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“Women are Agents of Change” – Ambassador Melanne Verveer on Leveraging the Power of Women Leaders

“Our grandmothers were silent and our mothers were silent. It is time to end the silence.” On Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first visit to India, a female college student handed her a poem with this line. Its ideas resonated greatly with Clinton – who incorporated this sentiment into her landmark speech at the World Conference on Women in Beijing a few months later – and with her chief of staff, Melanne Verveer.

Ambassador Verveer has spent a lifetime raising her voice to advance the rights of women and girls in many roles, from Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, to co-founder and President of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, to executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, along with many others.

Verveer’s passion and commitment have made her a worldwide leader on gender equality issues. Since 2022, she has worked with The Rockefeller Foundation to co-convene the Global Women Leaders Summit at the Bellagio Center, bringing together women heads of state and other high-level female leaders to take on global challenges, including supporting women on the frontlines of crisis.

How does your work help address issues of gender equality and women’s rights? 

When Hillary said “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” at the Beijing Women’s Conference, it truly echoed. I will never forget seeing women from around the world stand up as she mentioned issues like dowry burnings, honor killings, domestic violence, human trafficking, and killing babies because they’re born girls. It was a call to action, one we’ve been building off of ever since.

When the Clinton Administration ended, we wanted to preserve the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, which brought groups of women around the world together with Americans who could help them advance democracy, grow businesses, use the media, be strong citizen advocates, and deal with the new world they were confronting. We created the Vital Voices Global Partnership to continue its work, and it remains a vibrant institution working on these issues today. 

While still too few, there are notable women in high-level leadership positions in government and the private sector. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security created the Global Women Leaders Network to bring together former and current heads of state, high-level government officials, and private sector leaders to advance gender equality and address our planet’s biggest challenges – from economic recession and rising autocracy to the existential threat of climate change. 

Data is also critical to understanding where progress is being made and guiding our decisions. That’s been a significant change, one that I think needs to continue.  At Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, we’re creating that evidence-based case for why women’s participation in peace and security makes a difference and positively impacts outcomes. 

  • The wellbeing of women and the wellbeing of nations goes hand-in-hand. When women don’t prosper, their countries don’t prosper.
    Ambassador Melanne Verveer
    Executive Director
    Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security

What breakthroughs need to happen for us to advance gender equality?  

We need to accelerate. That means thinking differently and not doing things the way we always have, because that is clearly not enough. Working with other sectors is also important. Government can only do so much, and there is tremendous power in the private sector. 

We have to deal with norms, mindsets, attitudes, and biases. How do we break through with men to show that this is not a zero-sum game, that when women benefit, we all benefit? We need to do far more in that space. 

We also need political will. It’s vital that we show leaders this work will help them reach their goals for their own people. The index that we published clearly demonstrates that the wellbeing of women and the wellbeing of nations goes hand-in-hand. When women don’t prosper, their countries don’t prosper. When women are oppressed, held back, and not fully engaged, those countries are fragile and unstable. So women’s rights and empowerment are in everybody’s interest. We’ve got to do a better job communicating that. 

What keeps you up at night about moving gender equality forward? What makes you optimistic?

I worry we aren’t doing everything that we could be doing, everything that really could make an impact. The goals are enormous, and the progress is much less than it should be. What can we do to get to a better place? The Global Women Leaders Network is so important in helping us think through those kinds of worries that we all share to achieve better solutions

We can’t let down all of those people around the globe who are working so hard, at great personal risk, to make the world a better place. We have to find ways to support them. We need to do a better job in weighing the data, weighing the evidence, working with political leaders, and tapping power in ways that demonstrate that this work is in their interest. 

What makes me optimistic is the extraordinary women I have met. Georgetown recently had an incredible discussion with Nadia Marad, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, on what has and hasn’t happened since ISIS did such horrible things to the Yazidi people. She has gone through so much, and here she is working so hard to bring about change. She is unique, and yet she isn’t. There are so many women like her at different levels around the world. We need to learn from and support them. I know the kinds of things they’re doing, and if we all worked more closely together, our outcomes would be better.

“Women’s rights are human rights” is a fundamental truth, one that shines clearly in every aspect of Verveer’s work, from Beijing to the Bellagio Center, and everywhere in between. “This work makes a tremendous difference for the world,” Verveer says. “Certainly for the half of the population that is unrecognized for the rights they deserve and the role they play. Women are not just victims. We are agents of change.”

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Bellagio Perspectives: Gender Equality Issue

Women are agents of change. Across continents and sectors, women are advancing equality to address the most pressing issues of our time, from climate change to political empowerment and human rights.

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