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‘It is vital to understand the gendered aspects of the Covid crisis’

8 March 2021 Blog

An Honorary Fellow of Clare Hall, Melanne Verveer’s career has intensively focused on women’s equality. Here she reflects on her work, highlighting the impact Covid-19 is having on women globally

Melanne Verveer and Hillary Clinton; photo courtesy the Georgetown University Institute of Women, Peace and Security

I served as Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton in the White House when she was First Lady.
During that time the UN’s 4th World Conference on Women took place. Clinton was invited by the UN Secretary General to deliver a keynote speech, and I oversaw many of the preparations for US participation in the conference, as well as her role. The tens of thousands of attendees at the conference, both government officials and NGO representatives, were united in a common goal: gender equality and empowerment of women. The First Lady’s speech still resonates because of her call for “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” It also helped to catalyse a global movement that continues to this day to advance progress for women and girls everywhere. In her address, she listed a litany of abuses that women suffer — from human trafficking and domestic violence to the use of rape as a tool of war, and more. After each of these she noted, “This is a violence of human rights.” Twenty-five years ago when the conference took place, women’s rights were not chiseled into international human rights law. This would change as a result of the adoption of a Declaration and a Platform for Action that set a course for action in twelve areas, including girls’ education, women’s full political and economic participation, freedom from violence, and legal rights. The journey to achieve the goals of the Platform continues to this day. In many ways, it continues to serve as a blueprint for how we measure our progress.

The Conference had a profound impact on me and the First Lady, and it led to multiple efforts to implement the Platform into government policies in the US, as well as to support efforts that women were making around the globe. In the years that followed, I travelled with Clinton to some 60 countries to put a spotlight on women’s leadership, from microcredit projects and peacebuilding to advocating for girls education and defending human rights.

no country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind

When the Clinton Administration was over, I co-founded an NGO called Vital Voices Global Partnership.
I worked with many of the women activists we had convened around the globe to continue to support their leadership and enable them to exchange good practices across borders. I spent eight years building the organisation which today makes a valuable contribution to women’s leadership.

In 2009, President Obama appointed me to be the first US ambassador for Global Women’s Issues.
My mission was to help integrate a gender perspective into US foreign policy, that included areas ranging from peace and security and the economy to human rights. The appointment recognised that countries which uphold women’s rights are far more prosperous and peaceful. Indeed, no country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind.

It was as Ambassador that I worked to develop the US Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan.
Many nations had gone before us in issuing plans that had been urged by the UN. The plans constituted commitments by governments to take action on a national level to implement Security Council Resolution 1325, to advance the participation of women in peace and security, from prevention to recovery post-conflict. I was closely involved in the creation of the US National Action Plan. It required intensive efforts and close collaboration on the part of key government agencies to put together a plan to ensure that women’s perspectives and participation on peace and security would be integrated throughout relevant government policy and programmes to achieve greater effectiveness. When President Obama launched the US plan and the accompanying Executive Order, he noted that it represented “a fundamental change in how the US will approach its diplomatic, military and development support to women in areas of conflict by ensuring that considerations of gender are woven into the fabric of the US approaches peace processes, conflict prevention, protection of civilians and humanitarian assistance.”

the wellbeing of women and wellbeing of nations goes hand in hand

Today, I am the Executive Director of the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
The Institute was created just before I left the State Department in 2013, and I became its first Executive Director. It recognises that women are critical to achieving sustainable peace and has as its mission to build the evidence -based case through cutting-edge research for women’s full participation in peace and security. Our research highlights the effectiveness of women’s agency and the ways in which their engagement has contributed to positive outcomes around the world. Our research tackles subjects like the role of women in peace processes; transitional justice and post-conflict politics; barriers to women’s economic empowerment in conflict affected states; as well as women’s critical role in new threats like violent extremism, gang violence and climate change. We also developed and publish the first-ever Women, Peace & Security Index. It provides a comprehensive measure of women’s wellbeing and ranks 162 countries. It shows that the wellbeing of women and wellbeing of nations goes hand in hand. Nations that have low rankings on the condition of women across the dimensions of inclusion, justice and security are often fragile, suffering from instability and conflict (see for achievements, research, range activities and more).

I was privileged to deliver the 2017 Tanner Lecture which brought me to Clare Hall.
I have had the good fortune to work with Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes at Clare Hall and the Centre for the Study of Global Human Migration. Together we founded the Cambridge Symposium on Gender Equality and Human Rights and international interdisciplinary research programme. I look forward to future opportunities to engage in rewarding discussions on important topics. I am also delighted to hold an Honorary Clare Hall Fellowship.

It is vital to understand the gendered aspects of the Covid crisis and to apply a gender lens to relief and recovery investments

It has been a challenging year.
The pandemic is taking a toll on all our societies. Covid-19 has disproportionately affected women and exposed deep gender inequalities. Women have suffered tremendous job losses in the US. It is nothing less than a ‘she-cession’ — a recession in which women for the first time have been affected more than men, with Black and Latina women hit hardest. Those who continue to work are burdened with little or no childcare support. Already 700,000 women have found they have no choice but to leave the workforce. Moreover, violence against women has increased at an alarming rate globally. Women have been on the frontlines of the battle against the deadly virus. They comprise over 70% of healthcare workers. They have been the first humanitarian responders, especially in conflict zones where women peacebuilders have been a lifeline to their communities. It is vital to understand the gendered aspects of the Covid crisis and to apply a gender lens to relief and recovery investments. Yet, there is already evidence that women are being excluded in Covid response decision-making and recovery planning at all levels, even as they are working to reduce tensions and stabilise their communities.

President Biden wasted no time in taking significant steps to advance women’s equality.
Kamala Harris was inaugurated the first female Vice-President of the US; a record number of women will serve in the Cabinet; and a new White House Gender Policy Council will work to integrate women’s interests across domestic, economic and foreign policies. This represents an historic start. The critical steps will be to address the many challenges facing women and translate commitments into concrete actions — from Covid relief to climate change (another Biden priority). How a gender perspective will be applied to ensure greater responsiveness and effectiveness will be a test in the months to come.

Learn more about the impact of Covid-19 on women via the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace & Security’s website: