Lessons from the Obama Administration: Why Gender Equality Should Continue to Be Part of U.S. Foreign Policy

By Tom Donilon and Cathy Russell

It was the women who noticed something suspicious. In a community in southern Afghanistan, unfamiliar people were knocking on doors, asking families if their sons would be interested in working on foreign investment projects. But the local women knew that foreign investments in this remote corner of Afghanistan were unlikely. As they investigated, they learned the community’s boys were actually being targeted for something far more unsavory: recruitment by militants.

Some of the women traveled to Kabul to sound the alarm. They tracked down a government minister to hear their concerns, but he didn’t take a single note during the meeting and laughed them out the door. Within a month, the militants attacked a bus in their community, killing dozens of people.

Wazhma Frogh describes how Afghan women reported warning signs of violent extremism in their rural communities–and what happened when the government ignored them, at an event presented by Inclusive Security in association with the U.S. Department of State., in October 2015.

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan activist, shared this story at a global gathering reflecting on international action to include more women in global peace and security efforts. Her story illustrates a broader point we’ve seen and heard all too often: despite international commitments, and even though women are frequently at the center of local efforts to hold communities together during conflicts, they are rarely at the tables when important national and international political decisions are made. If they do make it to the table, like the women in Wazhma’s story, their perspectives are often not taken seriously.

Over the past eight years, the Obama Administration has elevated women’s issues to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. In speeches around the world, President Obama has consistently addressed women’s empowerment and the obstacles standing in its way, even including tough or taboo topics like female genital mutilation and cutting. He has featured women and girls in his public events, from a town hall in Africa on countering violent extremism to the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Palo Alto. He has signed executive orders that integrate women’s issues into U.S. foreign policy, including one that created the position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. And he appointed two Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who have championed women’s issues in Foggy Bottom and around the world.

President Obama hugs an adolescent girl during his trip to Kenya in July 2015.

Why has the Obama Administration placed global women’s empowerment at the center of U.S. foreign policy? One reason, certainly, is the long American tradition of standing up for our best values and seeking to lift up the lives of people beyond our borders.

But that is only part of the story. The fact is that the advancement of women around the world is profoundly in the national interest of the United States. Hard evidence tells us what women’s empowerment means for countries that prioritize it.

We now know that countries that fully integrate women into their economic and political life become wealthier and safer.

On an international scale, we know that women’s empowerment is spurring global growth and helping rebuild fragile and conflict-torn societies. These trends will boost American efforts to address geopolitical instability, to raise global living standards, and to expand markets for American businesses.

We come to this issue from different perspectives. One of us is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and has sought to formally integrate gender into America’s diplomatic and development. The other served as President Obama’s national security advisor, and has spent decades thinking about hard power and strategic threats. Both of us, however, have seen the concrete benefits of global women’s empowerment and believe women’s issues should continue to be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy in the next administration and beyond.

“Imagine if you have a team and you don’t let half of the team play,” President Obama said last year in Kenya. “That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”

Research illustrates what we have to gain by letting the whole team play, as it were, in economies around the world. At the global level, around 50 percent of women are working, compared to over 76 percent of men. A 2016 McKinsey report estimated that, if the global gender gap in workforce participation were to close, global GDP would rise by $28 trillion by 2025. That amounts to about a quarter of the world’s current GDP and almost half of the world’s current debt.

These lessons are applicable to developing and developed countries alike. In Egypt, closing the gender gap in employment could spell GDP gains of more than 30 percent. Japan, which has struggled with an aging population and stagnant growth, could boost its GDP by 13 percent. Our very own economy would produce $4.3 trillion more annually by 2025 if we eliminated gender barriers in the labor market.

Research also indicates that women are more likely than men to invest their earnings in their families and communities, suggesting that global development, in addition to GDP, would benefit from women’s economic empowerment.

A sticker promoting education for girls in Tanzania.

In some cases, women’s participation in the economy can save lives.

Women make up about 43 percent of the labor force in agriculture globally, and more than half in parts of Asia and Africa. But despite their large numbers in the sector, women farmers tend to farm smaller plots of land and less profitable crops than men. They make up less than 20 percent of landowners and have less access to credit to grow their businesses. If women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, their increased farm yields would decrease the number of undernourished people by as much as 17 percent — that’s about 150 million people, more than the population of Russia.

What’s true for economies is true for peace and security as well: women have world-changing contributions to make. A recent statistical analysis of 181 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that women make a difference in conflict resolution. Even when controlling for other variables, researchers found peace processes that meaningfully included women were 35 percent more likely to last for 15 years or longer.

The correlation between women’s participation and lasting agreements takes on even greater significance considering that conflict is often cyclical, simmering up as a result of unresolved challenges, grievances, and injustices. A UN study found that from 2003 to 2010, every civil war that erupted was a resumption of a previous civil war. Approximately half of the conflict-specific items currently on the Security Council’s agenda can be considered cases of conflict relapse.

When women are at the table, the issues that can spark violence later –human rights, justice, and reconciliation — are more likely to be broached. In other words, women aren’t merely advocating for “gender issues” in peace negotiations. They are championing the very issues that are so crucial to holding a war torn society together.

To end the cycle of conflict and build lasting peace, it is essential that women are included in the peace process. In Colombia’s peace process, women’s groups influenced the agreement’s substance, as well as the process itself, to ensure their perspectives were included and addressed.

