Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues
Heinrich Boll Foundation Event
Washington, DC
January 19, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Klaus, for your kind introduction and good morning to all. For years, the Heinrich Boll Foundation has been a highly respected thought leader focused on many critical issues of our time – this is certainly the case when it comes to addressing the complex challenges underpinning sustainable development. I want to thank you particularly for your leadership in focusing on the critical role that women play in achieving a sustainable future for all – the link between gender equality and sustainable development across the three pillars: economic, social, and environmental.

I also want to add my thanks to Oxfam, Action Aid USA, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Gender Action for co-sponsoring this event - and to all of you for your years of commitment and hard work, and for your participation today. Together, you represent a diversity of perspectives and wealth of experience in addressing the most pressing sustainable development challenges our world faces, from climate change, to reliable food, to effective development aid, and so much more. Together, you are joined in a common cause.

We all know that to ensure sustainable development, among the challenges we need to address are those posed by climate change, natural resource degradation, gender inequality, and the shortcomings of the global economy. To do this, we need to harness the immense human capacity to innovate and develop solutions to these and related complex, interconnected challenges.

And no effort to advance sustainable development will succeed that does not take into account half the world’s population. We’ve known this for some time, but recently, and in large part due to all of you, I believe there is greater awareness of these issues. Momentum is building to not only acknowledge the vital role that women can and must play in building a sustainable future, but the need for action to unlock the potential they represent.

The UN Under-Secretary-General Sha Zukang, who is in charge of the upcoming Rio+20 conference for the United Nations, spoke at a recent women and sustainable development conference that I participated in and was hosted by All-China Women’s Federation in Beijing in November. There, he stated: “I have said it before – and I say it again today – that in many ways, sustainability is about women. Society flourishes when women’s leadership, creativity, and initiative are recognized, embraced, and harnessed. In many countries, women are the champions of green economy, practicing sustainable agriculture, nurturing our natural resources, and promoting renewable energy.” I couldn’t agree more.

International awareness and recognition about the connection between women and environmental protection is not new. The Rio Earth Summit Declaration in 1992 stated, “Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.”

In 1995, at the UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton delivered an historic speech on women’s rights as human rights. At the conference, over 180 countries adopted a platform for action – a visionary plan that also addressed major environmental concerns and serves even today as an ambitious blueprint against which we continue to chart women’s progress around the globe.

Similarly, Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 focuses on environmental sustainability and reversing the loss of environmental resources. And MDG 3 on women’s equality stands as a goal in its own right and is also essential to achieving all of the MDG’s.

The Rio Declaration, the MDG’s and the Beijing platform all recognize a fundamental truth – that environmental issues are women’s issues. Women are often on the frontlines of environmental challenges and impacted in very real and serious ways, yet women are far from just victims. Women have long been promoting solutions to sustainable development challenges. They’ve been promoting climate change adaptation and mitigation, protecting biodiversity and vital ecosystems, securing water access, and combating indoor air pollution. I’ve seen their efforts firsthand from the Pacific Islands to Bangladesh. But imagine how much more could be achieved of women’s potential was fully unlocked.

Let me touch on a few examples of women’s vital roles.

First, women play a vital role in the agriculture sector and food security. Globally, agriculture accounts for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Women in many places comprise the majority of small farmers. Many are the main producers of staple crops, particularly in developing countries and regions likely to be adversely affected by climate change impacts. In these areas, responsibility for adaptation efforts and food security challenges are likely to fall on their shoulders. A 2011 FAO report indicates that while globally women account for nearly half of the global agriculture workforce, they are significantly less likely than men to have access to training through extension services, rarely own the land they work, and are more likely to be credit constrained. These limits severely restrict women’s potential to produce food for their families, utilize sustainable agricultural practices, enhance their productivity, and contribute both to economic growth and benefit their families.

Closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and for society. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, it is projected they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent. And production gains of this magnitude could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent. Women with access to education and training and the ability to invest in land they own are more likely to utilize new technologies, including climate-smart agricultural practices.

Further, development reports frequently note that projects on forestry and agriculture are systematically more successful when women are involved in the planning and implementation process. Yet we still often struggle to mainstream gender in development programs. This is why the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future initiative includes a gender framework.

Secondly, women also have untapped potential for increasing energy access. For example, nearly 3 billion people globally still rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires to prepare food for their families. Women and children often have the primary responsibility for collecting fuels for household needs. Increasing degradation of natural resources means more time and effort finding and bringing home the fuel they need, which in some places, increases women and girl’s vulnerability to sexual and gender based violence. Smoke exposure from traditional cooking methods causes an estimated two million premature deaths annually, with women and young children the most affected. Cookstoves also impact the climate through emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived particles such as black carbon.

More fully engaging women in developing, disseminating, and maintaining clean technologies, such as cookstoves and other and solar lanterns will increase adoption rates, drive innovation towards better products, and improve the health and safety of families.

Engaging women is critical to tackling this problem. As we work to build a global market for clean cookstoves, integrating women into the cookstoves supply chain will help increase adoption rates, while also creating new economic opportunities. Women in the developing world are also increasingly taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities related to small-scale technologies, like clean cookstoves and solar lanterns, and should play a key role in designing these technologies and capitalizing on business opportunities created through local sales, distribution, and repair.

When I was in India, I met with women from the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a group with which I’m sure many of you are familiar. One of the women spoke excitedly, and through the translator, I learned about her new cookstove and the impact it was having on the quality of her and her family’s life. I suggested to the woman that she spoke with such conviction that she could sell the clean cookstoves. The other women laughed and told me that she was already selling them, and making a nice profit. And her story is not unique.

Promoting women’s entrepreneurship is particularly critical, as research from private firms, the World Bank and other sources shows that women-owned small and growing businesses are, and will continue to be, a critical driver of economic growth, one that is inclusive and broad.

Moreover, as Secretary Clinton has noted, women use their incomes to create a multiplier effect in local communities because they disproportionately spend more of their earned income on food, healthcare, home improvement, and schooling. Unlocking their full potential requires removing the barriers that women still face disproportionately – including limited access to training, finance, technology, and markets, among others.

Thirdly, we must not overlook women’s consumer spending potential. According to a Boston Consulting Group report, as of 2009, women consumers controlled two-thirds of consumer discretionary spending worldwide, which represented $12 trillion. Now this may not be an area you have considered, but it is important not to be underestimated. Economists project that women consumers will control $15 trillion in spending by the year 2014. By 2028, women will control three-quarters of consumer spending worldwide, from villages to megacities. These numbers are staggering. While we need to do more research in this area, just think of the potential green purchasing power that represents – and how that in turn could contribute to building green economies. As we think about women and sustainable development, we should all be thinking about how to harness some of that power through policy incentives, marketing, design, and production to increase market availability of green products.

Yet as the theme of today’s event suggests, we must find concrete ways of moving from words to action. So what are some of the actions that we can take to advance women’s role in promoting sustainable development?

First, we must continue to elevate women’s leadership and participation in key policy bodies. Women should have an equal seat at the table in decision-making processes that impact environmental policies and natural resource investment decisions at all levels of government. From local village councils, to cities, to national planning processes, to international and multilateral development institutions and funds, it is essential that policies and programs be instilled with a spirit of inclusion, innovation, and equal participation of women.

Just this morning, Thilmeeza Hussain, Deputy Permanent Representative to the Permanent Mission of Maldives to the United Nations, who will address you shortly, informed me about her work to bring more women into decision-making processes in her previous capacity as Minister of State for Home Affairs in the North Province of the Maldives. This type of work is critical to ensuring that women’s voices are heard.

Many of you have been working on this issue in the context of the international climate change negotiations. I recently met with Lorena Aguilar from IUCN. She told me about the training work that her organization has done to prepare women to participate in the negotiations. This kind of work is essential to ensuring that women are not only at the table, but that they are equipped with the tools required to be effective.

The United States is doing its part to facilitate women’s participation and to raise the profile of these issues on the international stage. Just this past year, my office supported the participation of grassroots women in several significant conferences on sustainable development issues, such as the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air Forum in Lima, Peru. In addition, in 2012, we will be launching a new International Visitors Leadership Program called “Women Climate Leaders.” Participants will travel to the United States for three weeks to learn about the development of new policies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as information about cutting-edge, small-scale clean technologies and how to promote women’s entrepreneurship opportunities and markets for them in their countries.

Second, we must also mainstream these issues at the policy level. For the past two years, we have been working closely with our Special Envoy for Climate Change to elevate the profile of gender and climate change issues internationally. At the Durban climate negotiations in December, we sought to highlight the critical role of women in combating climate change, and collaborated with U.S. negotiators working on the Durban texts. Our efforts to build on the gender equality and women's empowerment language in the Cancun agreements are reflected in several crucial institutional developments, including language on gender balance related to the composition of the board of the new Green Climate Fund, the Standing Committee, and the Adaptation Committee. We also worked to reflect gender considerations in the mission of the Climate Technology Center and Network. And let me say that the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s leadership, among others, was crucial to our collective success in integrating gender into the Green Climate Fund.

