls. We have increased dramatically our aid to education programs in more than 50 countries. We are also expanding our work with key multilateral partners – including the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO – to strengthen their efforts to promote universal access to primary education and improve the quality of education around the world.

Within that theme of improved access to and quality of education, let me note in particular the importance of languages and science education. I do so not just in the context of improving the lot of girls around the world, but also in light of this institution’s well-known excellence in both fields. I, for example, had the great good fortune of learning much of my French right here at NCS, and I would be remiss in my duties as an alumna and as a U.S. diplomat were I to miss the opportunity to encourage strongly the vigorous pursuit of a second or third language.

Indeed, one of my priorities as Assistant Secretary is to encourage American citizens to compete for employment in the UN system. Perhaps some of you will be inclined in that direction. Unfortunately, many American candidates for UN jobs who are technically qualified find that they do not possess the requisite foreign language skills.

Similarly, undertaking a career in the sciences can unlock terrific opportunities in the international system. Proof of that can be found in UNESCO’s recent appointment of American Gretchen Kalonji to be assistant director-general of its Natural Sciences Sector. Here too, NCS is starting you on the right path – a path that is leading some of you this very weekend from the beautifully renovated facilities of Scott Hall to the National Mall for the first-ever USA Science & Engineering Festival.

Ladies, you are the leaders of tomorrow. How do I know that? Because NCS has a century-long tradition of educating women for the world. I am deeply thankful to be a graduate of this outstanding institution – a graduate who took the advantages gained through an excellent education and employed them to develop a career, build a family, and experience the wider world.

It seems to me, that as we talk today about defining a vision of empowerment, we could usefully start and end right here at NCS. Because we know that when women and girls have quality education, access to healthcare, economic opportunity, they and their families will flourish, their communities will grow and prosper, and peace will become the norm, not the exception.

That is that vision the United States seeks to promote. We do so to advance and protect U.S. national security – that’s very true. However, we also do so because we have a vision of the world where women are equal partners in its governance, its maintenance, and its future. My thanks to you all.


10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security – video

The United States and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – Fact Sheet