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Video: Interview with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson

(Roey Yohai)

December 11, 2012

"I think what we can see is that the benefits for women’s inclusion go way beyond just the economic to a global and a societal benefit...I think we’ve seen huge benefits towards focusing on women in development—benefits that accrue to men and women alike throughout the hemisphere."

Washington's top diplomat for the Americas talked to AS/COA Online's David Gacs about ways the United States is partnering with Latin America on the advancement and inclusion of women in political life, their part in countries' economic growth, and gender's role in anti-corruption efforts.

Watch a video of Assistant Secretary Jacobson's December 11 remarks at AS/COA. Read more about women's economic empowerment at

Read a transcript of the interview:

AS/COA Online: How is the Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs working towards better inclusion and the advancement of women in Latin America, outlining some specific examples you see as success stories?

Roberta Jacobson: I think, obviously, under Secretary Clinton, we have made promotion of women in our policy a particular area of focus, and I think we’ve been highly successful, but we’ve also been successful because, in this hemisphere, there have been great strides and great progress.

We make sure that in all of our policies, we focus on women. For example, in the security policy that is such an important part of our work in the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, in our Central America and Caribbean initiatives, we focus as well on issues of gender violence, on issues of women’s access to justice, so that when we work with institutions that provide justice, that fight criminal organizations, we make sure that they are paying particular attention to the effect of those criminal organizations on women and to making sure women are part of the solution.

For example, we’ve worked to make sure that female cadets are part of police classes in Colombia. We’ve worked in Guatemala to make sure that we’re addressing trafficking in persons and domestic violence. We’re working with Mexico in a memorandum of understanding to advance issues on protection of women and victims’ assistance. All of these issues help us really ensure that women are part of the solution and that the effects of that solution have benefits way beyond just women, but to their children and to their communities.

AS/COA Online: That actually leads me to the next question. In September of this year, the United States and Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding for the promotion of gender equality, which seeks to fully integrate gender equality into the bilateral relationship. What are some specific examples of how this objective is being carried out?

Roberta Jacobson: Well, I think that the MOU [memorandum of understanding] that we signed is really groundbreaking; it follows a couple of others in the hemisphere, but with Mexico, I think this is particularly important because of the extent and depth of the relationship, but it did come at a time that was the very end of the Calderon administration, and in some ways, it’s going to be fully realized under the Peña Nieto administration, which is just now taking over. But I do think that in the particular area of both trafficking of women—that’s an area that we want to focus on, that we want to try and work together on. We know that people are trafficked through Mexico, that our institutions need to work closely together to combat trafficking in persons.

We also know that Mexico has made great strides, and among the most important issues they’ve focused on recently is domestic violence and violence against women. So we know that those are areas that we want to work collaboratively on. But the other thing that I would say is, one of the areas—whether within our MOU or outside that we want to work more aggressively on is anti-corruption efforts and opening up the institutions of government for the participation of women, for the scrutiny of women and civil society, and working with organizations outside government to bring transparency to government, which is a high priority for President Peña Nieto.

AS/COA Online: Secretary Clinton stated that women are a “vital source of growth” for economies. What makes female economic inclusion—as opposed to simply increasing formal employment—so important to growth?

Roberta Jacobson: Well, Secretary Clinton is really the master on this issue, and she’s talked about how it’s smart economics. I think there’s lots of studies that now underscore that and really emphasize why it’s so smart to focus on women in economic development. One is what I alluded to earlier, which is that women have a much greater tendency to reinvest and to spread the benefits of that economic development more broadly than just to themselves—even just to their families. They obviously benefit their families, their children, their partners, but they also tend to reinvest in their communities, to benefit their communities. Whether that is in civil society, whether it is in infrastructure and development, whether it’s in education.

So we see that benefit expanding way beyond just a sort of dollar-for-dollar investment, but the other thing that we see is that we see a global benefit and reduction of poverty when women are brought into the workplace. You talked about increasing women’s participation beyond just the formal economy, but if we can look for a minute just at the formal economy, the World Bank has told us that in Latin America, women now are entering the workforce at more than—they now make up more than 50 percent. That increase over the last 15 years has been very dramatic, and we’ve also seen, at the same time, a dramatic decrease in poverty in the hemisphere.

And the estimates are that poverty would be 30 percent higher were those women—the gains in women in the workforce not—had those not been made. So I think what we can see is that the benefits for women’s inclusion go way beyond just the economic to a global and a societal benefit. It’s also critically important because we know that women and girls staying in school—mothers who have families who are part of the workforce keep their girls and their boys in school longer, and that has a longer-term economic benefit. So I think we’ve seen huge benefits towards focusing on women in development—benefits that accrue to men and women alike throughout the hemisphere.

AS/COA Online: Several studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between women’s greater political participation and less government corruption. The State Department has indicated it believes corruption is one of the main challenges facing Latin America. What are your thoughts?

Roberta Jacobson: This is a huge challenge for every government, and frankly, it’s an ongoing challenge that developed countries have as well as developing. The United States constantly works to open our government to scrutiny and to make our processes more transparent, but one of the things I was struck by when I was in Peru 10 years ago was, I realized that all of the traffic police were female. And I couldn’t figure that out at first. This seemed like kind of a dangerous job—especially driving in Lima at the time—but what I was told was that studies had proven that among the greatest areas of corruption was within the traffic police—people not wanting to be cited or fined for their driving, and they had found that among the least receptive to bribery and corruption at the micro level— not a huge grand scheme, but a micro level—were women. And so they had decided to make all of the traffic police female to cut down on the daily corruption that people were exposed to.

I don’t know if that’s still true, but I do know that it was a very interesting theory behind the decision to do that, and I know that studies over the years have borne that out, but it makes sense if you think about the fact that the more you open systems up—whether that’s security, whether it’s investing, whether it’s government procurement, whether it’s government processes, the more you open those systems up to new actors—and in this case, the new actors are female—but the more you open it up to people who had been closed out of the system, the greater the scrutiny on why things are being done the way they are done, on why it’s not all fair, on why it’s not transparent to everyone and why there isn’t a level playing field.

And that’s really what you’re trying to do, and so opening it up to women who have been kept out of a male-dominated system—whether it’s government or business or education, for a long time in terms of its management—opening that up to women as participants in the system greatly reduces the possibility of corruption. It simply reduces it as a socially accepted practice, and that’s really what we’re aiming for here. So opening this up to new groups, whether it be women, whether it be those who have been historically marginalized, other groups—LGBT activists, the disabled, Afro-Latinos—all of this makes a huge difference in ensuring that the system is transparent, is honest, that we reduce the cost of corruption to societies.