In the coming year, we have several critical opportunities to raise the profile of these issues on the international agenda, including the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meetings in late February, which are focused on the theme of “rural women,” and of course the Rio+20 conference in June. And I would like to emphasize an additional point – that as we work together towards these upcoming events and others, we must ensure that women’s issues are not relegated to the margins, but rather that they are mainstreamed and made a focus of the core efforts that these conferences represent. As head of the U.S. delegation to CSW, and in coordinating closely with our Rio+20 planning team at the State Department, I and my colleagues are working to ensure that women’s issues remain front and center, where they belong.

Third, we also need to invest in girls’ and women’s educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), including in the environmental sciences. Currently, women are considerably underrepresented in STEM professions - too few women and girls are pursuing careers in these fields. As we look to confront sustainable development challenges, we need to do a better job of identifying barriers and developing opportunities for women in STEM through mentoring and by transforming institutions, both public and private, to support women in science at every level.

Fourth, we must build new and innovative programs and partnerships designed to take the kinds of concrete actions necessary to effectuate change. In Durban, USAID Assistant Administrator Eric Postel noted that addressing climate change and achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment are among the cornerstones of effective long-term development. USAID has taken a number of important steps to weave gender equality and women’s empowerment objectives tightly into Agency strategic plans, programs, project designs, and monitoring and evaluation, including in the new climate strategy and programs – such as watershed management and adaptation efforts, payment for ecosystem services, and national REDD strategies.

As I mentioned, the Feed the Future initiative represents the U.S. government’s considerable effort to address food security issues and promote sustainable agriculture. Women are a primary focus of this initiative. The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program gives African women greater influence in the agricultural sectors of their economies to promote sustainable agriculture and policies in support of the female farmer.

Last September, Secretary Clinton launched a new Feed the Future fund – “Innovations in Gender Equality to Promote Household Food Security” – that supports the piloting of new interventions that increase women’s leadership and productivity in agriculture, and that improve gender equality and nutrition outcomes for women and children.

We understand that in a time of particularly limited resources and a slew of competing priorities, it is critical to leverage the resources that we do have to make the biggest impact possible. Innovative public-private partnerships, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to which the U.S. made an initial commitment of over $50 million, and which has now grown to a total of up to $105 million, is one such example. As the Secretary has remarked, this really is the “perfect partnership.”

I’m pleased to say that empowering women and girls, and ensuring that they are integrated into the energy access value chain and able to seize upon economic development opportunities related to clean cookstoves, is a critical part of the Alliance’s mission. I would encourage all of you to explore ways to get involved in the Alliance and on this issue.

Lastly, data collection is another significant need moving forward. While the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, we need more quantitative data to drive policy change and demonstrate the significant impact that women can and are having in driving forward sustainable economic growth. As we look to opportunities like CSW and Rio+20, this data will become even more crucial to securing concrete action.

To contribute to this process, Secretary Clinton recently launched a new initiative at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness at Busan, South Korea. The Evidence and Data for Gender Equality, or EDGE, Initiative, aims to improve the availability and use of statistics that capture gender gaps in economic activity, specifically focusing on sex-disaggregated data in education, employment, entrepreneurship, and assets. EDGE will also build statistical capacity in partner countries, and facilitate the broader use of more, and more accurate, information on women’s economic participation. And I’m particularly pleased that Caren Grown, gender specialist at USAID, who has been such a leader in the area of gender, data, indicators, evaluation, and development, is with us today.

Other initiatives can add to this effort as well. This is an area where many of you here today can make a difference, and I call upon you to seize this opportunity.

Over the past twenty years, there has been much progress in highlighting and advancing the role of women in sustainable development. Yet much work remains to be done. Let’s remember that no society can achieve its full potential when half the population is denied the opportunity to achieve theirs. We have studied these issues over many years. We have discussed them, even placed them on the international agenda. That’s progress. The debate may be mostly over, but the struggle for women’s full economic, social, and political power – for gender equality – is still our unfinished agenda. All the more because sustainable development is directly linked to progress for women and girls.

Much work remains. But I believe we have the wind at our backs. There is momentum on which to achieve greater results. As the late environmentalist who understood the importance of the role of women and who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, Wangari Maathai, urged: “We must find opportunities to make change happen – we must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.” Your voices are vital and your actions urgent. Civil society could not be more important. Thank you for all you do and will do in the weeks and months ahead. Good luck during today’s symposium.