Change we can believe in

The Hillary Effect on women’s rights has spread across the globe. But will it last without her at the helm, asks Kathleen Parker

Change we can believe in

"LET IT be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

With those 19 words in 1995, then first lady Hillary Clinton launched a global women’s movement and institutionalised what is now known as the Hillary Effect, essentially the pebble-in-a-pond metaphor.

In retrospect, her statement before the UN Fourth World Conference on Women was perfectly obvious, but it was also revolutionary. Among other reasons, Hillary dared to trespass beyond the perimeter of her defined role as first lady and speak about the unspeakable, even challenging China about its one-child policy and forced abortion. But sometimes even the obvious needs articulation — and great movements sometimes are formulated in the simplest of terms: all men are created equal. The US founding fathers surely meant women, too, even if they didn’t realise it.

Today the ripples of Hillary’s statement have spread: Global women’s rights have taken the spotlight, not only in the popular zeitgeist, but on the world stage, from the highest buildings in Hong Kong to the squattest huts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The question as she leaves the US state department to enter a new chapter in her own life is, what happens to women and girls now? Can the Hillary Effect sustain itself without the Hillary?

“It’s a totally open question,” says Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary for President Bill Clinton and the author of Why Women Should Rule the World. “Under Hillary, everyone knew that the global women’s issue was a strategic priority, an organising principle. She was completely committed. How do you recreate that?”

President Barack Obama has decided to make permanent the office of global women’s issues and the women’s ambassador-at-large position, which Hillary created. That portends well for the future of women-focused policies: when Melanne Verveer, the first ambassador-at-large, left her position to run the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, she says it wasn’t clear that the position would survive at all. But even now, some wonder whether the same level of commitment can be expected from the administration, the state department, and Verveer’s successor. By all accounts, the newly-appointed ambassador, Cathy Russell, is well-liked and respected, but Jill Biden’s former chief of staff was an unexpected choice to some veterans in the field. As one close observer put it, “She’s no Melanne Verveer”.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright blows off any scepticism: “There’s no replica of Melanne, but Cathy’s a terrific person to do this, someone who has been committed to women’s issues and is very well-positioned.”

And, to be fair, Russell, who was appointed in mid-March, has hardly had time to get started yet.

Russell nevertheless has a tough act to follow. The combination of Hillary and Verveer has been something like a duet between a bunker buster and a daisy cutter in the war for women’s rights. Call them Mesdames Shock and Awe: Powerful, focused, and devastatingly effective.

When Obama appointed Hillary to be his secretary of state, nobody figured he was projecting how best to empower women in Somalia or the Congo. Whatever the president’s calculation (think team of rivals), Hillary had her own agenda and was in a strong negotiating position: She was bringing her programmes and her people, or Obama could find someone else.

Together, Hillary and Verveer have clocked millions of miles and visited 112 countries, building on the legacy begun by Albright, who held the previous record of countries visited by secretaries of State: 98. It was Albright who led the delegation to China, where “Hillary totally stole the show with that speech... It was riveting,” says Albright. It was Albright, the nation’s first woman secretary of state, who decided that women needed to be part of our foreign policy.

“It was logical,” she says. “It makes sense that when women are more than half the population that you have to have women politically empowered.”

Logical, yes, but did it take a woman secretary of state to see it?

“It helped.”

Thanks to three women secretaries of state, including Condoleezza Rice, the state department that John Kerry has inherited is framed by policies that at every step include provisions to benefit women. In Mar 2012, Hillary issued a directive advising American embassies and posts of the “strategic imperative” of advancing women’s equality: “The department is focusing across all of our work to reduce disparities and proactively promote gender equality.”

Concerns about Kerry stem primarily from an understanding of the limits of one man: With the continuing threat of a nuclear Iran and other challenges in the Middle East, there’s only so much attention to go around.

However, it is clear it would be difficult to turn back the Hillary Effect. Her ripples have reached every layer of the state department.

