Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Women’s Rights & U.S. Foreign Policy

Reading Time: 7 minutesWhy unleashing women’s and girls’ potential is good diplomacy.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cartagena, Colombia, before the launch of Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When I attended the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994, only two female heads of state represented their countries: Dominica and Nicaragua. This past April at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, five of the presidents and prime ministers representing the 33 participating countries were women: from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Their presence was an important example of the progress the hemisphere—and its women—have made.

In fact, the region continues to make progress in a variety of areas. Latin America and the Caribbean are tackling ongoing challenges head-on, including promoting girls’ education, improving women’s and girls’ health, facilitating women’s political participation, and expanding women’s economic opportunities. Governments throughout the hemisphere are increasingly recognizing that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.

U.S. Policy

The United States has made women and girls a cornerstone of our foreign policy. We know that investing in women and girls is the moral thing to do, and also the smart, strategic thing to do—for development; for social, economic, and political progress; and for advancing U.S. interests.

In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the first Secretarial Policy Guidance on Promoting Gender Equality to Achieve our National Security and Foreign Policy Objectives.1 The policy requests embassies and bureaus to bolster participation and leadership opportunities for women in local and national government processes, civil society, and international and multilateral forums; to unleash the potential of women to spur economic development by addressing the structural and social impediments that prevent women from contributing to their fullest extent to formal and informal economies; and to draw on the full contributions of both women and men in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building.

This guidance complements the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security that President Barack Obama released in December 2011.2 The goal of these policies is to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened by war, violence and insecurity. Achieving this goal is critical to our national and global security. Evidence from around the world shows that integrating women and gender considerations into peace-building processes helps promote democratic governance and long-term stability.

These policy initiatives, and the activities and programs they have sparked, demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to a foreign policy that empowers women and girls.

And in the Americas

As the U.S. integrates this theme into our foreign policy, we also see changes throughout the Americas. It’s no coincidence that many of these changes track with measures that have increased women’s political participation and leadership.

Most countries in the Americas have made tremendous strides by closing the gender gap in education—achieving near universal primary school enrollment for girls. In secondary schools, girls are now surpassing boys in education enrollment and completion rates. Yet the goal should be for every boy and girl to complete secondary school.

Fertility rates are dropping and maternal health is improving. According to a recent report by the World Bank,3 the decline in maternal mortality rates has been most dramatic in places that suffered some of the worst rates in the past, such as countries in the Caribbean and Andean regions.

However, challenges remain. The obstacles to progress and opportunity are especially acute for rural and Indigenous women, who do not share the same access to education or to health services. Women and girls continue to represent the vast majority of internally displaced persons in the region. Despite some of the improvements in political representation, women remain grossly under-represented at the local and municipal levels. And this is important. Local office often leads to increasingly higher positions that will help to bring about a critical mass of women leaders throughout the political sphere.

Widespread gender-based violence is another issue that threatens women and girls, and it cuts across racial, ethnic and class lines. Although this violence is notoriously under-reported—due to social stigma, fear of further violence and retribution, or even simple mistrust of the justice system—recent demographic and health surveys reveal striking levels of physical, sexual and psychological violence against women in the region.

A comparative analysis of nationally representative data from 12 countries found that between 13 percent and 52 percent of women reported experiencing physical intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime.4

The instability some countries in the region continue to face also has a direct and violent impact on women when they are targeted as wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, and sisters of family members who are involved in gangs or other criminal activity. Femicide—murdering women simply because they are women—is growing in areas affected by drug and gang violence.

Gender-based violence also exacts a serious toll on productivity, public health and the effectiveness of the justice system. As reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, half of the verdicts delivered in cases of violence against women in the region end in acquittals.5

Why Economic Empowerment Matters

Economic independence is one way for women to achieve a better life. It is common sense that a woman who has an income is in a better position to leave a violent partner or ensure that her children can continue to go to school. In fact, evidence shows that women who are financially independent are less likely to be victims of violence. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development found that women’s ownership of assets in Colombia was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.

Moreover, research and data overwhelmingly show that enabling women to participate fully in their economies is the most effective way to accelerate a nation’s economic growth. From the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to private sector companies like Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group, the conclusion is the same: gender equality is smart economics.

