How the U.S. Can Honor International Women’s Day

Janet Fleischman, Senior Associate, Global Health Policy Center 
Center for Strategic and International Studies

To mark International Women’s Day, First Lady Michelle Obama participated in the 2014 International Women of Courage awards ceremony at the State Department on March 4. The honorees, representing ten countries, were recognized for their extraordinary work on behalf of women and girls -- from combatting gender-based violence and acid attacks, to advancing reproductive health and human rights. The First Lady spoke passionately about the need to confront the challenges that women and girls face at home and around the world, and about how the women being honored “are creating ripples that stretch across the globe.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom,
and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues  
Catherine Russell pose for a photo with the 2014 Secretary of State’s
International Women of Courage Awardees
at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2014.
[State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Speaking for the State Department, Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom stressed that “gender equality is front and center in President Obama’s foreign policy.” She continued: “That’s why every American diplomat and development professional knows it’s their job to integrate gender equality and the advancement of women and girls into every aspect of their work.”

These are welcome words, and those attending the ceremony were well aware of the policy progress relating to women, girls, and gender equality during the Obama administration’s first term. The question remains, however, whether this progress will be carried forward and implemented as an administration priority, or whether these issues risk being sidelined by other pressing crises.

The women being honored for their courage exemplified why women’s health, development, and rights should remain central to U.S. policy. Their work to empower women and girls directly impacts U.S. objectives in health, development, diplomacy, and security.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Deputy Secretary
 Heather Higginbottom pose with 2014 International 
Women of Courage Awardee Beatrice Mtetwa, 
a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe.
[State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Family planning is a prime example of the important linkages that should be made between these areas. A woman’s ability to plan and space her children is directly linked to her ability to access economic empowerment opportunities, to educate and feed her children, and to keep herself and her family healthy. Ultimately, gender equality cannot be achieved if women and girls are denied access to appropriate health services, to decide whether and when to have children, and to advance their own economic and educational opportunities. 

Secretary of State, and former Senator, John Kerry has long promoted women’s health and development issues. In 1994, he participated in the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo; he recently stated that despite the progress that’s been made since then, “we’ll all need to redouble our commitment to women and girls.” To move this forward, Secretary Kerry should use his global platform to publicly articulate the importance of women’s health and development and advance them as part of U.S. diplomatic, development, and security agendas. This also means that American diplomats and development professionals should be evaluated for their performance in these areas.

Secretary Kerry should now take concrete steps to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to prioritizing women’s and girls’ health and development in U.S. policy.

  • During the Chiefs of Mission meeting being held next week, the Secretary should underscore that each Chief of Mission has the responsibility to advance women’s and girls’ health and development as part of his/her broader engagement with the host country.

  • The Secretary should engage with the African Union leadership to include women’s and girls’ health and family planning as part of health, development, and security discussions, both at the next African Union summit in June 2014 and in his annual meeting with the chair of the African Union.

  • As Secretary Kerry continues to focus on preventing sexual violence in humanitarian crises, he should publicly recognize that women’s and girls’ health and access to family planning services are an essential part of the response. In particular, access to family planning services should be part of the U.S. strategy and included as one of the metrics by which success is measured.

  • In preparation for the African Leaders Summit in August, President Obama and Secretary Kerry should ensure that the issues of women’s and girls’ health and development, including access to family planning, are an explicit part of the discussions about Africa’s youth, as well as economic growth and development in Africa.

The exceptional women honored for their courage on International Women’s Day remind us the urgency to continually elevate the issues of women and girls in U.S. policy. As the First Lady put it: “That is what this day is about…when we see these women raise their voices and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power and that same obligation.”