It's an honor to be here today on this historic 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. For those of us who have spent decades working on issues of women's empowerment and protection in conflict situations and development, these are heady times. There is a growing awareness not only of the personal costs of the exclusion for the economic, political and social mainstream, but of the tremendous collective costs such exclusion yields in failing to achieve our goals of building peace, pursuing development, and reconstructing post-conflict societies.
It is tragic that it has taken graphic images of women raped in the Eastern Congo, and young girls with acid thrown in their faces in Afghanistan for daring to return to school to shame our collective conscience, but the world is responding. At the United Nations, the creation of UN Women, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, and a special representative for eliminating violence against women has changed the landscape and the international agenda for action.
Within the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Ambassadors Susan Rice and Melanne Verveer and White House coordinators Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen, issues of gender equality and women's empowerment are front and center. At USAID, we are taking this challenge seriously. Over the last five months alone, we have contributed to the development of a National Action Plan under UN Security Council Resolution 1325; strengthened the requirement for every USAID project proposal to provide the equivalent of a "gender impact statement"; expanded mandatory gender awareness training for all incoming officers; instituted a tough code of conduct for all AID employees and our development partners with respect to trafficking in persons; created two new senior positions as senior coordinator for gender equality and women's empowerment and for gender integration in our major Presidential initiatives in food security, global health, and climate change; and laid the groundwork for additional progress by fully incorporated gender equality and women's empowerment in the landmark QDDR issued last December.
In this context, I wanted to use this forum to address an article that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, using changes in a single AID project in Afghanistan to suggest that we are reducing our commitment to women empowerment in Afghanistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We have, in fact, provided more than 500 grants for women in Afghanistan, focused on capacity building for civil society, basic education, women's equality under the law, land reform, micro-enterprise, and political and social inclusion.
As part of a government-wide effort, USAID is currently providing more support to address the illiteracy, poor health, extreme poverty, and political exclusion that still bedevil the lives of Afghan women than at any time in our agency's history. We have more than doubled spending on women and girls since 2008 to over $200 million, created and fully staffed a new gender unit in 2010, and required all programs to integrate gender in their project design and evaluation.
Improvements in access to education, health care, employment, political office, and economic opportunity have been notable since the fall of the Taliban, including the return of 2.5 million girls to school. But there is still a long way to go, and the US government is committed to making these gains deeper and irreversible. We do this not simply as a matter of fairness or equity, but because investments in women and promotion of women's participation and equality are non-negotiable requirement for lasting peace, stability, and social progress.
For me, these steps are both long-overdue and deeply personal. In 1994, while serving as President Clinton's advisor for Africa, I supported negotiations to end two decades of civil war in Angola that had killed a half million people and left four million homeless. When the Lusaka Protocol was signed, I boasted that not a single provision in the agreement discriminated against women. "The agreement is gender-neutral," I said in a speech. President Clinton then named me ambassador to Angola. It took me only a few weeks after my arrival in Luanda to realize that a peace agreement that calls itself "gender-neutral" is, by definition, discriminatory against women.
First, the agreement did not require the participation of women in the implementation body. As a result, 40 men and zero women sat around the peace table. This imbalance silenced women's voices and meant that issues such as sexual violence, human trafficking, abuses by government and rebel security forces, reproductive health care, and girls' education were generally ignored.
The peace accord was based on 13 separate amnesties that forgave the parties for atrocities committed during the conflict. Given the prominence of sexual abuse during the conflict, including rape as a weapon of war, amnesty meant that men with guns forgave other men with guns for crimes committed against women. The amnesties introduced a cynicism at the heart of our efforts to rebuild the justice and security sectors.
Similarly, demobilization programs for ex-combatants defined a combatant as anyone who turned in a gun. Thousands of women who had been kidnapped or coerced into the armed forces were largely excluded, including so-called bush wives and sex slaves. And demobilization camps were rarely constructed with women in mind, such that women risked rape each time they left the camp to get firewood or used latrines in isolated and dimly-lit settings. Male ex-combatants received demobilization assistance, but were sent back to communities that had learned to live without them during decades of conflict. The frustration of these men exploded into an epidemic of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, rape, and domestic violence. This was especially true for young boys, who had never learned how to interact on an equal basis with girls their own ages. In effect, the end of civil war unleashed a new era of violence against women and girls.
Even such well-intentioned efforts as clearing major roads of landmines to allow four million displaced persons to return to their homes backfired against women. Road clearance sometimes preceded the demining of fields, wells, and forests. As newly resettled women went out to plant the fields, fetch water, and collect firewood, they faced a new rash of landmine accidents.
We recognized these problems, and brought out gender advisers and human rights officers; launched programs in reproductive health care, girls' education, micro-enterprise, and support for women's NGOs; and involved women in planning and implementing all our programs.
Civil society - and particularly women - began to view the peace process as serving their interests, and not just of the warring parties. When the process faltered in 1998, there was no public appetite for a return to conflict, and lasting peace.
When social order breaks down it is women and girls who suffer most, especially when rape is used as a weapon of war. But how we make peace is equally important in determining whether the end of armed conflict means a safer world for women or simply a different and in some cases more pernicious era of violence against them.
Angola is, sadly, not an isolated case. Around the world, talented women peace builders face discrimination in legal, cultural, and traditional practices, and threats of violence make even the most courageous women think twice before stepping forward.
Only one in 14 participants in peace negotiations since 1992 have been women. Of 300 ceasefire accords, power-sharing arrangements, and other peace agreements negotiated since 1989, just 18 of them - just six percent - contain even a passing reference to sexual violence. Similarly, in emergency funding to support 23 post-conflict situations since 2006, only three percent of the projects included specific funding for women and girls - this despite our knowledge that girls' education, for example, is the single best investment in promoting stable societies and improving socio-economic standards in these countries.
We can no longer exclude the talents and insights of half the population in the pursuit of peace and development, nor treat them as mere victims.
Women's empowerment is a non-negotiable investment in the success of peace operations. In Afghanistan and beyond, failure to consolidate peace and stability no longer impacts just the people of that country, but opens the door to training camps for global terrorists; new routes for trafficking of persons, arms and illegal drugs; flood of refugees across borders and even oceans; incubation of pandemic disease; and even piracy.
And I might add that there is nothing "soft" about these issues.
There is nothing "soft" about going after traffickers who turn women and girls into commodities.
There is nothing "soft" about preventing armed thugs from abusing women in inter-displaced persons camps or holding warlords and other human rights violators accountable for their actions against women.
There is nothing "soft" about forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and a prominence in peace operations.
These are among the hardest responsibilities on our agenda, and I'm pleased to reaffirm here this morning the commitment of the U.S. Government and USAID in particular in addressing them. Thank you.
- Remarks by Dr. Susan Brems, Mission Director, Launch of Department of Energy Gender Toolkit for the Energy Sector
- Remarks by Eric G. Postel, Associate Administrator, at the COP-21 Side Event: IUCN and Government of Liberia Climate Change and Gender Equality
- Remarks by USAID/RDMA Mission Director Beth Paige at the Asia Resilience Training and Workshop
Last updated: January 29, 2016