This is why the World Economic Forum (WEF) focuses on economic participation as part of its rating system in its annual Global Gender Gap report.6 The report, now in its sixth year, provides comparative benchmarks and country rankings on national gender gaps based on economic participation, access to education and health, and political empowerment. The survey shows that countries that have made greater progress in closing the gender gap are more economically competitive and prosperous.

This is one of the main challenges for the hemisphere. According to the WEF report, the gender gaps in the Americas can be explained largely by the disparities in economic participation between men and women. Despite increasing labor force participation—nearly 70 million additional women have entered the labor force since 1980—economic outcomes in Latin America and the Caribbean continue to favor men. For example, women continue to own fewer assets, including land. Women remain over-represented in the informal sectors and are disproportionately unemployed. There is a persistent gender earnings gap in every country in the region, as well as a tension between balancing work and family life. This gap can be exacerbated by persistent machista views on women’s role in the household.

The U.S. Public (and Private) Commitment

These challenges to women’s rights and empowerment today will be solved only through political will, collaboration and partnership. The U.S. is working to promote women’s economic opportunity by focusing on building the capacity of women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to grow their businesses and help them overcome the obstacles that impede their progress.

At the Sixth Summit of the Americas, President Obama announced and Secretary of State Clinton formally launched Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas (WEAmericas).7 This series of public-private partnerships builds on the work of the U.S. with its partners in Latin America and the Caribbean through the Pathways to Prosperity initiative. It also builds on the landmark San Francisco Declaration adopted at the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women and the Economy Summit, at which the 21 APEC economies, including five in the Western Hemisphere (Peru, Chile, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.), committed to supporting women-run SMEs.8

WEAmericas addresses three major barriers women face when they set out to start or grow their businesses: lack of access to training and professional networks; lack of access to markets; and lack of access to capital and other financial services. This initiative draws on the participation of partners from across the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

The U.S. Department of State is working to improve women’s access to training and markets. A delegation of women entrepreneurs from across the Americas participated in a training program in the U.S. this May. The group, now calling itself the WEAmericas Network, drew up its own set of commitments and objectives to grow member businesses and to become an effective network with its own economic clout.

To improve women’s access to markets, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are working with WEConnect International to certify small businesses and connect them to corporations like Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and others that may want to purchase goods and services from them throughout their supply chain. Through the Global Women’s Business Initiative and Pathways to Prosperity, the State Department helped launch WEConnect in Peru last year and this year will help expand WEConnect’s work to Mexico. The organization is also working with the Secretary’s International Council of Women Business Leaders to plan opportunities in Peru, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil to facilitate connections between women entrepreneurs and large corporations.9

The third barrier—lack of access to credit and other financial services—is one of the most difficult to overcome. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012, women have more limited access to financial services than men. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 22 percent of women have savings accounts, compared to 28 percent of men.

On this front, the Inter-American Development Bank is taking the lead with new inclusive lending models that will allow more small businesses owned by women to access credit. And through Pathways to Prosperity, USAID will create a loan guarantee program to help banks increase their lending to small businesses, including those owned by women.

As Secretary Clinton noted during the launch of WEAmericas, none of these programs can take hold in a vacuum. We must also have the right policies in place to facilitate women’s full economic participation, and we are committed to working within the U.S. government, with other governments, and with the private and nonprofit sectors to make this policy environment a reality. Cooperation is key to addressing the challenges women face not only in the Americas, but across the globe.

I have had the privilege of meeting many inspiring women leaders from across the Americas. They are women who are truly on the front lines: a woman police officer confronting a gang-ridden favela in Brazil with effective results; a journalist in Colombia exposing the activities of paramilitary actors despite enormous personal costs; a prosecutor in Mexico courageously tackling organized crime and trafficking in persons; and women from across the Americas running for political office, running NGOs to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and successfully growing businesses. They remain committed to their families, their communities and their countries.

Investing in these women, who are advocating for economic, social and political progress in the Americas and around the world, is one of the most potent weapons in the U.S. smart-power diplomatic arsenal. What I saw at the summit was a mix of hope, challenge, opportunity, and confidence in the future. In empowering the women of the Americas, we can truly power the region.

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