Insights and Analysis

Melanne Verveer: “No Country Can Get Ahead That Leaves Half its People Behind.”

May 27, 2015

On June 3 in New York City, The Asia Foundation will honor two acclaimed women leaders – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn, and women’s rights advocate and Director of India’s Centre for Social Research Ranjana Kumari – as the recipients of the fifth annual Lotus Leadership Award, in recognition of their contributions to the well-being of women and their communities in Asia. We sat down this week with Asia Foundation Trustee Melanne Verveer, director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, and the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues from 2009 to 2013. We asked her how far women had come in Asia, and how far they had yet to go.


Melanne Verveer

Melanne Verveer. Photo/Amy Deputy, 2013

There is robust evidence that increasing gender equality reduces poverty. You have suggested that if Asia fails to provide opportunities for women, the region will not live up to its economic potential. As the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, are you optimistic that Asia, as a whole, will provide more opportunities to women, and what benefits do you foresee?

There are wide variations in gender equality in Asia. Some countries, for example, have made greater progress in women’s political participation, while others have had greater success moving women from the informal workforce to the formal sector. India’s standing on the gender equality index in terms of human development is very low, yet it has significantly increased women’s political representation on village councils (the panchayets), and more women on village councils corresponds to greater investment in the needs of the community. Bangladesh has made strong improvements in women’s workplace participation and in closing the gender gap in several areas.

I think the potential in Asia for improvements in gender equality is strong. Today there is a plethora of data that shows that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population – its women – behind. We know that educating girls is the single most effective development investment. We know that women’s economic participation creates greater prosperity. In the words of former World Bank President Robert Zoellick: “Gender equality is smart economics.” When women make progress, all of society makes progress.

You have said publicly that when women are able to earn an income, they invest it back into their families and communities, “raising the standard of living for everybody.” Can you give an example to illustrate what this kind of investment looks like?

One of the hallmarks of women’s work is that their income has a multiplier effect. Women tend to use their income to invest in their families through education, health care, nutrition, etc. These investments not only raise up individual families, but also enhance the well-being of communities. In the process, women raise their own standard of living and the standard of living more broadly.

You served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, and you were there in Beijing in 1995 when she said, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” How do you think the state of women’s rights in Asia and around the world has changed in the 20 years since that declaration was made? What challenges remain?

In September, the world will observe the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing. It was there that a Platform for Action was adopted by consensus by 184 countries. The Platform continues to be a blueprint by which we measure our progress to this day. It called for access to education and health care for women and girls, for full economic and political participation, to be free from violence, and to enjoy legal rights.

There has been much progress these two decades since, but our journey is not complete. More girls are completing primary school, but the rates for secondary are still very low. Violence against women is a global scourge, but today there are laws criminalizing abuse. However, many of the laws are not adequately implemented or enforced, and needed programs are inadequately funded. We know that men and boys need to be part of the solution, and there are excellent models being developed to engage their participation.

Women’s political participation in elective positions improves, but it is an area in which the least progress has been made. The Beijing Platform put a spotlight on women in conflict, and yet sexual violence continues to be a preferred strategic tool of combatants in many conflicts raging today. Women need to be at the table when peace agreements are being determined. For the first time, a woman led the negotiating team for her government. This occurred in the Philippines in the negotiations on Mindanao. Women’s participation also will be crucial to any peace process in Afghanistan. The gains since Beijing are documented, but there is a significant unfinished agenda.

Melanne Verveer at 2014 Lotus Leadership Awards

Melanne Verveer welcomes guests at last year’s Lotus Leadership Awards. Photo/Whitney Legge

The Asia Foundation has worked for over 60 years with partners at all levels – from government, to the grassroots, to the private sector. Why are strong linkages at all levels – with communities, civil society organizations, and government bodies – so essential to creating progress for women?

No one sector of society can address all the challenges – from growing economies to addressing climate change and from improving governance to advancing peace. No one sector has all the competencies or resources. When we work together, we better innovate solutions. I think one of the important paradigm shifts we are witnessing today is collaboration between civil society, government, and the private sector. When I was in government, we promoted public-private partnerships to enhance women’s entrepreneurship or to address gender-based violence because it was an effective way to make progress. We also need to work at all levels of society. For progress to occur, I like to say that we need to follow the recipe for Indonesian pancakes: “Heat at the top and heat at the bottom.” Every segment of society at all levels needs to be part of the solution.

You have consistently argued that women are indispensable to achieving peace, stability and economic prosperity in Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan “will not advance if the women are shortchanged, and their talents, energy, and experiences untapped.” Yet despite gains since 2001, Afghan women still face significant challenges, including barriers to political and economic participation. The Asia Foundation’s annual Survey of the Afghan People has found that 68 percent of Afghans now think women should be able to work outside the home, but a plurality still believe that political positions in government should be mostly for men. What do you think should be our key priorities when working to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan?

I think women in Afghanistan have made tremendous progress in the last decade, and it is the Afghan women who often tell me how far they have come. More girls are in school since the days when the Taliban forbade girls the right to go to school. Women comprise about 30 percent of the seats in Parliament. Civil society grows stronger each day, and women play significant roles in a variety of NGO initiatives. Maternal mortality rates, although still high, have come down, and women are engaged as entrepreneurs and in work outside the home. However, Afghanistan remains a very conservative society, and security remains a daily challenge. Violence against women is a very serious problem, although there is a law to address the violence that is having some impact. Afghanistan has just adopted a national action plan recognizing the role of women in peace and security. Afghanistan’s economy is a very serious challenge, and growing women’s entrepreneurship and employment will be very important. Clearly, there is much that continues to be needed.

Investments in capacity building are lasting and should remain a priority both in skills and leadership development for civil service, entrepreneurship, the security sector, political participation, peacebuilding, and strengthening civil society. Efforts to address violence against women through the justice sector, in terms of protection and prevention, as well as more ways to work with religious leaders, men, and boys are all critically needed.

The Lotus Circle supports The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program by providing private funds that can be leveraged to advance women’s opportunities in Asia. What do you think are some of the most strategic investments that can be made to help give women a better life, and how do you think the Lotus Circle is helping to achieve these goals?

I believe that among the best investments that The Asia Foundation makes are those made through Lotus Circle funds. An empowered woman is a woman who has agency and voice. She is capable of becoming economically independent, educating her children, and making a difference. We know that investing in women and girls – in education, in providing work skills, in promoting legal rights, in combating violence against women like human trafficking, and in enhancing civic and political participation – is a high-yield investment. The Lotus Circle, through the generosity of individuals, tells her, she can. Nothing is more powerful, more life changing, more necessary to create a better world.


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