These 10 Issues Matter to Gender Equality in 2017

A reporter once told me that he likes to ask government officials what keeps them up at night.

I’ve had many sleepless nights in my position as U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Women and girls face unimaginable challenges in almost every part of the world.

But through U.S. leadership, we have demonstrated that we can make things better for women, and that doing so will make the world more secure and more prosperous for everyone.

This work is critical, and the next administration would be wise to continue it. Here are the 10 things they need to watch.

1. Backsliding. It comes as a particular shock to learn that even in countries that hold significant global power and sway, the rights of women and girls still come under assault. In Russia, for example, a bill aimed at decriminalizing domestic violence recently passed the first stage of approval in parliament.

As one assessment of the proposed rule observed, the change would make “battery within the family” nothing more than an administrative matter, punishable by a fine, community service or a brief prison term. This, despite the fact that Russian government statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of all violent crimes are committed within families.

Russia is not alone here. Thousands of miles away, the Bangladeshi parliament is considering changes to a law that currently and rightly bans marriage for girls under 18, despite high rates of child marriage.

Both instances remind us that we cannot take progress for granted, and constant vigilance and action are crucial. That means U.S. support for civil society organizations, which are under threat in far too many parts of the world, must remain steadfast as well.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the battle for individual women’s rights is one of long standing, and none should countenance anything which undermines it.”

2. Adolescent girls. The world has seen tremendous progress in getting more children into primary school — but that progress hasn’t translated to secondary education, particularly when it comes to adolescent girls.

Ambassador Russell and Assistant Secretary Ryan pose for a photo with school girls from Liberia and Morocco.

Myriad challenges keep girls from going to school — from early and forced marriage, to poverty, to gender norms about their value and worth — but they should not stand in the way of our resolve to invest in this age group. These girls are the next generation of leaders. We ignore them at our own peril.

3. Sexual violence in conflict. There’s no doubt that sexual violence in conflict is a horrific, destructive, criminal act. It’s also a major security issue because it reinforces cycles of violence and conflict.

In my work, I have met scores of women and girls targeted by combatants who use violence as a tactic of war. These survivors need support and they deserve justice — particularly if we want to break the cycle of violence

We know that sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. But how does this understanding shape our ability to prevent sexual violence in the first place, or even conflict itself?

This is a critical question that the world must come together to answer, particularly as we look to combat groups like Da’esh that use sexual violence as a tactic of terror and control.

4. Afghanistan. Over the last 15 years, Afghan women have shown unmatched resilience in making strides from Taliban oppression toward gender equality. Millions of girls are now in school, filling seats that, under the Taliban, no girl could fill. And more women are participating in politics, business, journalism, and activism. Life expectancy for Afghan women has risen by some 20 years since 2001.

Secretary Kerry with women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration continued the legacy of the Bush Administration by making women’s rights in Afghanistan a priority. While much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. The progress is real but fragile, and women and girls continue to face disproportionate discrimination and gender-based violence — particularly in rural areas.

5. GDP. $28 trillion. That’s the amount of annual world GDP we could gain if every country can close the gender gap in labor markets by 2025.

Expanding women’s participation in the workforce goes beyond boosting GDP. Women are more likely to invest in education and health care, which bodes well for their families, as well as local communities. And it’s not just developing economies that should take note — this is a universal truth that applies to every country, whether it’s Jamaica or Japan, the United States or the United Arab Emirates.

6. Violent extremism. There are three critical points we must remember when it comes to violent extremism.

First, at the hands of groups like Boko Haram and Da’esh, women and girls have suffered unspeakable violence — but we cannot remain silent about these horrors.

Second, women and girls have also been part of the problem, aiding terrorist groups and sometimes even leading terror attacks around the world. We need a better understanding of this phenomenon.

Third, women and girls are part of the solution. They are on the front lines of stopping radicalization before it happens. And research indicates communities with strong gender equality are safer, more stable, and less vulnerable to the hateful ideology espoused by violent extremists.

To win the battles against violent extremism, each of these points must be part of the U.S. approach. Put simply, we cannot forget about women and girls.

7. Female genital mutilation/cutting. More than 200 million women and girls have suffered the consequences of FGM/C, a serious human rights violation with no medical purpose. The United States must do more to prevent it, particularly as millions more are at risk.

Ambassador Russell poses for the Office of Global Women’s Issues’ first-ever social media campaign, which focused on FGM/C.

While the international community has largely focused on sub-Saharan Africa, we are learning that FGM/C is much broader in scope. To better understand this, we need greater investments in data collection and a more inclusive approach.

Global trends tell us that certain countries and regions in the world are on the cusp of major population growth — a fact that does not bode well for global efforts to end FGM/C once and for all.

This means that all the progress in places like Egypt — where FGM/C prevalence among adolescent girls has significantly declined in the last 5 years — could easily be wiped away if we don’t take fast action to both solidify and build on the gains made. Now more than ever, this issue needs U.S. leadership.

8. Saudi Arabia. It might surprise people to know that more than half of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women. Yet the workforce is dominated by men, and well-documented challenges for women remain.

When I traveled to Riyadh last year, I talked with people about those challenges. The discussion that made me most optimistic was with a group of young women who work at an all-women’s business center; they told me about their families’ support and spoke of gradual change in their society.

Ambassador Russell and Senior Advisor Betty Bernstein-Zabza pose for a selfie with a young woman in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is not unique here — lasting progress is often slow going. The United States must continue to support that progress and partner with others, particularly the private sector, to advance the status of women and girls across the region.

9. Peace processes. Women have played notable roles in peace negotiations recently, from the ongoing discussion in Yemen to the historic peace accord in Colombia, which recognizes the disproportionate impact the conflict has had on women and includes has specific provisions for women.

The road ahead for these and many other countries — and for peace itself — is long. But women must be at the table where decisions are made about their futures. When they are, it’s not just women who benefit. Research shows that without them, peace agreements are more likely to fail in the long-term. As we work to build global stability and security in a changing world, women will be essential.

10. The United States. For nearly four years, I’ve traveled around the world talking about global women’s issues. Often the most persuasive argument is not to point fingers, but to tell our own story of how the United States has struggled to address domestic violence, give women and girls equal educational opportunities, and change attitudes about how women can contribute to our country.

We can learn many lessons from other countries’ experiences. But the world still looks to the United States — to learn from us, to work with us, and to lead global efforts in pursuit of gender equality.

Americans should be proud of the progress we’ve made and should demand that our leaders keep up the fight. It’s vital to U.S. interests, and it matters to billions of women and girls around the world.

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