Voices of Power: Melanne Verveer

Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, talks about the challenge of empowering women around the world.
Thursday, November 19, 2009; 5:41 AM

MS. ROMANO: Welcome Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. Thanks for joining us today.

MS. VERVEER: It's my pleasure, Lois.

MS. ROMANO: This is a new position.


MS. ROMANO: So what took us so long to send this sort of message to the international community that this is a priority for the United States?

MS. VERVEER: Well, I think we have had some progressive steps over the years. Back in the '90s, there as the formation of the Women's Office. There was a strong commitment from the Congress, from many in the Congress. So there was a Women's Office here. It functioned up until this time, really. It had a lot to do with the preparations for the Beijing Forth World UN Conference. We're ramping up to its fifteenth anniversary, but, really, it's been evolutionary because if you look back to the '90s, not too long ago, there weren't even cables written from posts about what was happening on issues of concern to women that were really matters for our foreign policy consideration.

So, in many ways, we've come a long way, and we've come to a point where President Obama and Secretary Clinton clearly recognize that these are issues that matter a great deal to our foreign policy, that it's hard to imagine how we're going to respond to challenges, whether they're economic or they're matters of security, matters of governance, the environment, if we don't have women participating at all sectors of society.

So it's an effort to truly integrate these concerns into the overall operations of the State Department, and, really, when you look at it fundamentally, they are about women, uniquely affect women, but they really are about the kind of world we want to create. So they're much larger, and it gives us an opportunity to really focus in a way that can be a resource to all of the Departments here.

MS. ROMANO: Your larger message is the empowerment of women, both economically through education, through, you know, political elections. Are these western notions, though, that we're trying to impose on other countries that are not ready?

MS. VERVEER: No, they're not western notions, and, you know, what's so interesting is that in so many places around the world, women may not know what was in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes that all of us are created equal, and we are human beings, and our dignity is protected by these rights.

But they do know deep inside of them, they shouldn't be victims of abuse, they should have the right to participate in the political and economic lives of their society, the right to go to school, and what's happening in places that may be the most hostile environments are what women are doing in those places aided by men and through NGOs, through governments and other ways. They are actually bringing about change.

So, for example, in Morocco, the Family Code was reformed. It took years of struggle because there were many who said it was hostile to their religious values, that it was inappropriate, and yet women and the good men at their sides struggled with them; some were imprisoned, but they finally made it happen. And what they did is they realized that their opponents were saying that this was contrary to their religious values, and the women said, "No. These are our religious values. Our religion doesn't oppose the kinds of things that we are trying to make happen."

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