02/08/2013 11:05 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

With Clinton Out, What Next for Women Abroad?

Despite recent meaningful national and international discussions on women's economic, political, and educational opportunities (e.g, work-life balance; women's participation at Davos; female soldiers filling more combat billets), little has been said about whether the promotion and protection of women and girls abroad will remain a key policy priority for a Kerry-led State Department. International relations experts and political insiders may do a quick review of the issue and deem it relatively low priority, but they should know that women and girls around the globe are likely watching closely.

Secretary Kerry has an important precedent to follow; in addition to Secretary Clinton, Secretaries Rice, Powell and Albright also focused on women and girls as an important policy issue. Secretary Clinton significantly expanded previously allocated resources, and created the position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, which reported directly to her, and filled it with her former Chief-of-Staff, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, to ensure uninhibited lines of communication.

My short time working for Ambassador Verveer in a non-political appointment revealed that this tiny office wielded an extraordinary amount of power throughout the U.S. government, and even within the business community. Major national defense, development, and diplomacy strategies began reflecting the importance of including and considering women and girls, and corporations and foundations practically lined up to form public-private partnerships -- a rarity between the U.S. government and the private sector.

Perhaps what is most compelling about the policy prioritization, however, is that it is a worthy investment strategy. Minimizing women and girls' empowerment by considering it a fringe issue or scaling back the Global Women's Issues Office, two possibilities insiders have quietly discussed, would be undercutting the gains of the last four years in U.S. government development, defense, and diplomacy policies and programs. Such a decision would likely signal that this issue was less important to the incoming Secretary and progress made overseas could stall or wane. In places like Afghanistan, a fate far worse may await the many women who have worked alongside us for over a decade, as they face potentially deadly backlash from forces outright hostile to their rights.

A growing body of evidence suggests that targeted investments in women and girls' economic opportunities, health, and education yield dividends not only for them, but also for entire communities. Providing access to and focusing on financing, maternal health programming and secondary education, for instance, are all particularly worthy emphases, given the domino effects that each can have on other development indicators. Why wouldn't we want stronger returns on U.S. monies spent abroad?

As books like Half the Sky highlight, women and girls often bear the brunt of poverty and conflict and are sadly often the victim of violence and abuse. A continued emphasis on assisting victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including human trafficking, rape as a weapon of war, and child marriage, only helps to demonstrate America's moral commitment to protecting those who may need help protecting themselves.

Further, encouraging women's participation in the political, civic, and security realms can also contribute to governments that better represent their people; societies that are more vibrant and productive; and conflicts that are settled with more sustainable outcomes. Promoting practical opportunities for women to participate and lead, as well as providing relevant training to ensure that women are effective when provided such opportunities, have the power to build constituencies of valuable allies who are appreciative to the United States for our support and more willing to engage with us.

Given what's at stake, anyone interested in the effectiveness of U.S. engagement overseas should be concerned about the implications of any policy change. Failing to continue the advances made to close the gender gap could not only make our overseas investments less effective at a time when budget cuts require every dollar to stretch that much further, but also erode the trust that many women and girls worldwide have placed in the U.S. government to champion their interests -- a trust, that if not maintained, would be very hard to rebuild.