NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Hi, good afternoon, and welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center for our virtual briefing on “advancing sustainable development: achieving gender equality”. I would like to welcome our FPC journalists who are attending on Zoom. My name is Mahvash Siddiqui and I’m the moderator. This briefing is on the record. First, I will introduce our two speakers. After their remarks, we will move on to Q&A.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome our two briefers from the State Department. The first is Katrina Fotovat. She’s a senior official for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. And Ms. Rina Amiri, she’s the special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights. The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues has a mandate to promote the rights of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy. Senior Official Fotovat will share with us U.S. priorities on women’s issues as laid out in the High-Level Week of the United Nations General Assembly, and our second briefer, Special Envoy Amiri, will share with us latest U.S. initiatives and actions to support Afghan women and girls.
And with that, it is my great pleasure to introduce Ms. Fotovat. Please, go ahead and kick it off, ma’am.
MS FOTOVAT: Thank you so much, Mahvash. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Kat Fotovat. I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to speak with me today about the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the United States Department of State, an office which I have the distinct honor and privilege of leading as senior official. Our mandate requires a direct reporting line to the Secretary of State to promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy and assistance and by highlighting the voices of women and girls in all their diversity, including disabilities, racial and indigenous issues, ethnic, and gender diverse persons.
In March 2021, President Biden released an executive order which established the White House Gender Policy Council and mandated the creation of the National Gender Strategy on Gender Equality and Equity, otherwise known as the NGS. Through these policy mandates, the Biden-Harris administration reaffirmed our commitment to advancing gender equity and equality, and my office carries out this mandate through three main lines of effort: the first, promoting women’s economic empowerment; second, promoting women, peace, and security; and third, by preventing and responding to gender-based violence, with an awareness to so many crosscutting issues that intersect, such as climate and STEM.
We know that when women are given a seat at the table, that when girls are in school, when laws protect the rights of all persons regardless of gender, countries and communities are safer. They are more prosperous and the entire global community is uplifted. Now more than ever, in the face of global backsliding on the rights and empowerment of women, there is a need to ensure women and girls can meaningfully participate in political, social, and economic life. The right to vote, access to health or child care, professional development, and a seat at the decision-making table will impact women and move the needle for the next generation in all their countries.
We are seeing in Iran right now just how important it is to defend women’s rights everywhere. We deplore the abhorrent death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Mahsa’s death is an appalling and egregious affront to human rights. Our thoughts are with Mahsa’s family and loved ones.
Yesterday, the world observed International Day of Peace, a day observed peaceful freedom of speech, democracy, and human rights for all people. However, this is not the reality for many of the people in the streets of Iran today. Today, they protest and mourn the abhorrent death of Mahsa Amini. We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters and the silencing of their voices online. As President Biden reiterated in his speech yesterday at the UN, we support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves without fear of violence and detention by security forces. The Iranian women deserve to live free of systematic persecution from their government. With Mahsa, Iranian women and all girls in – are on our mind.
We’ve been here at UNGA High-Level Week meeting with key partners, including Special Advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister on Women’s Empowerment Masako Mori, to advance the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities on gender equity and equality. Earlier this week, the Secretary of State, Secretary Blinken, launched the Afghan Alliance on Women’s Economic Resilience, which Special Envoy Amiri will talk about more in her remarks.
This morning, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman presented the U.S. in an event titled Co-Creation for Reparations, putting survivors of conflict-related sexual violence at the center, the lessons learned and emerging best practices. This event brought together numerous partners, including the UK, South Korea, Japan, France, Canada, and Ukraine, as well as SRSG Patten and Nobel Prize winners Nadia Murad and Dr. Mukwege. Deputy Secretary Sherman discussed CRSV accountability, reparative justice, and survivor-centered approaches, and we also had survivors present and providing their testimonies. We had secretary – assistant – Deputy Secretary Sherman was also pleased to announce $400,000 in additional funding to SRSG Patten’s office, which brings total USG funding to the SRSG’s office to over $2 million this year alone. And just before this briefing, I was a panelist for the Tech for Democracy, where I discussed preventing or responding to all forms of gender-based violence on and offline, including technology-facilitated GBV.
We launched the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Violence, Online Harassment, and Abuse in March of this year. The United States partners with countries gathered at the Commission on the Status of Women to launch this partnership, and the global partnership brings together international organizations, civil society, private sector, and survivors to understand, prevent, and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence.
Together, this partnership addresses the issue through developing and advancing shared principles, increasing targeted programming, and expanding reliable data and comparable data. Fundamentally we cannot talk about advancing democratic renewal and maintaining our democracies if women and girls are not on the front lines of this effort, and are constant targets of online gender-based violence and abuse.
And with that, it is my pleasure to turn it over to Special Envoy Rina Amiri.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy Amiri, for taking on the podium. And thank you so much, Ms. Fotovat, for your excellent remarks. Appreciate it.
MS AMIRI: Thank you very much, and thank you very much, Kat, for your kind words. This General Assembly marks a rather somber time in Afghanistan, particularly since it has been over one year that Afghan girls have been kept out of education and Afghan women have been essentially erased from society in Afghanistan – from the right to work, the right to public space. And in the course of the last year, there have been between 16 to 29 edicts increasingly repressing Afghan women and girls. Afghan women describe this as nothing short as a war on women.
This is – this is the grim reality that we face in Afghanistan. This is what the world has come together to acknowledge as one of the priorities in addressing in Afghanistan.
Secretary Blinken appoint – established my position in December, and I began my appointment nine months ago. In the course of the last nine months, we’ve undertaken a number of different measures to address the situation in – the situation of women in Afghanistan. One we have highlighted and underscored, that it is the voices of Afghan women themselves that need to be prioritized, that need to be leveraged, and that need to be amplified to demonstrate their leadership both inside the country as well as where they have been exiled to all over the world. To that end, we established the U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism, which the Secretary launched at the end of June. That mechanism is established to ensure that it is the voices of Afghan women that guide our policy, that are brought into our policy, where their priorities and their concerns are reflected in the work that we undertake.
Second, what we’ve heard repeatedly from Afghan women is that what is fundamental to them is that they get – that they regain the right to work, to education, to participate in the economy, the livelihood, and the future of a peaceful and sustainable Afghanistan.
We have prioritized this issue, and every single diplomatic engagement that we have held with the Taliban, we have made it clear to the Taliban that unless they address this issue, unless they respect the rights of the Afghan population, there will be no progress on the priorities that they seek, which is normalization with the – normalized relations with the U.S. and the international community. They seek diplomatic engagements with the foreign minister level throughout the world, and on all of those fronts we have made it very clear that not only we, but we will mobilize and work with international community to ensure that we all hold the line, that until the rights of women and men are respected in Afghanistan, that we are not going to be moving forward in that direction. We will continue to support the Afghan people to address the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, but we are going to do it in a way that does not legitimize the Taliban and where the assistance that is provided to the Afghan people are not siphoned off by the Taliban.
And we have noted that – our discouragement that the Taliban have not delivered on the rights of women and men. In fact, the human rights situation right now is extremely grim. It is the worst situation in the world for women. I think that there is consensus on that, and Afghan women rightly have referred to it as a place where they feel that they are imprisoned, and some have referred to it as gender apartheid.
We have assessed that even as we will fully use our diplomatic tools to continue pushing the Taliban to respect the rights of the Afghan women and men, that we’re not just going to stop at their closed door, that we will find every means of supporting the rights of women and girls in the population of Afghanistan.
And one of the efforts that we undertook this week at the General Assembly, as Kat referred to, is establishing the Alliance for Afghan Women’s Economic Resilience. That is an effort that is designed to use creative approaches, that is designed to bring innovation, both to supporting Afghan women entrepreneurs and those that are seeking to get mentoring, to get an education, and to find ways to support those inside the country as well as those that are scattered throughout the world by bringing in a partnership with the public sector, with the private sector, the tech community.
And to that end, we have, in our launch that Kat referred to just a few days ago, we had a number of partners that already stepped up, including Meta, Deloitte, Pod, to support the mentoring of Afghan women and girls, to support establishing platforms for women entrepreneurs, and to support virtual education. And since then, we have had outreach from a number of prominent companies and organizations that seek to support this effort and to support Afghan women and girls in very concrete ways.
Third, on the situation of human rights, we work very closely with the office of Richard Bennett, the special rapporteur for Afghanistan, as well as the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and other UN actors to both address the social and political rights of Afghan women and men, particularly vulnerable communities, ethnic and religious communities, but also look at the issue of aid and assistance that’s being provided in Afghanistan. We hear of Taliban interference and aid distribution and that is an issue that we’ve taken up with OCHA and other UN agencies to identify how we can support them to protect the Afghan population from these type of abuses at the social, political, and economic level.
In addition, we are seeking to ensure that it’s not just our voices that are supporting and advocating for Afghan women and men, but it’s Muslim-majority countries. We assess that the role of the Muslim-majority world is essential in advocating for Afghan women and men, particularly because, as we have learned every day from Afghans themselves, is that their frustration with the Taliban and taking the sacred religion of Islam and casting a false narrative in terms of the position of Islam on the rights of women and men – this is something that is recognized throughout the Muslim world.
And the conversations that I’ve had throughout my travels to Muslim-majority countries, they agree that the sacred religion of Islam is one that supports the rights of women and men equally on education fronts, on work fronts. And we see that throughout the Muslim world, and what we have sought is to ensure that their voices carry that message, that they continue to advocate publicly and that they provide concrete support to the women and men of Afghanistan. This is going to be an effort that we will continue not just through my office and Kat’s office but throughout the U.S. Government and with our allies throughout the international community.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy Amiri, for your excellent remarks and for sharing with us your important work in empowering Afghan women and girls. Appreciate that.
I will now open the floor for questions. If you have a question, please go ahead and raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you. When called on, please enable your audio and your video and please state your full name and your media outlet. You’re also welcome to type your question in the main chatroom.
So we’ve received a few questions in advance from two journalists. The first is Jafri Wajid from Geo News, Pakistan. And he asked: “How would you ensure that aid provided to Pakistan for flood victims is gender inclusive?”
MS FOTOVAT: Well, I will take that one. Jafri, that is an excellent question, and many thanks to you for asking that. I hope more journalists take the interest in making sure that aid and other priorities of gender are included in all the work that’s being done, so please continue to ask that question. One of the ways that we do this is actually we require gender analyses in much of our work. So we look at gender indictors, make sure the distribution of aid is being provided to communities and to affected populations, specifically targeting women to make sure that they have the aid and assistance that is necessary.
MODERATOR: That’s excellent. Would you also like to address that, Special Envoy Amiri?
MS AMIRI: I would not.
MODERATOR: That’s perfect. So the next question is perhaps more pertinent to your portfolio. This is from Janet Ekstract from Turkish Journal, Turkey: “What are the priorities in programs for women and girls in Afghanistan now?”
MS AMIRI: As I – thank you very much. It’s an important question, and it’s one that I would like to underscore some of the points that I raised in my brief statement. Afghanistan, in many respects, is like every other country in the world. It’s not exceptional, and particularly in a country that is as – where you have the gross challenges on the humanitarian front as well as in the economic front, that the importance is to ensure that all members of the Afghan population, men and women, are positioned to be able to bring – to put food on the table, to support the economic stability and peace in Afghanistan.
To that end, what Afghan women are saying – but they – they note that, one, they are not living in an island. They live in the complexity of Afghanistan, the challenges of Afghanistan on the economic front, on the political front, on the security front. It’s – they – that is all essential to their reality as well. The future of Afghanistan hinges on every – the –100 percent of the population participating on all fronts, in terms of girls getting an education and in terms of women being able to return to work and to have the space in terms of public participation to do all of that.
Right now, what we face is a situation where young girls have been prevented from going to school for a year, and women from most sectors have been forced out of work, despite the fact that they have tremendous talent and skills to help a country that is in a devastating situation, where it’s even more urgent than ever to make sure that all parts of the population are deployed to address the situation.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Would you also like to tackle that, Ms. Fotovat? Basically, what are the priorities and programs for women and girls in Afghanistan from the special – not the special envoy, but Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues perspective?
MS FOTOVAT: I think, actually, Rina covered all of that, but happy to expand just in general on other —
MODERATOR: Happy to ask you another question, actually. So how do you plan to prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment in the coming years?
MS FOTOVAT: So one of the ways that we are prioritizing gender equality and women’s empowerment really is through the strategies that the Biden-Harris administration has put forward. So the National Gender Strategy really is an umbrella strategy from which we have our Women, Peace, and Security Strategy, our forthcoming update to our Gender-Based Violence Strategy, and then the upcoming Women’s Economic Security Strategy as well.
The way that we are planning through these strategies is also by what I would emphasize is such an important factor of the way that our office operates: the consultative approach. We always say nothing about them without them. The voices of the women are what we amplify through all of our foreign policy efforts, all of our integration efforts, to make sure that the work that’s being done through the State Department and other foreign policy entities in the U.S. Government really are reflective of the needs and the localized approach for the women and girls in the countries that we are targeting.
So we really tried to take codesign efforts, make sure that the recognition of what the women are saying is necessary in their own communities, is really reflective of their needs for empowerment, their recognition of their agency, and making sure that we recognize they are the experts in their own communities. So our future in looking to how we are going to make sure to include and expand on gender equity and equality really takes into consideration their needs and what they are saying is important to address right now.
We’re also looking at areas such as technology-facilitated gender-based violence, really looking at areas where, throughout, let’s say, the pandemic or what I call the four C’s – conflict, climate, COVID, and crisis – we’re really trying to build resiliency, making sure that women are really at the forefront of creating resilient communities, and finding innovative ways to partner with private sector, civil society, and others to make sure those innovative approaches are something that we can take and pivot too quickly, and again, have the voices of the women on the ground be what guides us.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. I guess we are now out of time. Do you have any concluding remarks?
MS AMIRI: I would like to note one point that I’ve made to every – in bilateral meeting, and that is that, where I’ve been encouraged by the international consensus and the calls for the Taliban to remove the restrictions on girls returning to education, that call has to be linked to supporting the right of women to return to work. There – we – the Taliban stripped women and girls of all of their rights when they – last August. And what they have been dangling in front of the international community is that potentially girls could go back to secondary school. We need to expand the set of demands and asks of the Taliban to reflect what has been lost. Afghan women and girls have lost rights across the board, and what we need to be reflecting back is that – the demand of the Afghan people themselves that their daughters, their wives, that the women of Afghanistan are able to regain the rights that they have enjoyed for not just for the last few decades, but throughout Afghan history.
And I also want to note the situation of ethnic and religious communities, communities such as the Hazaras, the – the Hindus and Sikhs, the Ismailis, the Sufis. They are under increasing threat. They’ve been left as soft targets, and the situation in Afghanistan will continue to destabilize until – the rights issues are not just soft issues. They are fundamental to the security concerns that the international community have. They are fundamental to the need to revive the Afghan economy and to create a – to support the creation of a political order in Afghanistan that will lead to an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Would you like to add to that?
MS FOTOVAT: Sure. Thank you so much. My final comments really would be directed at two entities – one, journalists. I want to thank all the journalists today who have really shown up and made sure to prioritize gender as an issue to – for you to report on. I hope you pass that same spirit onto others that you work with, recognizing you are the truth-tellers and making sure that we all understand collectively, as a population, you must include the other 50 percent of your population for all of us to do better, whether economically, health wise, security wise. We have to all be in this together to come out of the pandemic, to come out of the economic crisis.
My other comment would be to all the women, whether it be women of Afghanistan, women of Iran, women in Ukraine who are facing crises and violence, women of the DRC – please know we stand with you. Please know we hear your voices. Please know we carry you with us, and we will make sure to fight for your rights and we will make sure to do – to make sure that policymakers hear your concerns. And that is actually the purpose of my office. And thank you so much for all of your work.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for both your Good Samaritan work. And on behalf of the New York Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Senior Official Fotovat and Special Envoy Amiri for being with us today.
Today’s briefing was on the record. I will share a transcript with everyone who is participating today, and the transcript will be available on fpc.state.gov.
Thank you so much and have a wonderful day.