- An Interview with Melanne Verveer
GJIA sat down with Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, to discuss her experiences as the first US ambassador for global women's issues, and her vision for the future of women's rights in international security and US foreign policy.
At what point in your career or personal life did you decide to dedicate yourself to women's issues, and why was that?
I spent time throughout my career working on a variety of public policy issues; probably the most prominent engagement relating to women's issues was in the area of civil rights. At the time, I was trying to affect legislation, preventing existing protections from being shredded, like the Voting Rights Act, and working on the Civil Rights Restoration Act that was designed to overturn the effects of a 1984 Supreme Court decision. It really wasn't until I became a part of the White House staff that I focused much more on women's issues specifically. Probably the most seminal event for me was the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women that took place in 1995. I was working as Hillary Clinton's chief of staff at the time. There was much political back and forth as to whether she would be able to accept the UN secretary general's invitation to deliver a keynote address. There were those on the left who thought she shouldn't go to China, where the conference was taking place, because of China's horrible human rights record, and there were those on the right who claimed she shouldn't go because it they thought the conference was about destroying the family and creating new genders. There was a lot of political pull and tug about her attendance. She did get to give what turned out to be an historic speech, and in the end, both conservatives and liberals would say it was her finest hour. The first lady stood before the vast number of delegates from around the world and proclaimed, "Women's rights are human rights." All these years later, you might wonder, what is the big deal? Women are human and women's rights are human rights. At the time, however, women's rights weren't chiseled into international human rights law.
In her speech, Clinton went through a litany of egregious violations of women: babies whose lives are snuffed out merely because they are born girls, domestic violence, rape as a tool of war, dowry burnings, female genital mutilation, honor killings, [End Page 77] human trafficking, and other violations of human rights. These abuses of women were hardly recognized as violations of human rights. At the time, even the human rights office of the State Department wasn't working on many of these issues. While speaking, she punctuated each violation by declaring it a violation of human rights. When she got to the crescendo of her speech, she said, "It is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights." The audience, composed of delegates from around the globe, greeted her remarks with sustained applause. Many had worked trying to end dowry burnings or honor killings—abuses which are not common in the US—and they felt their struggles had been validated by the remarks of the high-level representative of the United States.
After Beijing, the first lady devoted much of the following three years to traveling around the world, meeting with people who were "in the trenches" struggling to make progress on issues like girls' education, women's economic and political participation, ending violence against women, and more. She spotlighted programs that were working to bring about change. I found this effort so compelling because it mattered so much to so many. Women, after all, account for half the population of the world, yet so many are living on the margins of society. At the same time, women are not just victims, they are also on the front lines of change, so our mission was to give voice to those who could not lift up their own...