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Policy Podcast: Director Andrea G. Bottner Discusses International Women's Issues

Andrea G. Bottner, Director, Office of International Women's Issues
Department Spokesman Sean McCormack
Washington, DC
July 30, 2008

MR. MCCORMACK: Andrea Bottner, thanks very much for joining us. We wanted today to talk a little bit about your work with the -- on women’s issues. You’re head of the State Department’s Women’s Issues Office. Let me start by asking a little bit about your background. How did you first get into these issues of women’s empowerment and fighting against gender-based violence?

MS. BOTTNER: Well, thank you, and thank you, Sean, for having me here. You know, I actually was working on Capitol Hill right out of college.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: And so really early on, I was very much interested in, kind of, women’s empowerment and quality issues. I took that interest with me into law school, and I started working on behalf of battered women and working on social justice issues --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- and issues of that sort. After my law school career, I got very active politically on doing women’s outreach, and making sure that women were represented politically, and making sure that they were a part of the political and legislative process. And so that has all led me, actually, to my current situation here at the State Department. And prior to that, I was at the Department of Justice working on these very same issues – gender-based violence, sexual assault those sort of things with regard to women and families.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Let me ask you a little bit about some of your experiences. You say you’ve worked with battered women.

MS. BOTTNER: Yes.

MR. MCCORMACK: And – talk a little bit about the effect of violence on women and – the – I imagine each case is obviously different, and from country to country it varies. But there must be some similarities that you see and that can speak to why this is such an important issue.

MS. BOTTNER: Sure. Well, you know, it’s an important issue. And here at the State Department, we like to say, you know, it’s a human rights issue because it’s just not right. It’s not fair for someone to be treated that way, whether it’s in the home, you know, which is a real sacred place for most of us, you know, or outside of the home in a broader community.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: Domestic violence – when a woman is faced with that sort of abuse or neglect, whether it be verbal or physical abuse, it’s just so terribly destructive not only to the woman, but to children that might be in the home, to the family structure. And it’s a hard situation to deal with, because so many people around the world, in this country included, think of it as a private family matter.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: You know, it’s between two spouses or two partners.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: And so it’s been very challenging, I think, over the last few decades, to take this issue of a woman, say, being treated or mistreated in the home and bring that into the public arena. And I think our country in the last thirty years has done a very good job of making it a criminal justice issue. Culturally, we’ve all stood up and said, this is not acceptable. A woman shouldn’t be treated like this. But there’s a long way to go.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: And I have to say, having that domestic perspective -- when I’ve traveled internationally, we see those very same barriers between family and community and private versus public matter --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- you know, come to play, especially very evident in different cultures, different religions. You know, a lot of these cultural ideas and ways of thinking are very, as you know, firmly and deeply entrenched. And so I think this struggle to put an end to this sort of problem continues globally. And we always have to be cognizant here in the United States that we’re doing what we can to make sure that we continue forward on this issue of, you know, it not being acceptable.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. So you know, when you’re traveling overseas, and I know that you’ve done a lot of traveling –

MS. BOTTNER: Yeah.

MR. MCCORMACK: -- and that’s part and parcel of the efforts, raising awareness and building these networks.

MS. BOTTNER: That’s right.

MR. MCCORMACK: What are some of the strategies that you have for trying to break down some of these obstacles that you talked about, in terms of getting this issue into the criminal justice system in these countries overseas, and really actually starting to talk about it, breaking down the barriers between community and home?

MS. BOTTNER: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, there are a couple ways to look at it. I think we – I very much believe in what we call the coordinated community response, and that is the idea that everybody in the community has a role to play, or a stake in illuminating this problem. And so it’s so important, what we’ve learned over the last few years. If a woman is in crises and needs help, she’s going to, at first, have to get out of the situation. She might need emergency medical care. She might need temporary shelter, so we need to make sure that that assistance is there and available for the woman that is looking for that sort of help.

As you go further into the problem, you’ve got to make sure, too, that your law enforcement officials are aware of the dynamics of this problem and are stepping forward to put an end to it or to hold someone accountable for what’s gone on. Now, they can only act effectively if they’ve got laws in place --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- in a societal structure that has said, this is illegal behavior. This is not acceptable, you know. If this occurs, here are the punishments that, you know, society has agreed to mete out. So you know, right there you’ve got law enforcement playing a role, public officials playing a role, you know, the advocates, the assistance givers. Medical professionals very much have to be engaged, because they’re the ones that often will see someone who’s suffering from abuse, you know, in a doctors visit, in an emergency room situation, psychologists, child therapists, you know; they’re often on the front lines as far as detecting the problem.

And then, of course, the faith-based community. You know, we found, through research in this country, so many people will approach, you know, their spiritual leader, you know, their priest, their rabbi, you know, trying to get family counseling or looking for help. So by bringing representatives from all of those sectors in the community together, sharing ways that they can work more effectively in their particular community, you know, to come up with a strategy, that’s something I think is very wise to support.

