This week, we took two major steps in empowering women and girls both here in the United States and abroad.
On Monday, we announced Equal Futures, a partnership between the U.S. and other nations to advance the rights and opportunities of women and girls.
At last year’s UN General Assembly, President Obama challenged member nations to “break down economic and political barriers that stand in the way of women and girls.”
Founding members, including the United States and 12 other countries, each shared new national commitments to further women’s political and economic participation. For the United States, our Equal Futures commitments will:
In each of these areas, we are working to strengthen government policies and programs and partner with private and non-profit sectors to achieve our objectives. For more information on our commitments, read here.
The second major step to empower women and girls took place yesterday, when the President spoke on human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting.
Human trafficking is a fundamental human rights issue, and according to the UN, the overwhelming majority of victims are women and girls.
President Obama called human trafficking a debasement of our common humanity, and that it must be called what it is: modern slavery.
President Obama also made clear that the United States will continue to be a leader in the global movement to end human trafficking. At CGI, he announced a series of additional steps in partnership with civil society and the private sector, including issuing an Executive Order to strengthen protections against trafficking in federal contracting.
These commitments build on the previous work that the U.S. has done to identify trafficking networks and strengthen protections for foreign-born workers.
President Obama also shared the stories of brave women who had been trafficked:
Marie Godet Niyonyota, from the Congo, who was kidnapped by rebels, and turned into a slave. She was abused -- physically and sexually and gotten pregnant 5 times. In one awful battle, her children were killed -- all five of them. Miraculously, she survived and escaped. And with care and support, she began to heal. And she learned to read and write and sew, and today Marie is back home, working toward a new future.
And Sheila White, who grew up in the Bronx. Fleeing an abusive home, she fell in with a guy who said he’d protect her. Instead, he sold her -- just 15 years old -- to men who raped her and beat her, and burned her with irons. And finally, after years -- with the help of a non-profit led by other survivors -- she found the courage to break free and get the services she needed. Sheila earned her GED. Today she is a powerful, fierce advocate who helped to pass a new anti-trafficking law right here in New York.
As the President said, these women endured unspeakable horror, “but in their unbreakable will, in their courage, in their resilience, they remind us that this cycle can be broken; victims can become not only survivors, they can become leaders and advocates, and bring about change.”
He concluded with a message to the millions of trafficking victims:
“We see you. We hear you. We insist on your dignity," he said. "And we share your belief that if just given the chance, you will forge a life equal to your talents and worthy of your dreams.”
I visited Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), founded by Rachel Lloyd. GEMS is the only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. I met privately with Sheila White and three other survivors who endured abuse and now advocate for those in the same position, and I was deeply moved and heartened by their stories. No one should have to endure this travesty and abuse, but yet these five brave women all have not just survived, but persevered, and now courageously dedicate their lives to lifting up and freeing others from human slavery.
As I’ve participated in different events throughout the week, I continue to think about the strength, resilience, and leadership of these young women who have survived the horrors of human trafficking to become leaders and advocates. They are an inspiration for all of us who continue to work so that more women and girls can realize their dreams.
Valerie Jarrett is a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama.