International Women's Day Marks 100 Anniversary

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of International Women's Day. The day was created to honor a movement started by New York garment workers, who were fed up with low wages and poor working conditions. Since then, women have been involved in numerous rights' struggles across the globe, most recently in the Middle East. Host Michel Martin discusses women's empowerment with the U.S. first ever Ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today is International Women's Day and it is the 100th anniversary of that day, which was created to honor a movement started by New York garment workers who were fed up with low wages and poor working conditions. Since then, women have been involved in rights struggles around the world. Most recently, as we have seen in demonstrations in the Middle East and the Arab world, but what's really changed for women, globally, in that time.

I'm joined now by Melanne Verveer. She is the White House's ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues. That is a new post created by President Obama when he took office. Melanne Verveer is a former chief of staff to then First Lady Hillary Clinton and also led efforts to set up the president's Interagency Council on Women. And she's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Ambassador, thank you so much joining us.

Ambassador MELANNE VERVEER (Global Women's Issues, White House): Well, thank you, Michel. It's such a pleasure to be here with you.

MARTIN: Most of the people who are listening to this will probably likely never to have heard of this post. So if you could just tell us, what is your goal in this post? What do you hope to achieve?

Amb. VERVEER: Well, it's a new position, as you said, created by President Obama because we recognize, today, that we confront so many challenges around the world, whether they have to do with governance or security or economics or the environment. They can't possibly be solved, let alone tackled, without women participating at all levels of society.

MARTIN: How is this in line with U.S. interests? Clearly if this is a position created by the president and, of course, supported by the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, this must be seen as being aligned with U.S. interest in some way. How is it?

Amb. VERVEER: Well, no country can get ahead today if it leaves half of its people behind. And women, as you said in your opening, are on the front lines of change around the world. They are the people addressing progressive stances, opening up conditions for greater opportunity economically, for making sound decisions in parliaments, for addressing some of the most egregious human rights violations.

So it's clearly something that matters to the United States. It's important in terms of it being the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do today. It is truly an important ingredient of 21st century diplomacy.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that, when it comes to the question of women's empowerment, the U.S. talks the talk, but it doesn't walk the walk. For example, in this Sunday's Washington Post, there's an article that describes the U.S. International Aid Agency, USAID, when it was rewarding land reform contracts last year, it required that contractors meet specific goals around women's empowerment.

But even before the contract was awarded, it largely stripped out those goals in response to local pressure. Sources with the administration say gender issues have taken a backseat to other priorities and people say it's always that way.

Amb. VERVEER: Well, I also read that story in The Washington Post and that story in many ways was accurate in terms, as I understand, the specific program, but was totally inaccurate in terms - and this is something I know intimately in terms of the overall strategy of the United States and Afghanistan.

Women and women's progress in Afghanistan is absolutely essential to creating a better future in that country. It is a key priority in our overall stabilization program and has been for some time. We are heavily invested in development issues there, whether it's education, health care, protecting women from violence, economic opportunity.

In all of those areas, there has been tremendous progress. And the Afghan women will tell you as they've told me on countless occasions - they have made great progress. One, in fact said to me one evening in Kabul, please don't look at us as victims. Look at us as the leaders that we are.

And women in Afghanistan have to play a rightful role in moving towards the new future in that country. Because if there is any potential for peace and for it not to be subverted, women's voices can't be silenced or marginalized. And that is a key ingredient of our overall strategy in Afghanistan. If there's anybody that wants to see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, it's the women. They have suffered so terribly much.

They want to be assured, however, that they are part of the discussions that lead to the kind of progress for the future that will not trade their rights for whatever is determined as it goes forward.

MARTIN: But you can understand why - well, some might argue that it isn't the U.S.'s place to make governance decisions, for example, to determine set quotas for women's representation in government, the governments of other countries. We don't have that in this country. But some people don't understand why isn't it appropriate for the U.S. to set benchmarks for participation involving U.S. resources, which USAID is.

Amb. VERVEER: Well, and in fact, in this place we haven't. We've got a redline in terms of future negotiations as they go forward, that anybody who's involved in reintegration has got to renounce Al-Qaeda, it's got to renounce violence and has got to support and uphold the Afghan constitution, which clearly lays out women's rights. So there is certainly much more participation on all levels and it's something that we see as critical to the stabilization of that country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. We're talking today about issues involving women globally with Melanne Verveer. She is President Obama's ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues, and a former chief of staff for Hillary Clinton when she was first lady of the United States.

So, you know, ambassador, around the world, I know people have said this to you, the U.S. still lags far behind the participation of women in public life, particularly in our legislative bodies, compared with countries as diverse as Rwanda and many countries in Scandinavia. Why do you think that is?

Amb. VERVEER: Well, you're exactly right. Our numbers in our own Congress are around 17 percent. The average today is 19 percent. There are about 10 countries at 30 percent. And that doesn't include what is going on at the local level of the state level. But we are far behind.

And the data shows, for example, the World Economic Forum does an annual study that look at the gender gap - the parity between men and women in a given country. We finally broke the top 20 and the Scandinavian countries do best in closing that gap.

But in terms of political participation, there are four criteria on which the measurement occurs. Political participation, political empowerment for women is the toughest challenge anywhere. And countries are doing better than we. Rwanda, South Africa, other countries in Africa, for example, have instituted quotas as part of their constitutions, but I think countries that don't have greater numbers of women participating in the body politic, in the end, don't have that fullness of experiences and talents that women can bring that can really dramatically positively impact policy.

We've seen in our own country, even though our numbers aren't as great as they should be, that women have come across the aisle, given regardless what their politics is at times and really focused on issues that otherwise would not have gotten on the table. Whether it has to do with women's health or women in employment or any number of issues that have made us a better and stronger country.

MARTIN: Melanne Verveer is the ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues. It's a new position. She's a former chief of staff for then First Lady Hillary Clinton and a former assistant to President Bill Clinton during his term of office. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. We hope we'll speak again.

Amb. VERVEER: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.