On a trip to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, not long after my appointment as the U.S. State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, I stopped for dinner with a group of Afghan women activists in Kabul. One woman opened our conversation with a plea: "Please don't see us as victims, but look to us as the leaders we are."
Those words have stuck with me as President Barack Obama's administration has endeavored to put women at the heart of its foreign policy. For generations, the United States too often viewed the world's women as victims of poverty and illiteracy, of violence and seemingly unbreakable cultural traditions -- essentially, as beneficiaries of aid. Women's issues existed on the margins, segregated from the more "strategic" issues of war, peace, and economic stability. Now, in a time of transformative change -- from the rise of new economic powers to a growing chorus of voices against repressive regimes in the Arab world -- promoting the status of women is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one; it's essential to economic prosperity and to global peace and security. It is, in other words, a strategy for a smarter foreign policy.
In the past, U.S. diplomacy and development efforts were conducted in a manner that was gender neutral at best. The United States regularly supported peace talks that left women out of negotiating rooms and treaty documents, an omission that weakened the chances of forging durable peace agreements. The country designed development programs without consulting women or considering the crucial role they played, whether it was agricultural training initiatives that targeted men even though women often represented the majority of small farmers, or building wells in areas where women could not go, never mind that women were the ones responsible for fetching water.
As a growing body of research shows, however, the world's most pressing economic and political problems simply cannot be solved without the participation of women. That's why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to ensure that advancing the status of women and girls around the world is fully integrated into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. As of this spring, with the release of a first-ever secretarial policy directive on gender, advancing the status of women and girls worldwide is officially a requirement in every U.S. diplomat's job description. As Clinton said in March, the United States will use "every tool at our disposal" to support this crucial cause.
Why? This is, as Clinton has called it, a "Full Participation Age," an era when information transcends borders, opinions and ideas scale firewalls, and the world can no longer afford to leave millions of women out of the global community. It's no coincidence that those countries that deny women basic human rights are some of the poorest and least stable. According to the World Economic Forum, countries where men and women are closer to enjoying equal rights are far more economically competitive than those where the gender gap has left women and girls with limited or no access to medical care, education, elected office, and the marketplace.
As much of the world struggles to climb out of recession, the economic participation of women and their enhanced efficiency and productivity are essential to recovery and growth. Goldman Sachs researchers, for example, found that closing the gender gap between male and female employment would be a powerful engine for global growth, even in the United States and the eurozone, where it could boost GDP by billions of dollars. In fact, the Economist has reported that the increase in employment among women in developed countries contributed more to global GDP growth than China as a whole in recent years. Yet many women still lack access to capital, credit, and training. Laws prevent them from inheriting or owning land. Cultural traditions inhibit women's participation in the formal economy. In the agriculture industry, to take one example, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women farmers were provided the same access to seeds, fertilizer, and technology as men, they could improve their yields by 20 to 30 percent and reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100 million to 150 million.