Center for American Progress

Internationalizing Women’s Rights and Empowerment

Internationalizing Women’s Rights and Empowerment

The Obama Administration’s Steps Should Remain a Priority in U.S. Foreign Policy

Arpita Bhattacharyya and Peter Juul detail how the administration focused squarely on this critical issue, and suggest ways to institutionalize the efforts in the decades to come.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Friday, February 17, 2012. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Friday, February 17, 2012. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the past three years led the Obama administration in making international women’s issues central to progressive foreign policy. A number of important documents and initiatives illustrate the administration’s commitment to this priority, including the State Department’s first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which recognizes that “women are at the center of our diplomacy and development efforts—not simply as beneficiaries, but also as agents of peace, reconciliation, development, growth, and stability.” In doing so, the United States joins other international institutions, including the World Bank and the United Nations, in recognizing the critical, efficient, and proven way investments in women and girls spur broader economic development for communities around the world.

With the growing recognition that there are important links between women’s rights and empowerment on one hand and development and security on the other, the Obama administration took a broad-based set of concrete steps to realize the potential of women and girls around the world. New development programs and policies targeted at women and girls are now underway, and the first National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security guides the policymaking.

But more work must be done in order to protect and nurture this growing foundation of American foreign policy at a time when the international affairs budget is getting the squeeze. Specifically:

  • Fostering economic and social development by empowering women
  • Protecting women and promoting peace
  • Securing future national and global commitments for women’s rights and empowerment

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Fostering economic and social development by empowering women

The development opportunities through the advancement of women are huge and the numbers prove it. Consider just these three sets of statistics:

  • If 10 percent more girls go to school in a country, its economic growth increases on average by 3 percent.
  • There is more than a 10 percent increase in crop yields when women have the same amount of land as men.
  • Countries are more inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic where women’s share of seats in political bodies is greater than 30 percent.

These facts underpin what the United States and other nations and organizations are doing to empower women in economic and social development.

Under Secretary Clinton’s leadership at the State Department, the Obama administration worked to increase the emphasis on women and girls in the United States’ development policy. The State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues—headed by the first-ever ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer—and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s newly launched Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy currently serve as two of the main hubs to address global women’s issues.

Beyond these two institutional innovations, the Obama administration made empowering women and gender equality key components of its two signature development programs, the Feed the Future initiative—a $3.5 billion pledge from the United States to fight global hunger and promote food security, with gender integration in the global agricultural sector as a main focus—and the Global Health Initiative, which aims to evaluate and improve global health programs, including family planning, and maternal, newborn, and child health.

Moreover, Ambassador Verveer and her office initiated a series of public-private programs intended to give women greater opportunities. Foremost among these ventures is the Secretary’s International Fund for Women and Girls, which provides privately funded grants to nongovernmental organizations to provide rapid and high-impact work to meet the needs of women around the world. These grants go to work on women in six areas: climate change, combating violence, economic empowerment, education, political participation, and women’s and girls’ health.

In addition, the Office of Global Women’s Issues partnered with private organizations and NGOs to implement country specific or sector-specific initiatives such as:

  • The Propelling Women’s Entrepreneurship in Pakistan Mentorship Program, which trained 10 Pakistani women and provided them with long-term mentors to support and expand entrepreneurship in Pakistan
  • TechWomen, which provides similar support for emerging women leaders in the technology field across the Middle East and North Africa
  • mWomen, which aims to empower women by reducing the mobile gender gap by 50 percent by 2014 and creating mobile services to enhance access to health care, finance, education, and entrepreneurship

USAID is equally focused on women’s development. Earlier this month, the agency’s administrator, Rajiv Shah, launched a new policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment. The policy aims to reduce gender disparities and gender-based violence while empowering women in and out of the household throughout USAID’s work. All of the agency’s work on women now falls under this policy, including the Safe Schools Program (now in its second phase) and the new Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, a measurement tool to assess the effectiveness of U.S. programs in empowering women in the agriculture field by assessing the empowerment of women in agricultural decision making in five categories. This index is already being tested in pilot programs in Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Uganda, and is already yielding important results that will shape future assessments and programs.

Protecting women and promoting peace

The Obama administration’s strong emphasis on rooting economic and social development in the empowerment of women is complemented by a focus on endemic violence against women. Pushing for positive change through improved health care, food security, and political participation is made exceedingly difficult in the face of threats to women’s basic rights and physical security such as armed conflict, sexual violence, and human trafficking. On all three fronts, the Obama administration took action and issued policy directives to address these threats to women’s security and better incorporate women into conflict prevention, resolution, and postconflict reconstruction.

