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Briefing with Katrina Fotovat, U.S Senior Official, Office of Global Women’s Issues

For your reference, please find below the transcript of yesterday’s digital press briefing with Katrina Fotovat of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues on the topic of
the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV).

Ms. Fotovat discussed the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to preventing and responding to GBV, including the recently released, first-ever U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, the forthcoming update of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to GBV Globally, and the development of the first-ever domestic U.S. National Action Plan to End GBV.  

Moderator: Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing on the topic of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Today we are very honored to be joined by Katrina Fotovat of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes we have today, so please show your support and like the questions you’d most like us to cover. We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes we have today, so please show – sorry about that. You can notify us of any technical difficulties by emailing us at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov.

With that, let’s get started. Senior Official Fotovat, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.

Ms. Fotovat: Thank you so much, Justin, and good morning, good afternoon to everyone. Thank you also to all the participants today. The press is such an essential piece of all of our work, and your interest in women’s issues really speaks to your role as truth-tellers. I just really want to take the opportunity to give you my sincere thanks for all the work that journalists do every single day.

The United States is proud to be a longstanding champion of preventing and responding to all forms of gender-based violence at home here in the United States and around the world. We join the global community in commemorating International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, or IDEVAW, on November 25th, which kicked off the 30th annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

As Secretary Blinken has said, gender-based violence undermines the human rights and fundamental freedoms of far too many people in far too many places. I am glad to join you today to reiterate the United States’ deep commitment to preventing and responding to gender-based violence as a part of our efforts to promote the rights of women and girls and advance gender equity and equality globally.

As you might know, the White House just recently issued the first-ever U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality on October 22nd. We’re very excited about this. It’s a whole-of-government approach to advancing the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity. The gender strategy identifies 10 strategic priorities for advancing gender equity and equality, one of which is elimination of gender-based violence at home and globally.

Preventing and responding to all forms of gender-based violence is a cornerstone of the U.S. Government’s commitment to promoting democracy, advancing human rights, and furthering gender equity and equality and the empowerment of women and girls, which is so essential.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in three women experienced gender-based violence during their lifetimes, usually at the hands of an intimate partner. We know that some of the populations face overlapping forms of discrimination that put them at even higher risk of gender-based violence, including indigenous women and girls, LGBTQI persons, women and girls with disabilities, and women and girls in fragile and conflict-affected states. Now women and girls are facing increased rates of gender-based violence due to the increased economic security [1], lockdowns, mobility restrictions, and public health measures instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As today is also World AIDS Day, I want to recognize the linkage between gender-based violence and HIV for women and girls around the world. Women and girls who experience GBV are up to three times more likely to contract HIV. And as President Biden noted this year on World AIDS Day, we are focused on addressing health inequities and inequalities to ensure that the voices of the people with HIV are at the center of our work to end HIV epidemically, globally.

Through the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS, or PEPFAR, we have saved more than 21 million lives, preventing millions of HIV infections, and supported at least 20 countries around the world to reach epidemic control of HIV or achieve their ambitious HIV-treatment targets. To do so, we must confront the systems and policies that perpetuate entrenched health inequalities, especially for women and girls, and build a healthier world for all people.

As outlined in the President’s executive order on – and the gender strategy, the United States looks forward to releasing the first-ever domestic National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, and we welcome other countries to follow suit. Along with an update to the U.S. strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally. These policies will drive a comprehensive, unified interagency response to gender-based violence domestically and globally.

The United States also recognizes that no one entity and no one country can address gender-based violence alone, which is why we are proud to observe and commemorate IDEVAW and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence together with the world. We must work together and center survivors’ voices to ensure that each – and such violence no longer exists as a barrier to anyone’s ability to reach their full potential and realization of their human rights.

So I really want to thank you all for joining me today and I look forward to taking some of your questions.

Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.

Our first question goes to Ahmed Bacar with Houriat Media and ORTN in the Comoros. The question is: “Every day there are thousands of children and women who are victims of aggression in the world, in Africa in general and in Comoros specifically. So far the measures taken to combat this scourge are far from being effective. What strategies can the United States put in place to help the rest of the African countries, including Comoros, to combat this scourge?”

Ms. Fotovat: That’s such a great question, Ahmed, and so on-point for the 16 Days. So addressing gender-based violence really is a critical point to progress on any kind of gender equity and equality issues, from political participation to economic security for women and girls and LGBTQI persons. As we’ve seen, the COVID-19 pandemic has really underscored the urgency of stepping up our efforts now, not just to address immediate needs, but also to mitigate the loss of critical development gains in Comoros and around the world.

The new executive order and gender strategy that the United States has put into effect direct two things. One, the development of the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, and it will establish a government-wide approach to addressing gender-based violence in the United States. And secondly, it’s going to update the 2016 U.S. Strategy to Respond and Prevent Gender-Based Violence globally. So these two strategies really provide the basis for our response.

The mandate will also ensure the United States is proactively addressing gender-based violence in the context of emerging global challenges, including the rise in gender-based violence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and online harassment and abuse against women and girls around the world. Women and girls of color, women and girls in fragile and conflict-affected states, women and girls with disabilities, and those in other intersecting vulnerabilities are at higher risk for gender-based violence, and the gender strategy lays out the following key priorities for ending gender-based violence domestically and abroad.

It requires us to develop and strengthen comprehensive policies to end gender-based violence, and it requires us to provide and support comprehensive trauma-informed services that address multifaceted and systematic barriers that survivors often face. We also note that we need to increase access to justice for survivors. We hear the voices of the survivors that are requesting and requiring reducing impunity for perpetrators, increasing prevention efforts, and including through addressing social norms and engaging – what is so vital – engaging men and boys to drive down the incidence of gender-based violence. We also really need to focus on prevention efforts and make sure that they are accessible to all to help reinstate and improve pandemic social protection mechanisms, including access to education for girls, which can be protective against violence.

So I really thank you for that question. All survivors of gender-based violence, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, they face challenges in accessing basic health and legal, psychological, and other support services, especially during the pandemic. And the United States is committed to supporting them through our strategies, especially the ones that were just announced. So we are very excited about moving forward.

Moderator: Thank you very much for that. I can see that Simon Ateba has his hand up. Please go ahead, Simon.

Question: Yes, thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. And thank you for doing this. Can you give us some specific example about how you are fighting gender-based violence in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of investment, education, training? And if you can talk a bit more – I know you just addressed it, but if you can talk a little bit more about how COVID-19 has exacerbated gender-based violence around the world and in Africa with maybe statistics. Thank you.

Ms. Fotovat: Thank you so much, Simon, and thank you for all of your work. Certainly our work in the sub-Saharan Africa region – African women are the backbone of their communities, and building their economies and leading their efforts to resolve conflicts, protecting human rights, and advance democracy across the continent, it is essential to address gender-based violence.

And despite all their contribution, African women and girls still face significant challenges, including access – lack of access to credit, high rates of gender-based violence, particularly focused on early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and cutting, GBV in schools and inter-partner violence, conflict-related sexual violence, and sexual violence and exploitation and abuse.

So some of the tools and areas that we’re working on include U.S. engagement to provide and respond to gender-based violence and related barriers to African women and girls’ full participation in society, really focusing on the dearth of educational opportunities. So looking at difficulty, again, for women and girls in accessing economic opportunities, which also is preventative on gender-based violence. So looking at how we can help with accessing credit, capital, formal employment, addressing discriminatory or disadvantaged customary and statutory laws. There are a lot of laws that are in place that people don’t even know exist. There’s a lack of influence in decision-making processes, including peacebuilding and governance, poor health outcomes.

So we’re really looking at how to make sure that we have more access to critical health care. I think the pandemic, as you noted, particularly has exacerbated that issue and also included a lack of access to sexual reproductive health care, and it has increased high rates of maternal mortality. So in our responses, our office has been supportive of counter-GBV processes and women, peace, and security programming in the sub-Saharan Africa region – projects including also in West and East Africa to support survivor-centered efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and reduced girls’ vulnerability on gender-based violence, including harmful practices.

And part of how we do that is through building new and supporting existing advocacy networks. There’s nothing better than having women’s groups who support each other and they’re able to do cross-border education and networking. And they also can talk to each other about improving legal protections and access to justice and are opportunities to partner with these women groups using a rights-based approach to address the increased rates of GBV that we have really seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also looking at women, peace, and security issues, including women’s leadership, which addresses a lot of gender-based violence issues. We have projects in Tunisia, Cameroon, DRC, which are really focused on women-led organizations and advancing locally designed initiatives, including increasing the participation of women in peace processes and security institutions.

