Moderator: And with the logistics out of the way, I will now turn it over to Ambassador Currie.
Ambassador Currie: Thank you, Zed. Good morning, good afternoon, good – I guess every – I think everybody on this call, it’s either good morning or good afternoon to you. Sorry, I just got off a phone call with an audience in Vietnam, so it was evening for them and I’m a little crazy with the time zone stuff here.
So thank you for joining this call. This week we are continuing to work through our 16 days of action for violence against women, which started on November 25th and carries on through Human Rights Day, December 10th. And we’re – as we’re in the middle of that, and for those of you who may have checked out our Twitter feed or some of the other Twitter feeds around the department, you’ll see that we’ve had a very active campaign on violence against women. This has been a particularly difficult and important year for that campaign to be taking place in the context of this pandemic, where we’ve seen the numbers of the case load on violence against women rising globally in response whether it’s to lockdowns or other pressures created through this crisis. And we’re pleased to talk about the United States’ response to that, to the response – our response to the pandemic more broadly, especially as it concerns the situation of women globally, and to talk about the work that our office is doing to support women, peace, and security and the women’s economic empowerment agendas of the United States.
So with that, I’m happy to just start – I think I’d rather just start taking questions and respond to your interests, if that’s okay with everybody.
Moderator: Excellent. Thank you very much, Ambassador, for that – for that introduction. And let’s start with a pre-submitted question. This comes from Agata Andreetto from Brussels Morning. She asks, “The issue of violence against women has recently received increasing international attention. Why do you think attention to the issue still encounters resistance today?”
Ambassador Currie: Well, violence against women has historically been a challenging issue because often it is – it arises from intimate partner violence; it’s something that is often a hidden pandemic when other crises are going on. That’s certainly been the case here with what we’ve seen in the COVID – since COVID, the COVID pandemic began. And what – and with the lockdowns and the stay-at-home orders, it has been a real challenge for service providers and responders to actually get accurate numbers even about what is going on. In some cases, we initially saw drops in reported cases, even though we knew that the cases were not actually going down. We saw that both in the United States and in other contexts. And the – as the reporting has caught up to reality, we’ve seen the increases across pretty much every economy and around the world, regardless of whether it’s developed countries or developing countries. We are seeing this.
I think that it is something that is hard for people to talk about. It’s hard for law enforcement to deal with. It’s always been a challenge. I think the level of awareness now is much greater, and I actually have been really – it has been remarkable to see the degree to which this has become part of the conversation around the COVID pandemic, both the response and the need to address the underlying causes of violence against women. And so we’re working – we’re – we’ve expanded our response efforts both domestically and as part of our foreign assistance and part of our COVID emergency response assistance to make sure that we’re working with local providers in countries where the systems that provide services are at risk or are facing greater stress and continuing to get resources out to them through – especially through local grassroots organizations.
But I think that increasingly it is part of the conversation and it’s part of our office’s mandate to make sure that whether we’re talking about conflict-related violence against women in the context of an armed conflict, or violence against women day to day, that we’re working to not only treat the actual incidents but to work on prevention and as well as protection.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you very much. I don’t see anyone who has entered in the question queue just yet so we’ll move to another pre-submitted question. And this – the question here is, “Critics often claim the United States turns a blind eye to human rights when dealing with strategically important allies. How would you respond to these criticisms?”
Ambassador Currie: Well, actually the Secretary was just talking about this yesterday at another media event, and I think that’s not true. I think that we do engage all of our partners on issues, and they certainly don’t shy away from engaging us on issues where they think that we’re not living up to our aspirations. I’ll give you a good example. We have a woman who we recently in the past few years awarded with the International Women of Courage Award, who is currently in detention in Saudi Arabia, and I have engaged directly with the Saudi Government about her case, about her detention, and about the detention of other women activists who remain imprisoned. And so we continue to talk to the Saudis constantly about both the progress that they’re making, which we – which is real and meaningful for women in Saudi Arabia, as well as our concerns about the continued detention of women activists who are being detained for breaking laws that no longer exist. And we continue to engage with a whole – across a whole range of partners.
I think that for us, the important thing is to note that when a country is working on something to improve it, you want to encourage that progress; you want to make sure that they are feeling that support and that they do – that we are encouraging them in the right direction while being realistic and honest with our partners. We don’t do ourselves or our partners any favors when we aren’t honest about areas of concern where we have challenges.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Let’s go to a live question. Agata Andreetto, I see you’re on the participant list and you had submitted a few questions, so let me enable your microphone so you may ask directly. Agata, you should be able to unmute now. There you go.
Question: Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can hear you loud and clear.
Question: Okay. Sorry, I was encountering some technical problems. Okay. So, thank you for answering my first question. I wanted to ask you if it’s possible to have some anticipation on the new president’s strategy to tackle gender-based violence, both internally and internationally. So, well, if you can perhaps say a few words on new prospects about the Biden presidency, if it’s – I mean, if you’re – if you can.
