IFES Alum Continues to Empower Women Around the World

Publication Date: 
20 Mar 2014

Stephenie Foster has over 25 years of experience in policy advocacy, government affairs, program development and training, and law, with a focus on the critical role that women play in advancing public policy and development. Prior to joining the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women's Issues as a Senior Policy Advisor, she served at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, focusing on women and civil society. Foster has also participated in numerous international programs and projects sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Vital Voices, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and IFES. This work has focused on increasing civic engagement skills, strategic planning, corporate and democratic governance, and project planning and management. Previously she served as Chief of Staff to two U.S. Senators (Barbara Mikulski and Christopher Dodd); held senior positions at major non-profits; and was appointed by President Clinton as General Counsel for the General Services Administration.

You are currently a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. What does this work entail?

Overall, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), headed by Ambassador Catherine M. Russell, seeks to ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. S/GWI works to promote stability, peace and development by empowering women politically, socially, and economically around the world. My responsibility as a Senior Policy Advisor is to oversee S/GWI’s work on women, peace and security issues, women’s economic empowerment and women’s political participation. There is a lot to do every day as we move these issues forward, both here in Washington, D.C., and with our posts oversees. It is an exciting place to work.

You have spent most of your career focusing on empowering women to partake in the political process. What have you learned is the greatest impediment to full participation and how have you seen it overcome?

The World Economic Forum does an annual Gender Gap Report, and in that report they look at the gap between men and women in a given country based on four metrics: education, health, economic participation and political participation. There has been great progress in many areas. There has been particular progress in education and health accessibility. Economic participation still has a way to go, and political participation for women is the hardest of all. We are still at fairly low numbers for women’s political participation worldwide.

Despite comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women continue to be underrepresented in every aspect of political and public life. Today, as you know, only 21 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women. There are 21 women either serving as head of State or head of government. Only 17 percent of government ministers are women, with the majority serving in the fields of education and health. Since 1992, women have represented fewer than 3 percent of mediators and 8 percent of negotiators to major peace processes.

There are multiple barriers to women’s political participation as voters, candidates, party activists and elected officials. Every country is different, of course, but it is important for all of the political actors to take steps to increase women’s participation. Overall, women are key to political decision making and need to put themselves forward and find others to champion the key role women can play. We need women role models, and we need to bring young women into the political process.

How do governments help promote greater gender equality in political participation both within their own countries and internationally?

There are many ways for governments across the globe to promote gender equality both at home and abroad. The Equal Futures Partnership is one such mechanism; there are currently over 20 member countries, including the U.S., and some from the European Union. When countries join, they commit to taking specific, concrete steps to expand women’s political and economic participation in their country. These actions are usually pursuing a policy or legislative change, and they focus on how to best address these issues in a country specific context. The members hold each other accountable for meeting these commitments. It is a very creative way to work on these issues, and we see interest from other countries to join. It is exciting.

How have you seen election stakeholders help promote greater gender equality and political participation?

We see so much work being done in promoting gender equality – whether that is a party promoting women candidates; an election body training women election officials; or civil society advocating for women candidates and training them. There is a lot being done, but of course, so much more to do.

How has your work at IFES shaped your perspective on this topic?

As you know, I was IFES’ Gender Advisor, and I worked on a project in Afghanistan evaluating the 2009 election and women’s involvement. This work helps ground me. Elections matter to people and they matter to women, and seeing how that plays out on the ground brings this home.

You have worked around the world fostering women’s participation. What are some of your most cherished memories?

I have worked in about 25 countries. What pops to mind are my experiences as an election monitor in Ukraine and rural Yemen; working with women in rural Kenya and having a goat wander through the session; and working with women in Nigeria who were party activists trying to move up through the organization. All interesting and all important. I loved every place in which I worked.