So we want to make sure that we are condemning in the strongest terms the use of sexual violence against women and children in conflict, which is a severe human rights violation. In Ethiopia, for – and other countries – for example, these violations, abuses, and atrocities have resulted in worsening humanitarian crises, and women face unacceptable barriers towards accessing health care, social welfare, and justice services they need.

So it’s really critical to ensure survivors have access to the resources they need to heal so they can use their voices as agents of peace and prosperity and of equal access to opportunities.

Moderator: Thank you very much for that comprehensive answer. We’re going to go to a question from Rachel Martin who works for Human Rights for Women Dealing with Violence newspaper in the United States. Her question is: “Could you explain the interactions between your office and the OSCE region and the EU Commission and Parliament?”

Ms. Fotovat: Sure, thanks so much, Rachel. The OSCE puts out a lot of reports and information that we utilize quite frequently, and we partner with the OSCE. Data is such a difficult thing for many countries, many organizations to obtain, and so the OSCE does a fantastic job of producing reporting and other expert evidence-based efforts that we really utilize.

So while many countries in Europe have made great strides in gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, an endemic problem such as gender-based violence, corruption, violent extremism, migration and refugee crises, social unrest – there’s democratic backsliding – as well as malign influences, negatively impact gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment across much of the region.

So S/GWI, our office, works very closely with our colleagues at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE to ensure that girls and women are both highlighted and integrated throughout the work of the OSCE. And so from the OSCE work on women, peace, and security to the women’s political leadership to women’s economic empowerment and preventing and responding to gender-based violence, the U.S. is diligently working to promote gender equality in Europe, Central Asia, and North America.

So we maintain a very close relationship and interaction with our OSCE participating states as well. We just recently traveled to Moldova and Albania, where much of our trip really focused on gender-based violence issues and we met with several civil society organizations and women leaders to discuss about some of the efforts that they have taken in addressing that, and certainly working with our OSCE member-states really has been very productive in looking at how we can do cross-collaboration on addressing gender-based violence both in their countries and here as well.

Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Aissatou Barry, who is a Guinean journalist and presenter. Her question is: “What tools do you have to identify, prevent, and fight against gender-based violence?”

Ms. Fotovat: Sure, that is a great question. We – in terms of preventative tools, some of the things that we really focus on, it’s important that, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has identified and underscored, we need to make sure that we are addressing various issues, including women’s economic empowerment, educational issues and opportunities, and really looking at how the U.S. can proactively address gender-based violence in the context of emerging global challenges.

So we look at tools such as making sure that we’re working with women’s networks, supporting survivor-centered approaches, working with justice actors and law enforcement actors to make sure that we are providing capacity-building opportunities for law enforcement academies, and looking at other tools such as – we have a program called the Voices Against Violence initiative, actually which is a global platform for providing immediate, urgent assistance to survivors of the most egregious forms of gender-based violence. Additionally, it also provides support for local organizations who are addressing gender-based violence on a very localized, small-grant perspective. And it is a public-private partnership actually, and so we work with governments as they are requesting to educate across kind of an intersectional approach of working amongst – with social workers but as well as law enforcement and including government actors. So bringing everyone together to kind of have this holistic approach to how do you address gender-based violence from a very integrated approach?

We all get so siloed in much of our work, and I can tell you just as a bureaucrat myself, it’s so important to make sure that we’re looking at how other entities within governments and how we are working across sectors, pulling in the private sector, those kind of partnerships. We have a partnership with Avon International actually that works on gender-based violence issues through that Voices Against Violence program. And it’s so vital to make sure that we’re bringing in all these different voices and all these different perspectives. Certainly the private sector has been fundamental inn helping shape and shift, for example, public perspectives and social norms through everything from advertising to how they are working within populations.

But then, of course, always, always partnering with our civil society partners. We have a saying that’s “nothing about them without them,” so making sure that we bring the voices of women and girls into everything that we do is essential for us. So continually having a consultative approach is another key and another tool that we regularly utilize.

Another piece of what we do and what we advocate for constantly is doing gender assessments and analysis. And so whether it be our own policy advocacy that we work on or programmatically or budgeting, one of the greatest things about this – the new executive order that the – that President Biden put out on March 8th was that it required gender budgeting. And I must say, in a very bureaucratic way I am a huge fan of gender budgeting. We know that it is very effective to make sure that gender and other minority populations are included when you’re doing budget planning because that actually affects how positive crisis management can be. So even looking – if you’re looking at even climate change, if you – there are many evaluations on how have communities rehabilitated after climate crises or hurricanes or things of that nature. And the ones that actually have been much more gender-inclusive and have done those analyses to target the most vulnerable populations have been the most effective in the recovery.

So there are many kind of tools in there to make sure that we are being inclusive, and I think start the planning processes initially – those tools in particular are essential in making sure that we all step forward and move forward on this pandemic.

Moderator: Great, thank you so much for that. Our next question comes to us from Mercy Kusi, who is a journalist for Cameroon Radio Television. Her question is: “Women and girls in conflict zones are more vulnerable to gender-based violence. For example, since the crisis broke out in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon, the number of abused women in these regions has seen a marked increase. Are there any program or programs by the U.S. Government to protect or assist abused women and girls in such volatile security zones?”

Ms. Fotovat: Yeah, that’s a great question, Mercy. The – we just recently, actually in June of this year, we released a first report tracking our own progress on women, peace, and security issues. And that report really highlighted government-wide accomplishments but it also really identified gaps in our own efforts and outlined opportunities to address those gaps.

So in that process, women, peace, and security has been a longstanding, crucial component of our foreign policy and our efforts to support women’s safety and meaningful participation in forging long-lasting solutions to insecurity.

So the United States is really committed to advancing women’s social, political, and economic empowerment to prevent the inequality that can sow instability and conflict in the first place. So the United States in 2017 codified that commitment to women’s safety and participation in peace and security in the Women, Peace, and Security Act, and we had a national strategy codifying that as well. The U.S. National Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security really looks at closing the gender gap in leadership by mobilizing our U.S. diplomats and programs to engage partners in investing in women’s safety and rights and amplifying, again, the voices of women leaders and organizations.

And to your point, Mercy, the United States is committed to providing an increasing accountability for conflict-related sexual violence, increasing efforts to support and protect survivors, and supports UNSCR 1820, which was the first time the UN recognized sexual violence, including rape, as a threat to international peace and security and that deserves and really, honestly, demands action from the international community.

Through the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Gender-Based violence and revitalizing our global strategy on gender-based violence, the U.S. is really prioritizing advancing new efforts to address CRSV. Further, through our Department of State’s Women, Peace, and Security Strategy, the United States really is committed to legal reforms and justice for all survivors, including as a part of transitional justice processes. And I think that’s so essential to make sure that’s incorporated into all transitional justice processes: To have a survivor-centered approach. And it’s also important to advocate for women’s safe and meaningful participation in such processes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the risks of gender-based violence women and girls are facing globally, especially in areas of conflict, and increasing the challenges to access servers – or survivors’ access to services. So we in the United States recognize that if we are to build back better, we must collectively ensure that our approaches to address COVID-19 and insecurity, especially in areas of conflict, are inclusive and gender-informed.

So, as I mentioned and noted, no one entity or country can address GBV or conflict-related sexual violence alone, and as a result, we are a proud leading supporter of the UN Office for Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and work very closely with her. We have resumed our support for the UN Population Fund, including for its humanitarian responses which address sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence really through an integrated approach, and which is so critical for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We have a question here from Myriam Iragi with Radio Top Congo in Kinshasa. Her question is: “On November 25th, the first conference of African heads of state on positive masculinity was held in Kinshasa, DRC. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi called on leaders to take the global lead in the fight against violence against women by adopting the African Union Convention on Violence Against Women. What do you think about this?”

Ms. Fotovat: I mean, I – inclusion of men and boys and communities and families in any discussions on violence against women is so essential and important. We know that there are moments in particular in the life of many men, and looking at their families and how to address gender-based violence, there are opportunities within – when men first become parents, those are the moments when it’s so essential to address how to stop cycles of violence, how to address making sure that gender-based violence is something that is not continually perpetuated. And anytime countries want to take on or leaders want to take on and address gender-based violence from the highest levels, I think that’s essential. So we are incredibly supportive of those steps in order to make sure and ensure that all voices are heard, that this is something that is not just seen as a women’s issue. Violence affects everyone, and cycles of violence affects communities; it goes from families to communities to nations and internationally. So I think it’s essential to make sure that leaders of – in all countries and all regions are addressing this, and we look forward to working across borders and certainly internationally to address it.

Moderator: Great, thank you so much. Our next question comes to us from David Gbedia in the Ivory Coast. “The latest issue of sexual orientation has made the news in a bill in the national assembly of the Ivory Coast. What is your perspective on the relationship between gender issues and sexual orientation?”

Ms. Fotovat: Thank you, David. The United States is committed to championing gender equity and equality and protecting and promoting the human rights of all women and girls, and we are particularly concerned about women and girls who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as women and girls with disabilities, LGBTQI+ women, women of color, women from minority religions, ethnicities, indigenous women, among others. And advancing gender equity and equality is fundamental to ensuring women and girls and LGBTQI persons in all the diversity are safe and have access to health care, including sexual reproductive health care as well as education, livelihoods, and fairness and justice in immigration systems.

Ensuring all people – regardless of their gender identity – can achieve their full potential is both a moral and strategic imperative. Gender-based violence prevention efforts must be accessible to all and help reinstate improved pre-pandemic social protection mechanisms, including access to education for girls in all their diversity, which can be protective against violence. All survivors of gender-based violence – regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, sex characteristics, disabilities, socioeconomic status – they all face challenges in accessing basic health, legal, psychological, and other support services. And the United States is committed to supporting them access that care they need to recover and survive, and supportive of all human rights for all.

Moderator: Great. I think we have time for just one final question. We have one from Claudia Ngombet, a journalist at the Ministry of Communication in Cameroon. “What tools can be used to measure the contributions of women in the process of conflict transformation and towards peace-building to ensure the full involvement of women in decision-making and peace negotiations? For example, how can we bring in more women to the negotiating table to end the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon?”

Ms. Fotovat: That is a fantastic question, and certainly something our Women, Peace, and Security Strategy seeks to address. We know that when women participate in peace negotiations, they are 15 times more likely to last 15 years or more. We know that the effectiveness of peace negotiations really is essential to be gender-inclusive. So it really comes down to if there is a seriousness of making sure that peace is perpetuated and that these are done in an inclusive manner. I think that is an excellent point and certainly something that UNSCR 1325 seeks to address. We are also working through the Generation Equality Forum to make sure that this is addressed multilaterally and internationally.

So I do believe that there are tools both internationally, and certainly the United States Government through our Women, Peace, and Security Strategy and Act has taken this on head-on. And again, going back to what – the question about data and how do we make sure to measure, that accountability processes we have seen in the context of other conflicts – the opportunities for women to make rights gains during a post-conflict period are the greatest that they are usually in the historical setting. So to make sure that women’s voices are heard throughout those processes are essential, and we and the international community should do everything and have all made commitments to do so, so it’s not even just about making sure that those processes are held accountable; it’s also about making sure international actors are making sure to be gender-inclusive and when we are working to end conflicts as well. So I think that’s a great comment and certainly something we are required by United States standards to monitor. And additionally, you need resources – so it’s beyond just inclusion; you need actual resources.

Again, why I am so into the gender budgeting aspect of everything that happens, whether it be on security budgeting or military budgeting. Whatever it is, gender budgeting needs to be something that is front and center for all leaders to take into consideration, and again, where your budgets often tell you your priorities. So I think it’s essential. You can use budgets as a possible data point. Certainly inclusion in actual peace negotiations I think is another data point, but also what are the effects and how are you reaching out to communities I think is essential.

Moderator: Great, thank you so much. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have to – for today, but this is obviously a very important and interesting topic. I can see there are still a couple of questions in the queue there. But for the reporters whose questions were unanswered, you can feel free to email them to TheBrusselsHub@state.gov and we’ll see if we can get you an answer.

But again, I’d like to once again thank Senior Official Fotovat and see if she has any closing remarks for us.

Ms. Fotovat: Well, first of all, I just want to say thank you, Justin. This was much more fun and went much more quickly than I thought it would. So thank you all for your participation and thank you for joining me today, your interest in this incredibly important and timely topic. Again, the United States is committed and looks forward to working across all borders to remaining a steadfast champion of gender equity and equality and the empowerment of women in all of their diversity. And we recognize that without increasing and strengthening our efforts to prevent and respond to all forms of gender-based violence, we cannot achieve our equity goals. So I look forward to continuing these conversations and I hope we get the opportunity to speak again. Many thanks, and I hope you all have a wonderful rest of your day.

Moderator: Great. Well, thank you so much. Very shortly, the Brussels Hub will send broadcast-quality video files of this briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us anytime at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call. Thank you.

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