The Uncertain Future of U.S. Global Leadership for Women and Girls

The President’s Budget, released last week, is a guidepost for the Administration’s policy priorities. But this budget is bad for development, multilateralism and—most especially—for women and girls.

The Administration’s budget cements previous and worrisome proposals to eliminate key support for women around the world that we critiqued in the so-called “skinny budget” and leaked State Department budget documents. The full budget contains additional worrying details: zeroing out family planning assistance—the first time any president has done so since the family planning program was created—and eliminating funding for U.N. agencies, including work on issues like child marriage and ending female genital mutilation. Proposed cuts of $222 million to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will threaten the lives and health of millions people who depend on it for treatment. Many of those most at-risk are adolescent girls and women in Africa, who represent the fastest-growing demographic for new transmission of the virus. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor, and are hit hardest in times of conflict and crisis. Yet programs specifically designed to help them are cut by 61 percent.

Simply put: This budget, were it enacted today, would have deadly consequences for women.

That’s just the budget. There have also been worrying policy developments that further render women and girls vulnerable, such as the dramatic expansion of the harmful Global Gag Rule, or Mexico City Policy. This policy prevents non-U.S. organizations from receiving any U.S. global health funds if they provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare for women and girls; this is an exponential expansion impacting 15 times the level of funding of its previous iteration under President George W. Bush. State Department guidance released last week points to $8.8 billion in U.S. bilateral global health assistance that will be impacted, as compared to $446.5 million under President Bush.

In addition to the reinstatement and expansion of the Global Gag Rule in January, the Administration issued the determination to defund the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) at the end of March, separate from Tuesday’s proposal to completely eliminate support for U.N. agencies across the board. Some of the programs UNFPA provides include work to address female-genital mutilation and cutting and child marriage, rates of which have tripled among refugees from the Syrian conflict. UNFPA also supported lifesaving maternal health services in the Zaatari Refugee camp, where more than 7,000 babies were born without a single maternal death thanks to U.S. funding.

Make no mistake: U.S. foreign assistance saves women’s lives. The converse is also true: Drastic cuts will take their toll on the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. But is all hope lost? Perhaps not.

There’s some indication that public pressure to protect our investments in the health and empowerment of women and girls may be working. The State Department budget tables leaked last month revealed plans to eliminate funding for the Global Women’s Office (GWI) at the State Department; that funding was reinstated in the final budget released Tuesday. (No celebrations yet, however: the budget also states that decisions to keep or eliminate special envoys and offices like GWI will be addressed through a separate, OMB-led reorganization project.).

It is also important to note that this small amount of funding—less than $10 million for small grants and programs through GWI—cannot begin to make up for the drastic cuts to development assistance across all sectors. Through systematic gender integration, these provide critical help to a greater number of women and girls than the GWI grants. But the reinstatement of funds is a welcome sign that someone is listening to the development community’s appeals not to reverse course on women’s rights.

There have also been a number of recent statements from Administration officials about the importance of investing in women and girls. From the White House press secretary, to Special Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, a number of leaders have articulated the U.S. commitment to policies and programs that support women and girls globally. Ivanka and Melania Trump recently spoke about women’s empowerment and progress in Saudi Arabia, spurring donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to a women’s entrepreneurship fund currently being assembled by Ivanka Trump and the World Bank. Similarly, when reports surfaced that the Let Girls Learn initiative might be ending, the Administration was quick to assert its support for “policies and programs to empower adolescent girls.”

This budget does not reflect those statements. But thankfully, it is only the opening salvo ahead of the long budget and appropriations process still to come. As Congress reviews the Administration’s budget proposal and crafts the nation’s appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2018, one can only hope that the United States will continue to put its money where its mouth is, honoring our promises to the millions of women and girls the world over whose lives could well depend on it.

Lyric Thompson is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, senior policy manager at Women for Women International and project manager for overseas development contracts at DAI. She writes regularly on gender and foreign policy for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, openDemocracy and Huffington Post.

RachelClementRachel Clement is a Policy Associate at the International Center for Research on Women. She has worked in Austria, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines, Russia and Vietnam with and for youth, primarily on gender issues. You can find her on Twitter.  

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