During almost four years as the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer pressed governments around the world on matters ranging from ending child marriages to integrating women into peace efforts.
Yet, that diplomatic role hardly prepared her for some personal encounters along the way, such as the day in Nepal when she was taken to meet a woman who went to Saudi Arabia as a housekeeper and was enslaved and beaten by her employer. She had leapt from a balcony in a desperate escape from her tormentor.
“Her back was broken, she was in a brace, she showed me her black and blue marks all over her body,” Verveer, 68, recalled in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York.
“I can’t quite get her out of my eyes still,” said Verveer, who this month returned to her alma mater, Georgetown University in Washington, to become the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
Such disturbing experiences informed and drove Verveer’s efforts to not only raise awareness to the suffering of women but also to bridge the gender gap, elevate women to leadership roles and showcase their role in the economy.
As ambassador, Verveer, one of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s closest confidantes, traveled to more than 60 countries in an effort that shows the growing prominence of women’s issues on the international agenda -- and just how much remains to be done.
Alongside Clinton, whom she’s known for three decades, Verveer has worked to bring visibility and empowerment to women. When Clinton, as first lady, famously declared in Beijing in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights,” Verveer was by her side as her chief of staff. In her ambassadorial role, Verveer has worked to also elevate women’s issues within U.S. policy making circles.
Asked in an interview about what has been a guiding principle of her women’s advocacy, Verveer cites a 2009 conversation she had with an Afghan woman in Kabul.
“Please don’t see us as victims but as the women leaders we are,” Verveer said she was told at that meeting, which took place soon after President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador-at-large.
Verveer’s travels have taken her from Haiti, plagued by rape and gender-based violence, to tumultuous Yemen, home to one of the female protagonists of the Arab Spring: journalist and Nobel peace prize laureate Tawakkul Karman. The protests that sprung up in 2011 and swept across North Africa and the Middle East also challenged the role of women in male-dominated societies.
In her conversations with the activist, Verveer said the she was told that in Yemen “which is about as tradition-bound a society as you can find” something had snapped.
“The way she put it to me was that the women were asleep and they woke up, and they are not going back to sleep anymore,” Verveer said. “Now, how long they will have to be awake and how long that struggle will be and how many changes they will see -- none of us knows.”
With their departures -- Clinton plans to pen her memoirs and give speeches amid speculation about her 2016 presidential intentions -- it remains to be seen who will replace Verveer and whether new Secretary of State John Kerry will give women’s issue the same visibility and importance as Clinton.
Verveer says there is still plenty to do.
“I hope this job ends and this position is not needed, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “It’s like so much affirmative action that still needs to happen.”
-- Editors: Terry Atlas, Michael Shepard