Ambassador Currie: Well, I wouldn’t presume to speak about what the priorities of the – of any future administration would be. But I think that one thing that we have worked really hard to do in my office is to stay very focused on areas where there is strong bipartisan consensus on women’s issues, and that is why our office has focused very much on the women, peace, and security agenda, which we have the Women, Peace, and Security Act which passed Congress in 2017 and was signed by the President. And it supported – it was supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. I think there was only one vote against it. And so it’s pretty much unanimously supported across our political spectrum, and we work very closely with a very ideologically diverse group of members of Congress as well as a diverse group of civil society organizations and stakeholders on that agenda, for example.
And the same is true with our women’s economic empowerment work, where we have really focused again on areas where there’s very strong, broad bipartisan consensus domestically as well as in the international community about what can be done to help support women’s economic empowerment. We have really worked – tried to work within the grain and tried to find those areas where we can build out from shared values and shared cooperation and shared commitments. And that’s the approach that I have taken during my time in office, and I think that it’s been a very effective and successful approach, and I would encourage anyone who is looking to be successful and effective in advancing these agendas to consider that as a way forward. Because there are – there are plenty of things that we can disagree about, and we could spend time arguing about the things that we disagree about, or we can spend time focused on how we can help women to be more empowered, to have more access to financing, to grow their businesses and take care of their families, or have more access to political activity in their countries and have their rights protected by their governments.
Those are the things that we’ve really tried to focus on and tried to advance progress toward, and I think that by working with strong bipartisan support instead of spending most of our time focused on areas of disagreement, it has given us a very effective platform.
Question: Thank you very much.
Moderator: All right, thank you for that question, Agata. Our next question comes from the Q&A panel here, from Alex Raufoglu, who asks, “Given recent hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, what role can women in both countries play on re-humanization?”
Ambassador Currie: Well, we actually have great contacts with women activists and women leaders in both countries. And during the – at the height of the crisis I reached out to some of our women leaders, spoke to them, and it was really – it was very sad in a way because they both were – there was a lot of fear on both sides and a lot of concern about the loss of the ability to even connect to one another, and fear that just talking to each other would put them at risk. So again, this kind of circles back to that conversation around violence against women, that women – even women who are inclined to try to do something are afraid that they will be subjected whether it’s to online harassment or to actual physical violence in their communities for trying to reach out and build peace across deeply divided issues like this.
But we continue to work in that space. We continue to, I think, try to provide a platform where those of good intentions and good will can come together. And we have seen some great results there in other contexts, and I remain hopeful that as we continue to create that space and leave it there, that those people of goodwill, especially the women that we work with in both contexts, will find that space and take it up and occupy it and work together.
Moderator: Thank you for that, Ambassador. We’ll go back to a pre-submitted question. The question is, “Other governments claim the United States should refrain from scrutinizing women’s rights issues since the country itself has a poor record internally protecting women. Ambassador, how would you counter this argument?”
Ambassador Currie: Well, I wish that every country in the world, women had the rights and opportunities that my 11-year-old daughter has here in this country and that I’ve had. I mean, I can’t think of a better place to grow up and be a woman today than the United States. You can do any job that you want. You can pursue any path that you choose. And ultimately, that is what we are trying to help support other countries to achieve, is that ability for women to have the same rights and opportunities as men. So I kind of reject the premise, I guess, that we have a poor track record. Women have been voting in this country for 100 years. We just celebrated the centenary of women’s voting rights. We have record numbers of women in our legislature at all levels; at the federal, state, and local level, women are fully participating and have every opportunity to participate in the political, cultural, social, educational, and economic life of this country.
Prior to the pandemic, we had achieved historic rates of female workforce participation. We were shrinking the gender pay gap. And we’ve seen – even during the pandemic, we’ve seen phenomenal improvement in things like women’s board participation and major companies achieving 50/50 board participation, women achieving the heights of major companies, becoming CEOs, women appointed to our Supreme Court. So, and even in our most recent election, the vice-presidential candidature of Kamala Harris. I think that women in this country can do anything. My daughter, as I said, certainly feels she can. And what we hope and aspire to for women and girls all around the world is that they would be as fortunate as women in this country are today.
Moderator: Thank you for that, Ambassador. Our next question comes via the Q&A section. This next one comes from Raji Unnikrishnan, who asks – who’s from GDN in Bahrain. He asks specifically, “Who are the malign actors which the State Department has identified which could potentially impact gender-based violence in the Gulf Cooperation Council?”