“Obviously, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry are two different people,” says Verveer, “but I have no doubt that [with] all the ways this has been integrated into the state department the last four years, [women’s issues] are something that foreign-service personnel have internalised throughout the department.”

Further, in a flourish of foresight and hedges against future political disruptions, Hillary has orchestrated the housing of programmes in educational institutions and the private sector, including Verveer’s and another headed by Albright, Partners for a New Beginning, in conjunction with the Aspen Institute.

And, of course, there’s Hillary’s Vital Voices initiative, which she began in 1997 to promote the advancement of women as a US foreign-policy goal. It has since morphed from a US government programme in partnership with the UN, the World Bank, and others into a nonprofit, NGO called the Vital Voices Global Partnership.

In other words, while working within the State Department, she also has worked “off campus” through her network of powerful women colleagues.

And yet....

ANITA McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush and, with Verveer, a member of the US-Afghan Women’s Council (created in 2002 by Presidents George W Bush and Harmid Karzai), agrees that the entrenchment of women-directed policies in the State Department is promising. Even so, she warns, policies need champions.

“Different personalities at the helm can make a huge difference,” she says.

“John Kerry isn’t going to wake up every day thinking about this.

“None of this is ever going to be successful if American leadership is not there.”

Another former state department toiler in the field put it this way: “The key is, you have to have someone going to the meetings. It has to be in the 30-minute conversations. It has to be in the talking points. That’s the differentiator.”

On everyone’s lips, in other words. Every day. This was Hillary’s speciality, according to Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked with her at the State Department as director of policy planning. Slaughter describes Hillary as a master of follow-up.

“She would set the ball rolling and then check back in often enough so you knew she was expecting you to deliver... It was really interesting to watch. She would generate so many ideas, and the veteran foreign-service people would be thinking, ‘Oh, come on, she’ll never get that done’. And she did.”

Obama’s “light footprint” foreign- policy philosophy, though appealing to war-weary Americans, may also be problematic, says McBride.

“The problem is that in some of these more vulnerable places, without a footprint of security, it’s very difficult for women... especially where there’s no history of women’s rights.”

Afghanistan is an obvious case, where many worry that troop withdrawal, coinciding with that country’s 2014 presidential election, could mean more than a mere reduction of military presence. Michael Smith, the president of the Kabul-based and co-educational American University of Afghanistan, which opened in 2006, says the biggest concern is that women will be forgotten as US attentions are focused elsewhere.

“Hillary has been absolutely essential and extraordinary,” says Smith.

“With her no longer on the scene, it’s that much more incumbent for others to step forward and keep the spotlight on women’s issues.”

Others — like another former first lady, Laura Bush.

Having visited Afghanistan several times, she serves as honorary adviser of the US-Afghan Women’s Council and chairs the Women’s Initiative at the George W Bush Institute, where women from other countries come for leadership training. Bush continues to devote her time and energies to helping women in Afghanistan and also throughout the Middle East, wherein 2007 she helped launch the US–Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness. If you want to see someone set free, get a woman in Saudi Arabia to talk publicly about a disease that, because of shame, goes largely untreated and kills 80% of those afflicted by it.

I happened to accompany Mrs Bush on a Middle East trip and recall a memorable dinner in Saudi Arabia at the home of King Abdullah’s wife. We Americans were all dressed like nuns when we walked into an opulent palace filled with women who looked like they’d just stepped off the set of Dallas. Low-cut evening gowns, long tresses, big jewellery — these all lent new meaning to the trope that women really dress for other women. Nearly every conversation began the same: “Tell us about Hillary.”

She was running for president of the United States, and the women of Saudi Arabia were on fire. The Hillary Effect, indeed.

AT THAT same dinner, I was seated next to Haifa, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005. A statuesque, brash-talking woman, she entertained us with stories of raising her children in Washington. When I pointed out that she couldn’t even drive a car in her own country, she levelled her gaze and said: “Honey, do I look like I want to carpool?”