This past December, for example, President Obama released the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and issued a related executive order. The plan aims to coordinate and accelerate U.S. government efforts to include women in peacemaking processes, protect women from violence during conflict, and provide women better access to relief during and after conflicts. It puts out actionable items and assigns specific agencies to coordinate and carry them out, including the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, and Homeland Security; the U.S. Mission to the United Nations; USAID; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Each agency and department will be responsible for developing their own Women, Peace, and Security implementation plans. A newly established Women, Peace, and Security Interagency Policy Committee will oversee coordination and implementation. In 2015 there will be a comprehensive review and update of the National Action Plan.

The National Action Plan’s objectives for demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration programs are a good example of its broader aims. Right now, efforts to learn from or implement these programs are fragmented: USAID and the State Department put out separate reports on “lessons learned” while the Defense Department has focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Action Plan, however, aims to bring executive-wide experience together on demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration to develop a comprehensive strategy that takes the differing needs of male and female excombatants into consideration.

Both the new Women, Peace, and Security Interagency Policy Committee and the 2015 review deadline will hopefully provide a constructive oversight mechanism and further institutionalization of gender-integration beyond the current administration.

More broadly, the National Action Plan serves as an umbrella for U.S. initiatives currently addressing women’s security issues. Since coming into office the Obama administration took a strong stand against sexual violence against women. In 2009 Secretary Clinton pledged $17 million to aid rape survivors in the Congo. That same year the United States sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution to help end conflict-related sexual violence. Unanimously adopted, the resolution built on previous Security Council resolutions 1820 and 1325, and provided specific steps for the United Nations and member states to take to stop sexual violence in combat zones.

The resolution called for the inclusion of provisions protecting women and children within U.N. peacekeeping operations and U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations. Resolution 1889 followed, reaffirming the previous resolutions and continuing the Security Council’s push for protecting women in conflict. These efforts have in fact paid off: The 2010 UNFPA State of World Population report notes that progress that has been made 10 years after Resolution 1325, with grassroots efforts playing a major role in combatting sexual violence in conflict zones.

Finally, in 2012 USAID also recently announced a new Counter-Trafficking in Persons policy. With countertrafficking programs in more than two-dozen countries, USAID is one of the largest donors fighting human trafficking. The scope of the policy’s targets is large, with estimates of 12 million to 27 million people enslaved in sex or labor exploitation around the world. The new policy will work with the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to integrate countertrafficking within other sectors of development, improve the effectiveness of programs, and provide better training and coordination among staff and partners.

Securing future national and global commitments for women’s rights and empowerment

The Obama administration made great progress in elevating women’s rights and empowerment as a core principle of progressive foreign policy thinking and American foreign policy practice. But it should do more to ensure that these efforts do not begin and end with one administration or one committed advocate such as Secretary Clinton. Doing so is all the more important given the critical role women will play in global development in the years to come.

In addition to its specific programs and plans, the Obama administration took steps over the last three years to institutionalize the importance of international women’s rights in U.S. foreign policy machinery. The creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues, the appointment of the first ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the formation of a Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy at USAID, and the outlining of a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security are all important moves forward.

But given that these achievements are largely the result of executive action and policy priorities, they need to be actively protected as further institutionalization proceeds under tight budgets. For one, the Obama administration should support congressional efforts to permanently establish the Office of Global Women’s Issues and ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues in the State Department.

At the same time, maintaining the emphasis on women’s rights and empowerment at a time of budgetary constraint will help drive home their importance to U.S. foreign policy given the truism that budgets reflect policy priorities. The fiscal year 2013 foreign operations budget request is a mixed bag in this regard. Funding for global health as a whole is down 3.8 percent, funding for maternal and child health down by 4.6 percent, and funding for family planning and reproductive health receives request for a 1.1 percent increase. The administration and its allies in Congress should work to ensure that these totals are not subject to further cuts by legislators eager to find savings in an unpopular foreign aid budget.

But it will be equally important to ensure that gender issues are incorporated and implemented by agencies on the ground as well. Embedding goals of gender equality and female empowerment in future major foreign aid programs—as was done in the Global Health Initiative and Feed the Future programs—can help cement these goals as priorities within the U.S. government’s foreign policy apparatus.

In addition, U.S. government agencies and departments dealing with development and security issues should be well-trained and have the resources to move forward on the Obama administration’s ambitious plans to integrate gender issues. Women’s issues do not take place in a vacuum, but rather in a complex political, social, economic, and security environment for which proper training will be crucial. Better and more crisis prevention training of State Department and USAID staff will help to ensure the effective implementation of programs to help empower women and realize their rights.

Overall, the Obama administration made tremendous strides toward the elevation of women’s rights and empowerment in progressive foreign policy. Now it must continue to consolidate and institutionalize its achievements regardless of the resource constrained environment.

Arpita Bhattacharyya is a Research Assistant on the Executive Team at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center.

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Arpita Bhattacharyya

Policy Analyst

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst