Ambassador Meryl Frank wants more
women present at decision-making
tables worldwide. As a delegate to the
UN Commission on the Status of Women
(CSW) and an advocate for women’s
leadership, she has worked to make this
possible. In February, just prior to the
CSW’s 55th session, she spoke with me
about the inner workings of the UN, her
vision for women’s empowerment, and
her reasons for supporting AJWS as
both a donor and a proud parent of AJWS
What’s on the CSW’s agenda this year?
The 2011 policy issue is training and
educating women and girls, an issue that’s
personally relevant to me. When the
CSW isn’t in session, I have been traveling
around the world training women in
Afghanistan, Kenya, Malawi and other
developing countries to run for office.
Following the CSW session this year, I will
be returning to Afghanistan and Jordan to work with the women who won their
elections last year.
Why is women’s political participation so
We can talk about pressing issues like
maternal mortality rates, child brides,
violence and rape as a weapon of war, but
if there aren’t women at the table making
decisions, change is not going to happen.
There are so many worthy issues, but we
need women at the decision-making level
to bring them up and ensure we’re dealing
with them. I work with women who are
interested in pursuing change—as activists,
through elected office, appointed office
or though the power of their position.
Women have a unique understanding
and are key to the vast majority of
Why do you think that is?
Women are most often closer to the
family, closer to dealing with health issues,
closer to feeding and educating their
children. And so if women are empowered
through education and can earn a living,
we’re ensuring that their children will
benefit as well.
In Kenya you taught leadership skills to
local women to help them effect change
in their communities. What are their
Whether they are basket weavers or
members of parliament, women around
the world deal with many of the same
issues. They lack confidence and the ability
to speak in public. They lack the resources
necessary to wage a campaign for office
or a campaign for change. Even some of
the most outstanding local women leaders
don’t see themselves as leaders. I help them
understand that the everyday work they
do as women is leadership, and help them
apply these skills outside their homes.
Does the CSW listen to voices from local
communities and grassroots activists?
The meeting of the CSW is, from what I
understand, the largest annual meeting of
NGOs at the UN. Thousands of women
activists attend and meet with delegates.
Last year, I attended three meetings with
NGOs and the Department of State, where
they advised us on their positions on some
of the things we’d be voting on. The
CSW is an opportunity for their voices to
be heard, and they do a very good job of
making sure that the delegates hear them.
I think it’s really important for us to have a
sense of what’s happening on the ground.
What do you think about UN Women,
the composite organization established
in January 2011 to consolidate the UN’s
I’m very excited about it. By combining all
of the UN’s work with women and girls
into one strong agency, there will be an
unprecedented focus and hopefully a more
effective response to the needs of women
worldwide. I had the opportunity to meet
Michelle Bachelet, the former President of
Chile, last week in Ethiopia. She is the perfect
choice for the director of UN Women.
Many women around the world have great
confidence in her leadership, and in her
ability to make lasting change.
Have you been impressed with the
Obama administration’s efforts on
behalf of women?
One of the President’s first acts in office
was to reverse President Bush’s ban
on funding for family-planning clinics
around the world. From President
Obama to Secretary of State Clinton to
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Susan Rice, there is a real emphasis on
the advancement of women and an
understanding of their importance
During natural disasters like the Haiti
earthquake, AJWS frequently funds
organizations that focus on women’s
needs that are often neglected by
humanitarian aid. Why do relief efforts
fail to prioritize women and how can
we make sure that it doesn’t happen in
I think that’s changing. You can see
that even at USAID there’s a real shift in
priorities. And that’s to the credit of this
administration, that there’s finally a focus
on women in disasters.
Is this emphasis on women’s participation
reflected in the UN itself?
There are fewer women represented than
I would like. In fact, I spoke before the
General Assembly last year, reporting
on 15 years of progress for women since
the Beijing Declaration and Platform for
Action. The other five presenters were men.
At least the United States had the foresight
to send a woman to talk about progress
that has been made in women’s rights.
And what progress has there been?
I think there’s a window now for real
change. The world is finally focusing on
these issues, and there seems to be a new
understanding that women are key to
development, to effective governing and
What can individuals do?
I think you start at home. The keys to
change are basically the same around
the world: have confidence, see yourself
as a leader, build coalitions with other
women. You could support organizations
working with women, work on women’s
campaigns. We know that when women
are involved in politics, change happens.
I think you should step in where your
passion is, and in my case it’s getting
women prepared to speak for themselves
and to demand change.
You’re an AJWS donor. What drew
you to us?
At first it was because AJWS speaks to
my Jewish values. But then I spent time
looking at the programs themselves. AJWS
takes very seriously the idea that tzedakah
is more “justice” than “charity.” AJWS is all
about respect for the people it serves, and
this is what development is all about.
Is this why you’ve sent your children on
AJWS’s Volunteer Summer program?
Yes. Their summers in Guatemala and
Uganda have given them more of a sense
of what the world is like and where they
fit into it as Americans and as Jews. These
experiences changed them as people. It did
much more than a lecture on poverty from
“Mom” ever could. They learned the sort
of Jewish and international values about
development that are right on target and
will last them a lifetime. I think sending
our kids with AJWS was one of the best
gifts we’ve ever given them, and I think
that they would agree.
Do you see your career as a reflection of
your Jewish identity?
Absolutely. I always felt that I had a
responsibility to fix the world. This
imperative is not an easy legacy for Jews
though. It’s a big world and there are a
lot of problems, and it can be very painful
sometimes to realize that we alone are not
going to fix all of them. But we do have a
responsibility to do our part.