We do it. Most noticeably, we did that in Hungary, because at the invitation of Ambassador Foley, I went out with a law enforcement official I had known from California. And we made a point of scheduling roundtables and meetings with law enforcement officials, advocates, elected officials. And the synergy was great -- to get all of these people together, many of whom don’t often talk --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- you know, there’s – it’s not easy to get everybody together.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Right.

MS. BOTTNER: But you know, over a couple days, there were very frank discussions that were had and, you know, promises to continue working together, best practices that we could share, you know, in the United States with our friends in Budapest. And so it – I look at a trip like that as something that is very forwarding, you know, and really offering that particular community, you know – not telling them how to do it, but just offering, you know, assistance, or, we’ve been there, too.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: You know, here’s what we’ve learned. Let’s share in this.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Let me – let me ask you about the kind of reaction you get when you travel around the world. Now, you’re talking about a visit to Hungary, Eastern Europe. I think people – their initial reaction, I think, would be okay, yeah, of course you get a good reception. They want to – they want to share experiences and learn how to address the problem. What about elsewhere around the world? I think you’ve traveled to Vietnam and some other – some other places, as well, Russia and a lot of places in between. What kind of reaction are you getting when you say, hey, I’m here to talk about women’s empowerment and stopping violence against women?

MS. BOTTNER: Well, I have to – I have to laugh a little bit, because the reaction is very different, you know, everywhere you go.

My first trip – I was on this job for about, I mean, I don’t know, a couple months. And I wound up speaking about this issue in Jordan, you know, as part of a greater conference. Before that, I went into Saudi Arabia. And as a woman going into Saudi Arabia, you know, that’s a whole different --

QUESTION: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- sort of situation. What I was struck, though – when I was in Riyadh, I made a point – I got to go into some of these women’s centers, social centers, and on the face of things, we’re very different. I’m sitting inside the center and a lot of the women, most of women, were coming in covered. And once they got through that barrier and the covering came off, I felt like I was, you know, sitting there with colleagues, with friends here in the United States. And I was struck by the similarities --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- that we all share in dealing with these issues.

It is a much more difficult society, you know, when you’re speaking to governmental officials and representatives about this problem. And I would say that’s probably due to the very firm belief, you know, that the family is sacred and it is no one’s business, you know, what goes on behind closed doors. I think, though, by having that dialogue, forcing the conversation in an amicable way, and just raising it -- you know, raising the topic. If nothing else, it serves as an example, you know, that there are women out there talking about this and societies that don’t find this sort of thing acceptable.

But it’s more challenging --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- to be in a place like that, as compared to Budapest.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: I will say, too, Russia and Vietnam; you think they’re very different countries. But again, the similarity that we share with them, you know, that it’s a private family matter, comes up in Russian society. It came up in Vietnamese society, and I always just try to underscore that we have that issue here.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Right.

MS. BOTTNER: I’ve been in, you know, states around this country. I’ve had sheriffs say to me, doesn’t happen here.

MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm. Right.

MS. BOTTNER: Not in my town, you know. Not here.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Right.

MS. BOTTNER: So we share that. And I think by reflecting and commiserating about that, there’s a collaboration that can build.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you one final question. What are the trend lines here? On balance, are you encouraged, discouraged on this issue in terms of women’s empowerment, the issue, gaining some traction and showing some results around the world, as well as just this -- thee fight against gender-based violence?

MS. BOTTNER: Yeah. Well, I think trend lines are – you know, in too many countries around the world, the issue, the gender-based violence issue, is not – not seriously discussed in a very public way.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: So I think that there’s a lot more than can be done.

MR. MCCORMACK: A long way to go.

MS. BOTTNER: And again, in this country, we’ve seen very positive trends. You know, the homicide rate is down, reporting is up. You know, this issue, you know, we have domestic violence awareness month in October --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: You know, it’s really taken a hold of the public consciousness. I would love to see that more so overseas, although the UN, you know, and other groups are also raising awareness and looking to do different campaigns. And you know, so you’ve seen awareness-raising, but, you know, that remains to be improved on, you know --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

MS. BOTTNER: -- our country and everybody else.

It’s a fascinating topic. It’s a fascinating journey to be on, too, you know, as far as women’s empowerment more generally. But you know, I think the more that we look to women as competent, capable leaders, you know, and asking them to step forward and giving the tools that they need to step forward, gender so much doesn’t matter, you know. It’s really about feeling empowered to step forward and that you have something to offer and you’re doing so in a society that really doesn’t think twice whether you’re a man or a woman, but you’re just the right person for the job.

MR. MCCORMACK: Annie, thanks so much for joining us, and thanks so much for your work.

MS. BOTTNER: Thank you. Thank you very much.



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