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“Women’s equality is the moral imperative of the 21st century.” Melanne Verveer’s words rang true at the Center of American Progress, where Neera Tanden moderated a special conversation on July 23 with Verveer, the current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Verveer, who has championed women’s rights for decades, discussed the status of women globally, the significance of women’s economic empowerment in global growth, and why leveraging the skills and leadership potential of women and girls is the smartest investment a country can make for the future.

“Until women around the world have their full rights, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling,” said Verveer. She went on to say that millions of women worldwide are still unable to find a meaningful place for themselves in the formal workplace because of the web of restrictions that limit their potential. These limitations on women hinder communities, as Verveer said that female wage-earners disproportionally spend more of their income on food, health care, their home, and education – all factors that can have positive ramifications for the future generation. Many global women remain an untapped reservoir of creativity, dynamic energy, and knowledge.

Verveer highlighted how the economic empowerment of women is absolutely essential in bolstering economies and ensuring the progress of nations. “Barriers erode women’s ability to participate in their economies and support their families,” Verveer stated. She discussed the obstacles women encounter, such as accessing finance and markets in order to grow their capabilities and services. She describes how many women don’t have access to crucial technologies, as 350 million women do not have a cell phones – an essential for acquiring information, learning about the status of the market on any given day, or providing mobile banking. Verveer also mentioned training and mentorship as vital to the development of emerging businesswomen and entrepreneurs.

Unleashing the economic potential of women would boost global economies enormously: a Goldman Sachs report states that a reduction in barriers to women in the labor force would increase American GDP by 9%, the Euro-Zone GDP by 13%, and the Japanese GDP by 16%.

Verveer explained that there is a proven correlation between higher degrees of gender diversity in business leadership and the profit of a company. Verveer cited the inclusion of women in the G20 agenda as an important step forward, but said that there is still much progress to be made.

Furthermore, Verveer stated, women play key roles in the peace and security of a nation, and are vital to conflict prevention. “Countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women have more rights,” said Verveer, asserting that the most dangerous places for women are the most dangerous places for everyone. The oppression of women is indicative of the instability of a nation, she said. Verveer alludes to Northern Ireland and Liberia as two nations where women have been key to negotiating processes and peace-building, and highlighted the three female 2011 Noble Peace Prize Laureates as exemplary and inspirational peacekeepers. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence all levels in the development in society.”

Although women can hold key positions as peacemakers, they also are most heavily affected by violence, Verveer said. She cited the purposeful and strategic execution of rape as a weapon of war, and stated that it is of utmost importance that we protect women from such brutalities. Verveer also mentioned the importance of providing women with resources to reconstruct nations ravaged by war or poverty and transition them into peace and prosperity.

Verveer’s message is an urgent reminder that women and girls are critical in global development, and their rights must be safeguarded for the world to progress. “When women are silenced or marginalized in these processes, the prospect for peace is likely to be subverted,” Verveer stated. This is why, she said, Secretary Clinton made the decision that the advancement of women and girls should be the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Verveer stressed we must not victimize women, but realize that “they have a critical role that they need to play.”

As a compelling illustration of the power that women wield, and of the potential that they hold, Verveer left those in attendance with the words of a group of Afghan women fighting for their rights: “Please do not look at us as victims, but look at us as the leaders that we are.”

To learn more, watch a live-stream of this event via Center for American Progress

Allegra Hobbs and Ariella Steinhorn are interns for Vital Voices’ Online Communications team.