About the Author: Lizzie O'Rourke (on the far left of the above photo) is a Foreign Service Officer who recently completed a short assignment with the Office of Global Women's Issues.
I didn't plan to get involved with the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues (S/GWI) -- I was just lucky. As a new Foreign Service Officer, I was assigned to a period of training following my swearing-in. For many new FSOs there are some extra days between the completion of initial training and departure for post. When that happens, our Career Development Office assigns us to offices at the State Department for on-the-job training (OJT) -- short-term stints that let us learn about the domestic workings of the Department before heading overseas. I received my OJT assignment prior to wrapping up my initial training, and started at S/GWI right after my training finished.
At first, I didn't know much about S/GWI's mission, and my lack of previous involvement with women's studies or gender issues made me wonder if I would be at a disadvantage. I soon realized, however, that this was not the case: the fast-moving pace of this office carried me with it, and I was quickly immersed in variety of projects. Part of that was due to the timing of my assignment, which could not have been better: I was assigned to the office in March, which is Women's History Month. March 8th is International Women's Day, a holiday our office celebrates with the International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards.
Preparations for the IWOC Awards program required some unexpected tasks -- most memorably, the chance to meet briefly with the First Lady -- and long hours. Yet nothing prepared me for the moment when the ten awardees shared their stories at a S/GWI-sponsored public forum, where they spoke frankly of their past struggles, which for some included imprisonment and torture. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with them throughout the events; any language barriers were quickly broken by smiles, and eventually, hugs.
After the IWOC awards, two delegations of women leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan came to Washington on training programs coordinated in part by our office. The second delegation was composed of ten female diplomats in Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry. I learned at a lunch organized by S/GWI and Executive Women at State that these young Afghan women face many of the same challenges that women here at State do. After we discussed her passion for cricket, one new diplomat asked a 27-year veteran of the Foreign Service how American women handle their nomadic careers while simultaneously maintaining relationships and families. This is a question that is evidently very familiar to women in both diplomatic services.
It is easier to become conversant with women's issues when the evidence supporting this cause is so clear. When aid is distributed to women, their children, families, and neighbors benefit. I have learned that it is not enough to have a gender angle or bullet point when formulating foreign and assistance policy; incorporating women at every level is a strategic necessity. This seems obvious to me now; it didn't before this OJT assignment.
S/GWI's work is fundamental in nature: women's issues are human rights issues; and, as Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Verveer have said before, no nation can get ahead if half its population is left behind. It has been an incredible privilege to spend some time here, and I look forward to carrying the momentum of S/GWI's mission to my first post, in Accra, Ghana.