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Ambassador Meryl Frank wants

A Place at the Table for Women

Interview by Leah Kaplan Robins

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 service volunteers.

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 important?
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 development issues.

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 challenges?
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 women’s agencies?
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 in development.

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 the future?
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 to peacekeeping.

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.

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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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