Remarks by Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg at the Wilson Center

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Looking Back, Looking Forward: Gender Integration and Women’s Empowerment at USAID


Thank you Haleh and the Wilson Center for hosting today’s activity and thank you to Tina Chen for participating in this event.  Most importantly, thank you to all of you from other government agencies, civil society, the private sector, Capitol Hill, foreign missions and academic institutions not only for your attendance here today, but for your advice, partnership, support, and yes, the friendly persuasion and pressure that you put on us to ensure that USAID is a global leader in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment globally.  

I learned a long time ago that partnerships are essential in this area: no individual and no agency has a monopoly on financial resources, ground truth, good ideas or moral authority.

Haleh described my official title as Deputy Administrator, and that’s what it says on the website.  I help provide overall direction and management for the Agency, with an emphasis on the Middle East and Africa, oversee implementation of USAID Forward and advancement of presidential initiatives such as food security, global health, climate change, and democracy and governance.  But in this small intimate environment –webcast throughout the world—I’m going to let you in on a little secret. 

My real day job is to ensure that all our development efforts are implemented in an inclusive manner, in particular drawing on the contributions of previously marginalized and disempowered groups, whether that is women, people with disabilities, indigenous groups, youth, the LGBT community, and religious and ethnic minorities.  They must be at the center of our work, and they must be planners, implementers and beneficiaries of all of our development efforts.  We have a watchword we use at USAID, “Nothing about them without them.” 

I consider that my day job.  And indeed, it is very easy to do that job under the leadership of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Raj Shah, Melanne Verveer, Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen.  In particular, I wanted to salute Secretary Clinton, the tireless leader who truly put this issue on the international global agenda.  Two weeks after taking this position, I remember traveling with her to the United Nations, where she announced to the Security Council –ten years after they passed UN Resolution 1325—that the U.S. would prepare a national action plan on women, peace and security.  She committed the whole United States government –including the State Department, USAID, the Defense Department, and the entire interagency—to completing this task within a year. 

And we did it.  We are now among the leaders in this space in part because of her efforts.  For those who are concerned about what it means for Secretary Clinton to move on – let me assure you that John Kerry, who I’ve worked with over the years, has an unmatched commitment throughout his political and personal life to women’s empowerment and gender equality.  Senate confirmation willing, we’ll be in good hands. 

At USAID, we’re taking this challenge seriously.  We are working to instill gender equality and women’s empowerment into the very DNA of the agency.  This is a purposeful and strategic effort – this isn’t chance.  We are doing this through a number of pillars.

It all starts with people.  The first action we took was to create the position of a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment.  We brought in the best person I know to fill it - Carla Koppell.  You’ll hear from her shortly.   You should know that she is providing the vision, energy, and political savvy that has driven this effort. 

We brought in a world-class gender economist, Caren Grown, who is integrating and mainstreaming gender into all of our major development initiatives, including food security, climate change and global health.

We drew on the leadership of Nancy Lindborg, Sarah Mendelson, and David Yang to establish a new Center for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, and put a particular emphasis on women’s rights, anti-trafficking, and sexual and gender based violence. 

Even more important than this, we drew on the incredible talent and commitment of career civil service, foreign service and foreign service national staff. 

We revitalized our GenDev office under the leadership of Kay Freeman.  We appointed gender advisors or focal points in every operating unit both in the U.S. and abroad.  We trained 500 staff globally and created a network of gender champions to establish a global community of practice within the Agency.

Having good people should lead to good policies – but we took nothing at chance.  We drew on the vision of Susan Reichle and her planning teams to define goals and articulate means of achieving them.   It took us some time.  We wanted to ensure that the process of putting together those strategies added to the ownership of the policies once they were completed.  In the last year, we created the following products:

  • Counter-Trafficking in Persons in February 2012
  • Policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment in March  2012
  • Implementation Plan for the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in August 2012
  • Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally in August 2012
  • Vision for Ending Child Marriage and Meeting the Needs of Married Children in October 2012

Let me stress to you that these are living documents.  I like to say that they are not in my bookshelf – they’re on my desk, and I consult them regularly. 

Each one has a clear identification of the resources we need, the time-bound measurable goals we hope to achieve, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms , and individual offices and people responsible for achieving them.  I personally want to thank the people in this room – you have been generous with your time in putting together these documents, and we expect you to hold us accountable for the real results we said we will achieve.

Third, we are changing our practices and projects.  Carla will talk in much greater detail on this topic.

In the past year, for example, we’ve strengthened the requirement that every new aid project proposal include the equivalent of a "gender impact evaluation."  We’ve expanded mandatory gender training for all incoming officers, and we have instituted a tough new code of conduct for ourselves and our partners with respect to trafficking in persons.  We’ve launched new projects to create safe schools for girls, to expand family planning, to protect women from sexual violence during disasters, and to aggressively combat maternal mortality. 

