Russell's Challenge: Keep Women's Rights at Center of U.S. Foreign Policy

08/09/2013 11:36 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013

Rice. Power. Russell. Three names that signify more than just recent appointments of women to U.S. foreign policy leadership roles. The elevation of Susan Rice to National Security Adviser, Samantha Power to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Catherine Russell to Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues re-affirms President Obama's declaration earlier this year that promoting gender equality is "vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives." At the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), we could not agree more with President Obama that empowering women globally means greater economic prosperity, political stability, and security. This summer's appointment and confirmations also underscore what many of us have known for years -- conversations around women-centered policies are most fruitful when women are at the center of policy making.

President Obama's administration took unprecedented steps in his first term to advance gender equality within U.S. foreign policy, including the establishment of the Office of Global Women's Issues within the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This landmark office is charged with ensuring that women's issues are fully integrated within U.S. foreign policy. A March 2012 policy guidance issued by Secretary Clinton made clear that advancing the status of women and girls must include the promotion of gender equity within State Department strategic planning, program assistance, and in-country training.

Ambassador Russell brings tremendous experience in developing concrete policy solutions for women facing gender-based violence around the world. We applaud those efforts, and we hope they continue in her new role. However, we challenge Ambassador Russell not to stop there. A bold agenda to tear down gender inequality is not complete without full attention to the most basic rights of women and girls - to protect their own health and lives, and to chart their own futures. Each year, there are approximately 16 million births to adolescent mothers. In developing countries, 356,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related causes. Worldwide, HIV/AIDS is the number one cause of death for women of reproductive age, and women make up more than half of those infected worldwide. Gender equality and health cannot be fully realized without ensuring comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for women and girls.

Obama's second term must continue the forward momentum in advancing the status of women and girls. Now is the time to cement gender equity as a foreign policy priority and to expand the reach and impact of those priorities. The placement of women in critical U.S. foreign policy leadership roles is an essential step, but, not a guarantee. We encourage Ambassador Russell to be bold in her leadership and embrace a mission for the Office of Global Women's Issues that includes comprehensive SRHR.