Are international women’s issues being devalued in US foreign policy?
Last month, a leaked US State Department budget document raised concerns around whether the Trump administration plans to eliminate funding for the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. These concerns were allayed by the budget released this week that maintains the office and gives it more funding. This reprieve from the general cuts in the foreign assistance budget is welcome, but the fact that the office still lacks an appointed leader from the new administration raises questions about what—if any—strategy the United States will implement in this important area.
What is the Office of Global Women’s Issues?
The US Office of Global Women’s Issues has helped ensure that support for women and girls is integrated into all aspects of foreign policy. It also has helped mainstream gender in all programmatic projects, such as those on economic growth and democracy.
The US government is already improving women’s standing across the world. In December 2016, the State Department reported on implementation of the latest US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), revealing encouraging results.
In Afghanistan, 40 percent of the people participating in peace dialogues were women, a result of the State Department advocating for increased women’s participation in government offices and peace dialogues. In addition, 350,000 Afghani adolescent girls were included in trainings, programs, and peer support networks to prevent early and forced marriage.
In Pakistan, the State Department emphasized the improvement of gender-specific equipment and trainings to ensure women participation in peace processes and decision-making.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the State Department continued “enhancing coordination among health, psychological, legal, and law enforcement professionals” to limit the threat of physical violence faced by women.
Implementation of the WPS is advancing the livelihoods of women, along with broader peace and security, across the world.
Why should we continue supporting women in foreign policy?
There is wide evidence and agreement that empowering women spurs innovation and improves economic productivity, both in developed and developing countries. Research shows that when women in poor countries earn money, they are more likely to spend their money on their children’s health and education than men. But implementing policies and programs to operationalize this recognition lags.
In many countries across the world, women still have high fertility and maternal mortality rates, trail behind men in literacy and education rates, and are likely to suffer from physical abuse. Most countries where these issues persist are designated by the WPS as areas of conflict and insecurity where the United States could help empower women to be partners in preventing conflict and building peace.
For instance, according to the World Bank, the average literacy rate for women in sub-Saharan Africa is only 54 percent, fertility is at 5.1 births per woman, and the maternal mortality rate is 510 per 100,000 live births. High fertility rates tend to exacerbate maternal and child morbidity, mortality, and malnutrition. In Afghanistan, where the United States has an established presence, the maternal mortality rate is more than 1,000 per 100,000 live births, and only 15 percent of women can read.
Women also face significant challenges in their homes. In addition to violence inside the household, women are often victims of rape and harmful traditional practices, such as female genital cutting, which has affected 125 million women globally. And of course, gender inequality is worsened by armed conflicts and their aftermath.
Over the past eight years, the US government has prioritized women’s issues in its foreign policy agenda as a way of fostering peace and prosperity. Though the president’s 2018 budget surprisingly maintains the Office of Global Women’s Issues, it changes the fund name from “Economic Support” to “Economic Support and Development Fund.” It is unclear what this name shift connotes, or what new expectations are for this cut-dodging office.
The larger areas of international aid spending—health, education, economic growth, and food security programs—dramatically slashed in the proposed budget surely affect many millions of women. Can we be sure that the Office of Global Women’s Issues continues to advocate for maintaining a gender lens across the span of US foreign assistance, especially as those budgets are slashed? Contributing such foreign assistance is important to the peace and security interests of the United States.
Geeta Devi, Sumitra Devi and Mina Devi are women farmers in the Banka District of Bihar, one of the poorest districts in India. Due to lack of education and knowledge on diversified farming, limited markets and the lack of formalized structures, farmers in Banka are unable to earn a steady income. Lutheran World Relief is working with 500 women farmers to produce diversified vegetables through innovative farming practices. Photo by Jake Lyell/LWF/USAID via Flickr Creative Commons.