Ultimately, it’s not about the policies or structures, rather it’s about improving the lives of people on the ground.  I want to use my remaining time to provide you with a few snapshots of what we have seen on the ground.

It began for me in April of 2011 when I visited Afhad University in Khartoum, Sudan – an incredible women’s university in the middle of an Islamic country.   The women told us that the real problem there was that they were not involved in the peace processes of their countries.  They were systematically excluded, and as a result, those peace processes kept failing and failing.  Soon after, we provided a global program of $14 million to ensure that they had training to participate in peace processes –not only for the women in Sudan but around the world—as well as stipends and physical protection, because we all know that one of the most dangerous professions in the world is a women peace-builder. 

Shortly after that, in July 2011, I went to Dolo Ado refugee camp in Kenya.  There were tens of thousands of Somali refugees coming across the border, and I had expected to see an international response that was ineffective in responding to women’s empowerment.  And yet, what we saw was  UNHCR’s, State’s PRM Bureau, and USAID’s programs jointly helping to prevent and respond to sexual violence among refugees, addressing the special challenges of disabled women, expanding the use of reproductive health-care and ensuring access to clean cook stoves.  Unfortunately, we don’t see this cooperation and integration all around the world, but we saw it in this instance.  It was in large part due to the efforts of Carla Koppell and others to sensitize the individuals on the ground on the need to respond in this way.

In September 2011, I traveled to San Luis Robles, which is a community on the coast of Colombia.   I met with Afro-Colombian women who were participating in our rural development programs.  They were able to, for the first time in their lives, turn their backs on coca production by producing alternative crops.  It was a thrilling moment to see them standing up in the public square saying, “Enough is enough.  We will not be manipulated by drug traffickers and the FARC anymore.”  They could do that in part because of the funding that USAID is providing.

In May of last year, I visited Batangas in the Philippines where we have a program that gives women tenure of lands that they have lived on for many, many years.  As we were handing out the titles, one woman grabbed my hand, and she wouldn’t let go.  She told me that she had lived in a community outside Manila for 40 years.  When she first got the land, she lived with her husband, who has since died.  Since he passed, every morning she would wake up wondering if she would be kicked off the land.  Furthermore, because she didn’t own the land, she couldn’t borrow on the land and improve the property.  She looked at me, held up the title, and said that this changes everything. 

Not long after that, I went to Tokyo and attended the Reconstruction Conference for Afghanistan in July 2012.  I had attended the first Reconstruction Conference ten years earlier.  It was an exciting moment to hear Afghan women civil society activists, as well as donor after donor citing progress achieved since the fall of Taliban: expanding life expectancy by 15-20 years in a decade, slicing maternal mortality rates by 60 percent, increasing school attendance for girls from zero to nearly 3 million.  It was equally exciting to hear Hamid Karzai reaffirm that he will not sacrifice the rights and progress of women in the pursuit of a false peace.

When I traveled to Denver, Colorado this past November, I was thrilled again to see students standing up against trafficking in persons – thinking globally but acting locally. They were engaging in datapaloozas, crowd sourcing, and hackathons.  I used to think hacking was a bad thing – but now we have a group that calls themselves “random hacks of kindness.”  They were coming up with innovative ways to address this modern form of slavery.  For example, one group is working on a cell phone application to allow you to see whether trafficked labor was involved in manufacturing the products.  It’s just in the beginning stages, but it’s a good idea.  This is the kind of commitment we have from students around the world. 

Finally, during a visit to Nebaj, Guatemala a few weeks ago, I was impressed with the comprehensive manner in which officials were addressing domestic violence.  They established a one-stop assistance system for women suffering domestic violence, creating a model for other districts.  I also met with leaders of an indigenous women’s group, and during this meeting one man stood up and told us that he grew up in a traditional Guatemalan family where his father beat my mother.  He said, “I watched this and I felt impotent.  I couldn’t do anything to stop him.  So when I grew up, I started beating my wife because that was the expression of who I was as a man.  But a year ago, my wife finally gave birth to a boy, and I looked down, as I held the child in my arms, and I said, this stops with me.”  He was going through psycho-social training to help overcome his learned behavior.

That’s what gives me great hope about the future.  We have great challenges ahead.  I see the massive sexual violence occurring in DRC, India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and even Steubenville, Ohio, and I know we have a long way to go.  But I think about the people in Khartoum and San Luis Robles and Batangas and Nebaj, and they remind me of the words of Robert F. Kennedy.  He said:  

Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

If we are all ripples, then it’s my pleasure to introduce to you now the tsunami of our movement. 

Tina Tchen serves as Assistant to President Barack Obama; Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama; and, for our purposes, equally important.   Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.  Throughout my career, and to others working in this arena, she has been an inspiration to all of us working in this arena.  I like to think of her as the eyes, the ears and the conscience on gender equality and women’s empowerment.  

Wilson Center Washington, DC

Last updated: November 07, 2016

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