She was a funny lady, obviously, and knew she had an appreciative audience. But women’s issues, especially for the less privileged, are no joke in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where girls and women still risk being attacked with acid for trying to go to school or resisting a forced marriage.

Trying to reassure Afghan women, Kerry testified during his January confirmation hearings that the Taliban would have to promise to respect women’s constitutional equality if it wants to participate in negotiations. Good intentions, yes, but one is tempted to cue the hyena laugh-track. Does anyone really expect the Taliban to respect women and girls, and play nice in exchange for office space in downtown Kabul?

But here’s the thing. Many Afghan women have been enjoying relative freedom for a decade now. They own businesses. They are police officers and judges. A younger generation has been educated, many of them girls. The American University’s enrolment has grown from 56 students in 2006 to more than 800 today, 21% of them female. Here, as in Washington, it may be hard to roll back the Hillary Effect.

“As tenuous as it may be,” says McBride, “Afghan women refuse to go backward. They are among the strongest women you’ll ever meet in the world. They will fight tooth and nail before being shoved back into their homes. It’s a great risk for them. Can they count on us to be their voice? I hope they can.”

While Hillary and her team of champions focused on women’s unalienable rights to be free agents, another ripple began to form. What is the best way to ensure freedom?

This is an easy question for American students: Money and jobs. Where women are most oppressed, they also are least likely to enjoy educational opportunities and financial independence — or even the means to feed their children. Once women were recognised as having investment value, they began to attract the attention of corporations and investment firms.

Meanwhile, numerous studies emerged revealing the importance of women to economic stability and, therefore, to political stability and, therefore, to security. A World Economic Forum study, for instance, found a correlation between equality — as measured by economic participation, education, health, and political empowerment — and GDP per head.

“Paycheques have changed the household dynamics,” says a women’s advocate in China. “If women can earn their own money, they can have freedom.”

Paycheques for women also have a way of boosting local economies.

Globally, women are responsible for spending $20tn (€15.5tn) annually, a number expected to reach $28tn by 2014. As Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, has noted: “The truth is that women are already the most dynamic and fastest-growing economic force in the world today.”

Research conducted by Goldman Sachs, the World Bank, and others suggests that investing in women could have a multiplier effect that would lead, not only to increased revenues and more employees, but also healthier, better-educated, and more prosperous families. Having found that they can both do good and do well by helping women, Goldman launched its 10,000 Women programme in 2008 to provide under-served women around the world (in 80 countries to date) with business and management education.

If helping women become finan-cially independent also makes profits for American corporations, then let the cash registers ka-ching, suggests Dee Dee Myers. “Whatever works,” she says. “I don’t care why corporations come to the conclusion that investing in women is good. I’m just glad there’s a lot of momentum.”

In Verveer’s words: “If you ignore half your population, you’re not going to make it.”

How could we fail to notice that the least safe places in the world are also those that treat women the worst? Or that the greatest threats to our national security come from nations where women and girls are oppressed? Sometimes even the obvious needs articulation.

Perhaps it took someone saying that women are human beings, too. Or, just perhaps, as Verveer suggests, it took having enough women in higher places, where the view is better and one’s perspective sharper, to see what is. Put more diplomatically, “it helps that more women are engaged at higher levels [and] have been able to play prominent roles in institutions.”

But sometimes, to paraphrase George Orwell, the hardest things to see are right in front of our noses. The Hillary Effect, begun when she tossed that first pebble in Beijing, may be recorded as one of the most transformational episodes in the evolution of human rights. Whether those ripples continue to widen remains to be seen, but there’s a broad sense among those closest to the action that we have reached a tipping point, for lack of a better term.

There’s really no turning back, and barring some cataclysmic event, the global women’s movement is well under way. There’s still much to do, all warn, but millions around the world have already embraced the revelation that women are human beings, too.

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