In her first speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris announced, “The status of women is the status of democracy.” Those words, on the preeminent global stage, were a resounding signal that women’s empowerment, women’s rights and combating gender-based violence (GBV) were central to the Biden administration’s commitment to both U.S. and global communities. Defining strategies, reviewing investments and articulating action plans to deliver on these priorities would come next, including a review and update of the decade-old United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally.
On Dec. 12, in support of the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV—an annual international campaign that kicks off on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until Dec. 10, Human Rights Day—the U.S. government launched its updated and long-awaited strategy. At this high-level virtual event, the leadership of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the White House Gender Policy Council all reaffirmed the Biden administration’s dedication to addressing GBV and championing women’s rights.
The new strategy lays out the administration’s vision and plans for how to end GBV, reclaiming the U.S.’s role as a leader in combatting this injustice, after four years of disinterest and inaction by the previous administration.
With years of advocacy and multiple rounds of public consultations, the revised strategy reflects both urgent needs today and priorities to tackle potential roadblocks to eliminating GBV around the world. With evolving understandings of gender—emerging issues like violence and harassment in online spaces and during pandemics and continued long-standing challenges such as quality services and resources for survivors and accountability for perpetrators—the revised strategy is a significant improvement and aligns better with the needs of people around the world today.
This robust, whole-of-government strategy builds upon the previous two iterations of the plan and work done by the U.S. government over the past decade. It is rooted in a strong set of guiding principles—advocated for by civil society and community-based advocates—which ascribe values to how the government should advance its efforts to combat GBV. These values include being human rights-informed, intersectional, survivor-centered (and trauma-informed) and locally led.
The strategy itself is divided into three pillars:
- focusing on gender and at-risk populations, including LGBTQIA+ individuals;
- integrating GBV prevention and response across sectors; and
- strengthening the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent and respond to GBV.
Each objective under the first two pillars lays out a summary of the problem and the U.S. government’s intended approach to addressing it—both in regard to policy and diplomacy—as well as on-the-ground programs. As part of that, the strategy also highlights the importance of investment in multilateral organizations, including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Earlier this year, PAI released a set of recommendations for the U.S. government to consider as it updated this strategy. So, how did the final product measure up? Ultimately, pretty well.
Sexual and Reproductive Health and GBV
As the 2022 strategy addresses GBV concerns within specific sectors, including health, we see a much more detailed analysis of the individual and global health implications of GBV. This includes recognition of the range of health concerns, especially sexual and reproductive health consequences of GBV beyond unintended pregnancy and HIV acquisition, but also injury, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy complications and impact on mental health.
It also emphasizes the need to build the capacity of healthcare systems and providers to identify and support those who have experienced GBV, recognizing that linkages to sexual and reproductive health services “… are often weak or absent.” As such, the U.S. government plans to focus on supporting communities to build health workforces that are equipped to handle GBV in a supportive and respectful manner that centers the needs of survivors, delivers sexual and reproductive health services and provides necessary referrals.
While the objective of health promotes alignment with the World Health Organization’s clinical guidelines and other international minimum standards around GBV prevention and response, the policy remains silent on the issue of abortion. The U.S. government did not use the issuance of the strategy as an opportunity to explicitly clarify that the Helms Amendment does not restrict the provision of abortion services with U.S. funds in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment—as PAI had hoped—because these circumstances are typically not considered “family planning.”
While previous iterations of this strategy acknowledged reproductive coercion as a form of GBV, the new version adds additional context around the term and includes forced pregnancy as a component of reproductive coercion—one that has often been overlooked by U.S. policymakers.
In discussions of intimate partner violence, it also recognizes that power imbalances between genders can make it difficult for women to negotiate contraceptive use to prevent pregnancy or STIs.
Girls and Young Women
The strategy, under Pillar I, includes an entire objective about addressing the unique needs and risks around GBV that girls and young women face, including child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, which can have lifelong negative impacts on girls’ and adolescent’s health.
In fact, it is under this objective that the strategy acknowledges the importance of using multilateral engagement to advance “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and comprehensive sexuality education—a topic that is likely to figure prominently at the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March and the 56th United Nations Commission on Population and Development in April.
It also emphasizes investing in existing U.S. government programs and policies, such as the DREAMS Partnership, a multisectoral program under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; the United States Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls; and multilateral programs like the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.
Humanitarian Emergencies and Pandemics
In addition to a section dedicated to health specifically, which includes approaches to addressing GBV and health in humanitarian emergencies, there are also objectives on humanitarian assistance and peace, security and democracy.
In line with the United States Strategy on Women, Peace and Security and the U.S. commitment to the Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies, the emphasis is on ensuring that GBV prevention and response—including quality services—are addressed from the onset of a crisis. Guiding these interventions are the established international standards of the Inter-Agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings, the Inter-Agency Minimum Standards for Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies Programming and the Minimum Initial Service Package for Sexual and Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations.
The strategy also acknowledges the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of women and girls globally, including spikes in GBV around the world, particularly intimate partner violence. It commits the United States to advocating for considerations around GBV to be incorporated into current and future pandemic responses.
On paper, the strategy looks great. But, as always, the questions we’re left with are: What does the U.S. government do with this document now? How is it implemented? Will funding increase and be sustained?
On implementation, the strategy is vague. While it commits to annual civil society consultation, annual public reports and monitoring and evaluating the strategy against its results framework, there is no timeline for updated implementation plans and a commitment to make these public. Other strategies coming out of the Biden administration have suffered from this deficiency—notably the National Gender Strategy released in October 2021, which still lacks public implementation plans. In addition, there is a lack of clarity about the resources that will be committed and deployed by the administration and Congress to support the implementation of the strategy in the coming years.
As the halfway mark of this administration’s current term now approaches, the accountability to act must be there. Saying the right things is not enough, we need to ensure that words are backed up with action. With that in mind, we look forward to following the administration’s implementation of this and its other gender strategies over the next two years.
PAI champions policies that put women, youth and at-risk communities in charge of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. We work with policymakers in Washington, D.C., and our network of more than 120 funded partners across 36 countries to remove roadblocks to access sexual and reproductive health services and support. For nearly 60 years, PAI has helped communities succeed by upholding their basic rights.
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