Catherine Russell Is Turning the Tide on Women’s Rights- by Courtney Subramanian
Catherine Russell is settling into her second year as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, but already her findings—which she’ll discuss during our Women in the World D.C. event this Wednesday—are eye-opening.
In India, Russell met with a police commissioner who shepherded the use of a mobile app for women to alert law enforcement when they are feeling uncomfortable. The app enables a user to take a picture of the location and immediately send it to police for assistance. “It’s always great to find men who are champions of these issues,” she says. “He understood that for women to feel secure they needed to have control over their situation.”
Russell’s Office of Global Women’s Issues also employs a gender team in Afghanistan, which regularly updates the ambassador on problems Afghan women are facing. While India’s gang rape problem was put on the global stage last year, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in reports of attacks on women, according to the United Nations. But where there is still struggle, Russell recognizes the progress. “I think every country is following its own path,” she says.
“The president has been very clear that the path of the women there is a real indication of how the country is doing,” she says. “Afghanistan is a place when women are doing so much better than they were and if we can preserve those gains, I think that country has a real chance.”
The self-proclaimed “eternal optimist” is tasked with serving as the voice for women around the world and then ensuring that women’s rights are weaved into the fabric of U.S. policy. “It’s a challenging job to change the culture of any huge institution,” Russell says. “But I think it’s being done very effectively.”
Russell only recently took up the position founded by Melanne Verveer—who was appointed in 2009 to the ambassador-at-large role created by then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton—but she’s no stranger to the State Department. Prior to her appointment by President Obama last year, Russell served as chief of staff to Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, for four years. She also helped draft the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 as a staff director to then-Senator Joe Biden—and aided in ushering in the international version of the bill while one of his senior advisers in 2007. Previously, Russell was an associate deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and her husband, Tom Donilon, most recently served as one of Obama’s national security advisers.
With her impressive record, Russell is a force to be reckoned with, and Verveer agrees Russell’s behind-the-scenes pedigree remains one of her greatest advantages.
“To get a lot of this done you have to know where to go,” Verveer says. “And you have to make sure that the decision makers can be not just helpful, but understand everyone’s interest.” Russell’s already been on the ground in India, Nepal and Pakistan where she met with parliamentarians, police enforcement, and activists to learn about local efforts in women’s rights.
While gender-based violence is one of Russell’s top priorities, the ambassador is also guiding her focus towards female economic empowerment. Pointing to Latin America and the Caribbean as two promising examples, Russell is adamant that improving female contribution to government and economies will not only benefit individuals, but the world at large. The facts bear this out: the female labor market in Latin American and the Caribbean reduced extreme poverty by 30 percent by 2010, according to the World Bank .
“An example like that shows that women have real contribution,” Russell says. “Countries will just do better if women are involved.” For an optimist like Russell, the progress made shines a light on the struggle ahead. “There are tough times,” Russell says. “But I feel like the tide of history is moving in favor of women’s rights.”
Watch Catherine Russell at our Women in the World D.C. here.