By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
She talked chickens with female farmers in Kenya. She listened to the excruciating stories of rape victims in war-torn eastern Congo. And in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a housing project built by poor women, where she danced with a choir singing "Heel-a-ree! Heel-a-ree!"
Clinton's just-concluded 11-day trip to Africa has sent the clearest signal yet that she intends to make women's rights one of her signature issues and a higher priority than ever before in American diplomacy.
She plans to press governments on abuses of women's rights and make women more central in U.S. aid programs.
But her efforts go beyond the marble halls of government and show how she is redefining the role of secretary of state. Her trips are packed with town hall meetings and visits to micro-credit projects and women's dinners. Ever the politician, she is using her star power to boost women who could be her allies.
"It's just a constant effort to elevate people who, in their societies, may not even be known by their own leaders," Clinton said in an interview. "My coming gives them a platform, which then gives us the chance to try and change the priorities of the governments."
Clinton's agenda faces numerous obstacles. The U.S. aid system is a dysfunctional jumble of programs. Some critics may question why she is focusing on women's rights instead of terrorism or nuclear proliferation. And improving the lot of women in such places as Congo is complicated by deeply rooted social problems.
"It's great she's mentioning the issue," said Brett Schaefer, an Africa scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "As to whether her bringing it up will substantially improve the situation or treatment of women in Africa, frankly I doubt it."
Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said that Clinton has to tread carefully in socially conservative regions, particularly those where the U.S. military is at war. "You might be right, in the narrow sense of women in that country or region need to be empowered, but you're saying something inimical to other U.S. interests," he said.
Despite Clinton's efforts to spotlight women's issues, it was her own angry response to what she perceived as a sexist question at a town hall meeting in Congo that dominated American television coverage of her Africa trip. A student had asked for former president Bill Clinton's opinion on a local political issue -- "through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton." Snapped Hillary Clinton: "My husband is not the secretary of state. I am."
Clinton is not the first female secretary of state, but neither of her predecessors had her impact abroad as a pop feminist icon. On nearly every foreign trip, she has met with women -- South Korean students, Israeli entrepreneurs, Iraqi war widows, Chinese civic activists. Clinton mentioned "women" or "woman" at least 450 times in public comments in her first five months in the position, twice as often as her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
Clinton's interest in global women's issues is deeply personal, a mission she adopted as first lady after the stinging defeat of her health-care reform effort in 1994. For months, she kept a low profile. Then, in September 1995, she addressed the U.N. women's conference in Beijing, strongly denouncing abuses of women's rights. Delegates jumped to their feet in applause.
"It was a transformational moment for her," said Melanne Verveer, who has worked closely with Clinton since her White House days.
Clinton began traveling the world, highlighting women's issues. She gradually built a network of female activists, politicians and entrepreneurs, especially through a group she helped found, Vital Voices, that has trained more than 7,000 emerging leaders worldwide. She developed a following among middle-class women in male-dominated countries who devoured her autobiography and eagerly watched her presidential run.
"She might not be having the same restrictions as we have, but she has had restrictions -- and she's moving on. That's a symbol to us," said Tara Fela-Durotoye, a businesswoman in Abuja, Nigeria.
Clinton's legacy is evident in such places as the Victoria Mxenge housing development outside Cape Town, South Africa, a dusty sprawl of small, pastel-colored homes she championed as first lady. When her bus rolled into the female-run project during her trip, a joyful commotion broke out. Women in purple and yellow gowns lined the streets, waving wildly.
A youth choir swayed outside a community center decorated with photos of Clinton on her previous visits to the project, which has grown to 50,000 houses. Clinton vowed in a major policy address last month to make women the focus of U.S. assistance programs. The idea is applauded by development experts, who have found that investing in girls' education, maternal health and women's micro-finance provides a powerful boost to Third World families.
Ritu Sharma, president of the anti-poverty group Women Thrive Worldwide, said she already sees the results of Clinton's efforts in the bureaucracy. When Sharma's staff recently attended a meeting about a new agricultural aid program, she said, one State Department official joked, "We have to integrate women -- or we're going to be fired."
Still, Sharma questioned whether the program would succeed in reaching poor women, especially given the weaknesses in U.S. foreign assistance.
"There's a lot of healthy skepticism about 'Will it really happen?' " she said.
In a sign of the priority she gives to the issue, Clinton has appointed her close friend Verveer as the State Department's first global ambassador for women's affairs.
"She will permeate the State Department, as I want her to, with what we should be doing about empowering and focusing on women across the board," Clinton said.
One issue Verveer has been concerned about is violence against women, particularly the stunningly high number of rapes in eastern Congo. Last week, Clinton, Verveer and the delegation boarded U.N. planes to visit the remote, impoverished region and meet with rape victims. Clinton pressed the Congolese president to prosecute offenders and offered $17 million in new assistance for victims.
"Raising issues like the ones I've been raising on this trip to get governments to focus on them, to see they're not sidelined or subsidiary issues, but that the U.S. government at the highest levels cares about them, is important," she said. "It changes the dynamic within governments."
Clinton's efforts are being reinforced by a White House women's council and a Congress with a growing number of powerful female members. One sign of that: Aid dedicated to programs for Afghan women and girls increased about threefold this year, to $250 million, because of lawmakers such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was recently named head of the first Senate subcommittee on global women's issues, and Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
It is striking how much time Clinton dedicates to women's events on her trips, even ones that receive little public attention. In South Africa, a clearly delighted Clinton spent 90 minutes at the housing project, twice as long as she met with South Africa's president. "It feeds my heart," she explained. "Which is really critical to me personally since a lot of what I do as secretary of state is very formalistic. It's meetings with other officials."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.