Ambassador-at-Large Geeta Rao Gupta (center) is congratulated by Vice President Kamala Harris (far right) at her swearing-in, July 10. Photo courtesy of GWI
By Eleanor Greenbaum
Almost 30 years ago, then-first lady Hillary Clinton said, “If there is one message that echoes forth … let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” These words have served as a call to action ever since, including for the Department of State, which Clinton eventually came to preside over, and for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (GWI). While the office’s origins date back to 1994, the change of its role to an office reporting directly to the secretary of state grew its influence and established a mandate going beyond public events.
Today, the office is led by its fourth ambassador-at-large, Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta. Gupta has had an extensive career in promoting women’s rights. She was deputy executive director of programs at UNICEF, a senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the president of the International Center for Research on Women, in addition to chairing several boards in the field.
GWI’s mandate is to promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy, with three main policy priorities that guide GWI’s work: promoting women’s economic security; preventing and responding to gender-based violence; and advancing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. These priorities are also reflected in the administration’s first-ever U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, released in October 2021.
This work remains essential, for despite years of efforts, gender equality remains a future goal—perhaps as long as 300 years away. For example, around the world, women are far less likely than men to be employed in the formal sector, to have a stable source of income, or be economically secure. On average, women also perform three times as much care work as men—underpaid and undervalued work that impedes their ability to engage in paid work.
As part of the office’s commitment to addressing these and other barriers to women’s economic participation and leadership, this past January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched the first-ever interagency U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security (WES). The WES Strategy has four key lines of effort: promoting economic competitiveness through well-paying, quality jobs; advancing care infrastructure and valuing domestic work; promoting entrepreneurship and financial and digital inclusion, including through trade and investment; and dismantling systemic barriers to women’s participation. These lines of effort help define GWI’s WES programming, such as the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative and WE Champs. The WE Champs project works to strengthen the capacity of women’s business associations and chambers of commerce to meet the needs of their members and advocate for policy reform to improve the enabling environment for women entrepreneurs.
GWI also engages in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to advance WES. For example, as the lead for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women and the Economy Forum (WEF) for the first time since 2011, the United States is particularly focused on the gender-climate nexus and building resilient communities, equity and equality in the global value chain, digital inclusion and innovation, and the care economy. With GWI leadership, the APEC WEF will convene dialogues to advance WES with 21 economies as well as the private sector, including women-led micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises; and civil society.
Gender-based violence (GBV), in all its manifestations, remains an epidemic for women and girls across the world—with physical and sexual violence alone affecting more than one in three women worldwide. As the lead coordinating office for the Department’s implementation of the 2022 U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, GWI focuses on the full range of forms of GBV, including but not limited to intimate partner violence; all forms of sexual violence, including conflict-related sexual violence; child, early, and forced marriage; female genital mutilation/cutting; and technology-facilitated gender-based violence. The GBV Strategy informs Department programming such as SHE’s GREAT! and Survivor-Centered Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Recovery and Justice to address GBV in all its forms.
Women’s meaningful participation in decision-making supports the prevention and resolution of conflicts and leads to more peaceful outcomes. The United States was the first country in the world with comprehensive legislation on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda through the WPS Act of 2017, which mandated a new U.S. Strategy on WPS, and the corresponding Department of State Plan to Implement the U.S. WPS Strategy. GWI is currently working across the interagency to incorporate the perspectives of women, civil society, partner governments, and international organizations in the WPS Strategy and National Action Plan update.
The WPS Focal Points Network, which the U.S. is co-chairing with Romania, entailed a high-level meeting hosted by GWI in June 2023. GWI hosted participants from more than 100 countries in Washington for the fifth annual Capital Level Focal Points Network Conference for a series of discussions on shared priorities to address women’s political participation and advancement in society.
All these challenges are multi-faceted and require flexibility and work across the Department and interagency to effectively address them. For example, GWI works closely with the Department and USAID to address the multiple and complex roles women can play in violent extremism, including as victims, peaceful bystanders, recruiters, perpetrators, and combatants. GWI also advances policy, programming, and outreach efforts to address the impacts of the climate crisis on women and girls and empower them as climate leaders.
In addition to policy development and programming, public diplomacy is a critical tool for GWI. Since 2007, the Department—through the secretary’s annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) awards—has recognized women from around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and more, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. To date, the Department has recognized more than 180 women from 80 different countries who represent courage and strength in their everyday lives.
The barriers to achieving gender equality will not be solved easily, and not without the joint efforts of civil society, other governments, and champions and allies around the world. GWI will continue to lead efforts to promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls globally through its diplomatic, programmatic, and public diplomacy initiatives to ensure they are not forgotten across U.S. foreign policy.
As Melanne Verveer, GWI’s first ambassador-at-large, once said, “Investments in women are positively correlated to growth, prosperity, stability, democracy, health—and vital to our national security. We cannot write off the talent of half the world and expect to confront our challenges.”
Eleanor Greenbaum is an intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.