When I was twenty, I believed that women’s role in decision-making was not even questioned. Soon I recognized that I was wrong. But what I also realized was that every person has the power to contribute in making equality a reality.
For me, the journey started in 2004 at the NATO Summit, when I served as Diplomatic Advisor to the President of Lithuania. I had the opportunity to attend a final meeting of the Heads of States where only one advisor was permitted to remain in the room. While the presidents were exchanging remarks, I looked around the room and could not help but think two things, both of which are critical to who I am today.
First I thought to myself how fortunate I was to be in that room. You see, when I graduated from high school I lived in Soviet occupied Lithuania. In 2004, less than fifteen years later, I was representing my country at the highest levels of one of the most powerful multilateral organizations in the world.
And second, I found myself wondering why I was among just a handful of women in the room—along with the President of Latvia at the time, Vaira Vike Freiberga and President Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. It is then that I made a conscious decision to enhance gender equality through my work, first, in the field of foreign policy and later in development. I feel honored to have touched the lives of women on every continent.
Today no country has achieved equality for women and girls. However, some may argue that progress has been achieved because we have moved beyond talking about recognizing the importance of equality. Rather, we are talking about potential steps to achieve it. Nevertheless, if our talk does not turn into strategic action plans, we may still be talking twenty years from now. This is especially important to note in the context of 2015, the year marking 20 years of the Beijing Declaration, 15 years of development framework entitled the Millennium Development Goals, and 15 years of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.
How can we release the potential of women as equal drivers and beneficiaries of sustainable development for the future of our societies? One of the ways is through the support for democratic and inclusive processes. Some of the leading women and men across the world have been focusing on this.
Take Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who announced Sweden’s feminist foreign policy explaining that gender equality is a peace and security issue. According to her, if women comprise half the population, how can anyone achieve peace in a country without asking them to be part of the decision-making. She puts actions in place of elaborate announcements.
For example, she follows her conversations with women around the world by policy improvements/requirements for her Ministry in terms of gender equality. She notes that it helps her determine if Sweden’s foreign aid funds are spent effectively. According to her, one of the litmus tests of Minister Wallstrom’s feminist foreign policy will be Ukraine.
Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania, could not agree more. In the international Munich Security Conference, the Lithuanian President underscored the threat to peace and security for the whole region posed by the escalating situation in Ukraine. According to the President, to maintain its influence in the region Russia uses means of political pressure, continues to demonstrate its military power at NATO borders, uses economic blockades, and suspends oil supplies—just to name a few.
The President is deeply concerned about Ukrainian women, who suffer from Russia sending troops and military equipment to the territory of Ukraine. Thus, she calls for broad assistance to Ukraine, noting that by betraying Ukraine, we will betray ourselves as aggression can be directed against other countries and peoples, too.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been at the steering wheel of her country for three terms. She is Germany’s first woman chancellor. Her statements send a clear message to Russia, as she demands that Russia must pull back from Ukraine, or face further isolation. Most importantly, she is the de facto leader of the European Union.
Regardless of the seriousness of issues that Europe faces today, the Chancellor is always mindful of the significance of empowering women. Take the home front, in March 2015 Chancellor Merkel pushed the passage of a law in Germany requiring some of Europe’s biggest companies to give 30 percent of their supervisory seats to women.
But you do not need to be the leader of a country to do good. The Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and economist, who founded Grameen Bank, proved that individual power is impactful. He is known not only for pioneering the concept of microcredit and microfinance and giving loans to those who are too poor to receive traditional loans from banks, but also for lending to rural women entrepreneurs who were eager to pull their families out of poverty. Today, his methods are replicated in many countries around the world.
The use of individual power is a positive when it comes to doing more than just talk to achieve equality and inclusion for women and girls. And each of us can contribute.
Erika Veberyte is Senior Advisor to the President of the International Republican Institute, for International and Women’s Organizations.