The importance of women’s inclusion extends far beyond the negotiating table. As peacekeepers, women can facilitate engagement with women in a host community, address the specific needs of women who are former combatants, and help connect survivors of gender-based violence to the justice and services they deserve. As police officers, women help improve community-police relations, an absolutely essential factor in global efforts to counter the threat of violent extremism. As political leaders, women help ensure decision-making bodies better represent the people they serve and shape policies that address the needs of the entire population.

We don’t have to look abroad to see proof: American Congresswomen make an excellent case for women’s contributions to politics. In late 2013, after the federal government shut down, women led the Senate in crossing party lines to find a solution. While they made up 20 percent of the Senate, women made up half of the committee that negotiated a way forward on the budget.

It is no coincidence that women are underrepresented in the halls of political and economic power and overrepresented in poverty.

In almost every country, gender-based violence holds back women (as well as their communities and economies). In some countries, parents choose infanticide over the possibility of having a daughter. Girls undergo harmful practices like female genital mutilation and cutting or early and forced marriage. Students and working women face sexual harassment or rape. Girlfriends and wives suffer from domestic violence. And elderly women and widows are abused, isolated, and cast away from their communities. With abuse occurring throughout the lifespan, it’s no wonder that an estimated one in three women around the world will experience violence.

Often laws are stacked against women as well. According to the World Bank, 155 countries have at least one law that impedes women’s economic opportunities, 100 countries have job restrictions solely based on gender, and 18 countries have laws that allow husbands to prevent their wives from working. Countries that do have strong laws to empower women often lack the resources, technical skills or political will to enforce them.

These inequalities are symptoms of a close-to-universal truth: societies place a lower value on the contributions of women and girls. That reality bodes poorly for U.S. foreign policy goals.

President Obama tied the issue of gender inequalities to one of the top issues on the U.S. national security agenda: violent extremist groups.

“As Commander-in-Chief, I’ve seen how the ideology that leads Boko Haram to kidnap schoolgirls, and leads ISIL to enslave and rape women is the same ideology that leads to instability, and violence, and terrorism.”

It isn’t only Boko Haram and ISIL. Last year, a UN study found that a common thread shared by extremist groups across religions and regions is attacking the rights of women and girls. To defeat these organizations and their hateful ideology, we need efforts to ensure women and girls are valued in their communities, are able to participate without the threat of violence, and enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men and boys.

Recognizing the key role gender equality can play in promoting U.S. foreign policy goals, the United States has worked to advance women’s economic, political, and cultural participation in societies around the world. In three years alone, the State Department and USAID invested nearly $450 million to empower women in the economy.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony marks the opening of a women’s business center in Cambodia.

As part of the Administration’s focus on entrepreneurship, the State Department has opened women’s business centers in Africa and Asia and partnered with the crowdfunding platform Kiva to start a fund that expands access to capital for women. As part of our work to tackle gender-based violence, the Department has channeled $55 million into programs that help humanitarians prevent gender-based violence and aid survivors, and invested more than $10 million into justice systems to support survivors of sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa. And the U.S. government has invested more than a billion dollars in the next generation of women through a focus on adolescent girls’ education.

In addition to these investments, the State Department and USAID have begun testing a new approach to advancing gender equality. In four focus countries — Malawi, Tanzania, Nepal, and Laos — the Department and USAID are forgoing one-off programs and instead leading a comprehensive approach to address the range of issues that affect women and adolescent girls: safety, health, education, and economic opportunity.

The idea that these challenges must be addressed together in order for women and girls to fully reach their potential is a new one, in practice. Over the past few years, both the international community — through the Sustainable Development Goals — and the Obama Administration have recognized the need to advance gender equality through a holistic approach.

A literary class in Malawi.

The Administration released a quartet of strategies — three for the interagency, one for the State Department — that shape and guide U.S. efforts on gender-based violence, women in peace and security, women’s economic empowerment, and adolescent girls.

Each is informed by both research and people. Soon after starting the draft of the strategy on adolescent girls, Cathy met a young woman from Malawi named Memory Banda. In Memory’s community, girls often marry early, have children, and drop out of school — a fate she avoided by convincing her parents to keep her in school.

Memory banded together with other girls to convince families and village chiefs to allow girls to be students instead of brides. Soon, their advocacy reached a national scale, and Memory helped lead a successful effort to outlaw early and forced marriage in Malawi. Before her 20th birthday, she had given a TED talk, met with world leaders at the UN General Assembly, and started her college education — all because she was able to stay in school.

In Malawi, education for a single girl has helped change hearts, minds, and even national policy. Imagine what education for every girl could do.

The end of this Administration must not signal the end of our work on gender equality.

The President-elect, his Secretaries of State and Defense, and the entire foreign policy and national security community should expand the efforts made these past eight years to advance gender equality through foreign policy.

There is much that remains to be done. We need to support the important work of groups like the Gates Foundation in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data. We need research that shows where the gaps remain and identifies solutions to closing them. We need policy proposals that consider how women and girls are affected and can play a role in advancing our goals on an entire range of issues, from the traditional areas of development and economic growth to broader challenges like defeating Daesh or the rebalance to Asia and the Pacific. Think tanks, academic institutions, and government agencies will play a critical role in pursuing gender equality.

The United States is committed to the inclusion and empowerment of women and girls. The success of our broader efforts to forge a peaceful, prosperous, and secure future for our citizens and those around the world depends on our fidelity to that commitment.

Tom Donilon served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2013. Cathy Russell currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, a position she’s held since August 2013.



Mom, movie buff, champion for women and girls. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.

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Cathy Russell

Mom, movie buff, champion for women and girls. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.