Ambassador Currie: So what we’re concerned about, especially in the Middle East and across the Middle East and North Africa, is the malign influence that Iran has played in stoking conflict and creating negative trends in the region. And if you look at pretty much any conflict across the Middle East and North Africa, whether – or area of crisis, whether it’s Syria, Yemen, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, you see the hand of Iran creating chaos, dysfunction, and imposing a form of theocratic and malign rule and malign ideology that is inimicable and harmful to women, whether it’s conflict in Yemen that has caused women incalculable harm, and we see this even as the – as the conflict there rages on, women in areas where the Houthis have become – have taken power have seen their rights go from not a great place in the first place to get worse, and that’s just one example. In Lebanon, the areas where Hizballah – again, backed by Iran – has dominance, women’s rights are far more restricted and women enjoy less opportunity than in other places in the country where Hizballah is not dominant. You just see this.
So Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East and North Africa is there for everyone to see, and it raises a concern. And it’s not something that we talk about in terms of women a lot, but I think that if you go to any conflict you see that women and vulnerable communities, minorities, are often those that are most at risk when there’s a conflict or when there’s a crisis. And because Iran is often the actor that spurs on and causes crises to continue, allows them – allows bad actors to keep crises and conflicts alive and going on, then it’s pretty clear to us that they are – they are playing a very harmful role for communities and for women across the region.
Moderator: Thank you for that, Ambassador. Our next question was pre-submitted, and the question is as follows: “Does the United States have concrete actions to back up its rhetoric on women’s rights issues?”
Ambassador Currie: Absolutely. We’re working across every platform that’s available to us. As I was telling Zed before we started, I just finished this morning a two-hour conference – or doing a two-hour session on a conference with our partners in Vietnam on women, peace, and security where we are supporting their efforts to integrate the women, peace, and security agenda. We’re working with countries around the world from Uzbekistan to Colombia on their women, peace, and security national action plans so that they can integrate the women, peace, and security into their own national security and foreign policy architectures. And we have ongoing dialogues with countries all around the world, in every region, about – we’re working now in more than 60 countries on our Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative at the programmatic level, developing partnerships with governments, private sector, civil society, including women’s organizations, women’s business – women business owners. And it’s – the stuff that we’re doing on the ground is truly remarkable, I have to say.
And I talk to the beneficiaries of these programs. Not a week goes by where I’m not involved in some sort of engagement in a different region of the world – in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Southeast Asia – where we’re talking to the women who are enrolled in programs like the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs that’s training them to grow or start or build a business, to women who are participating in WEConnect that’s connecting them to global supply chains in ways that were previously unimaginable, in their own language and allowing them to do that.
It’s – I mean, we are – through initiatives like the Women’s Global Prosperity and – Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, WGDP, we aim to impact the lives of 50 million women – five-zero – women by the year 2025, and we’re well on the way. In the first year of that initiative, we did the data analytics and found that 12 million women had already been touched in the first year of that initiative, last year. And we’re on track – we’re just wrapping up our annual report and looking at the data for this year, and even during a pandemic, we still feel like we’re on track to hit the numbers that we need to hit that amazing goal.
So we definitely put our words into action and we have really focused on turning our commitments into results.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. I believe that wraps up any pending questions. With that, I will of course offer the floor back to you for any concluding remarks you have.
Ambassador Currie: Well, thank you very much. One thing that I did want to – that I had hoped I would be asked about, but unfortunately I didn’t get a question about, is an issue that is of grave concern to us as well, and it’s related to where we see the biggest, I would say, future threats to the rights and opportunities of women globally. And as I spoke about the malign influence of Iran in the Middle East and North Africa, I also want to call attention to one of the gravest human rights challenges that women face around the – that women face today, and this is the situation in western China in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese Government is basically looking to eviscerate the and wipe out Uyghur culture, Uyghur identity, and Sinicize an entire population, put their religious practices under tight government control, and has detained millions of people, including women.
And what we – the latest research that we have on this indicates that most of the women who have been detained in Xinjiang, the ethnic Uyghur and other ethnic women detained in Xinjiang, have been detained for what are called violations of birth-control rules, which means that they had more children than they were technically allowed to have. And we’ve seen strong evidence of forced sterilization, forced abortion, and other coercive methods being used to target women in this region. And so this is a great concern to us. We are very worried that the UN in particular has not taken up this issue and is not – continues to partner with the organizations in China that are implementing these policies.
So you’ve seen us speak out about this. You’ve seen the Secretary speak out about it. You’ve seen us take action. When it comes to putting words into action, we’ve sanctioned individuals and organizations that are responsible for these policies, and we’re going to continue to lead on this effort and work with partners who share our concerns about this issue in particular.
So we continue to be interested in talking to – talking about this issue. If anybody wants to follow up with our office, please reach out through the Media Hub and let us know. We’d be delighted to have a follow-on conversation on that as well. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. With that, that concludes today’s special virtual briefing. I’d like to thank our panelist, of course, Ambassador Currie, and all of our attendees. And from everyone here in the Media Hub, have a good afternoon or evening. As a reminder, we will have both a audio recording and a transcript available to attendees and posted on our state.gov website. Thank you very much.
Ambassador Currie: Thank you.