With concerns about a mounting budget deficit and anticipated cuts to investments in foreign affairs, legislation aimed at international development issues will likely face challenges in the 112th session of the United States Congress that starts today. This includes efforts geared toward bettering the lives of marginalized women and girls worldwide.
Although the Obama administration has committed to empower women and girls as part of an overall push to improve development programs, officials over the next two years will need to secure stronger Congressional support – through legislation and funding – to turn pledges into programs.
“Investing in women and girls as part of an overall strategy to improve the efficiency of foreign assistance could form the foundation of compromise both within and between Congress and the administration,” said Dan Martin, senior advocacy specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). “Reducing poverty and defending human rights are not partisan issues. We hope Congress can find common ground in these efforts.”
The political landscape transformed on Nov. 2, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives with a net gain of 63 seats, and Democrats retained a slim majority in the Senate. While committee leadership in the Senate remains unchanged, House leadership of key foreign affairs committees shifted dramatically.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis of 2008 continues to affect the federal budget, putting foreign assistance accounts at risk for reductions. Senior members of Congress, including incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said they intend to cut funding from the U.S. Department of State and the Agency for International Development (USAID), the two agencies primarily responsible for conducting global development programs.
According to the State Department, foreign aid represents 1 percent of the federal budget. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has prioritized women and girls as part of her larger efforts to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development dollars, saying “investing in the potential of the world’s women and girls is one of the surest ways to achieve global economic progress, political stability and greater prosperity.”
Indeed, leaders from the legislative and executive branches of the government are recognizing that women and girls are integral to activities abroad. But Congress took few concrete legislative actions in 2010 to back up that notion: Legislation aimed at preventing child marriage failed to pass into law. So did a bill meant to help reduce violence against women worldwide. Meanwhile, Congressional action in late December to fund the federal government through March 2011 meant that foreign assistance funding would see no increases in the near future.
In the midst of anticipated challenges ahead, ICRW experts will continue to educate members of Congress and key administration officials about specific actions that can be taken to improve gender equality and fight poverty worldwide. To that end, ICRW will work on the following issues in the 112th Congress:
Prevention of Child Marriage
Child marriage, most common in poor, rural communities, has devastating consequences for young girls around the world and, as ICRW research has shown, further perpetuates the cycle of poverty. By helping girls to stay in school longer and preventing health risks associated with early childbearing, combating child marriage could increase the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance dollars – and give millions of girls a better chance to live full, healthy lives.
Senators on Dec. 1 unanimously approved the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act,” legislation aimed at curbing this harmful traditional practice. However, despite significant bipartisan support, it failed in the House to pass into law.
“We made great progress over the last two years, and ICRW fully intends to use that momentum to bring this issue forward again in 2011,” said ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou. “We need to work with key stakeholders, including those that led the effort to defeat the bill last year, to find the nexus between good policy and good politics.”
Integrating Women into International Agricultural Development Programs
President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative to increase U.S. investment in agricultural development, particularly through small-scale farmers, strives to help reduce hunger and poverty worldwide. Through this initiative, the administration commits to boosting productivity and incomes by ensuring that women and men farmers have equal access to resources.
Congressional leaders in 2010 provided much-needed funding for international agricultural development. However, in the current budget climate, future funding for these programs will likely face scrutiny.
“The Obama administration must do a better job of communicating to Congress what Feed the Future is, how it serves American interests, and why the requested funding levels are necessary,” said David Kauck, ICRW’s senior gender and agricultural specialist. “Consistent U.S. investment in international agricultural development will enable farmers to increase their income, reduce hunger and malnutrition and contribute to overall economic growth.”
Violence against Women
Nearly one in three women around the world will face violence in her lifetime, and certain regions of the world have even higher rates. The U.S. continues to fund programs to address gender-based violence globally, even increasing investment in some areas, such as to further explore the link between HIV and violence. The “International Violence Against Women Act” (IVAWA) was first introduced in 2008 and reintroduced in 2010 to foster a more comprehensive, coordinated approach that supporters of the legislation, including ICRW, believed would be more effective and fiscally responsible.
The bill received unprecedented attention as the subject of multiple Congressional hearings and debates. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed IVAWA on Dec. 14, however the Congressional calendar did not allow time for a full Senate vote on the legislation.
ICRW experts say IVAWA provides the U.S. an opportunity to become a worldwide leader in a comprehensive approach to reducing violence against women. “Reducing violence against women will have a double dividend,” said Mary Ellsberg, ICRW’s vice president of research and programs and an expert on in issues related to gender-based violence. “It will help end a gross human rights violation, and give women more opportunities to realize their full educational, economic and social potential, which will ultimately lead to more stable and prosperous societies.”
Foreign Assistance Reform
The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 is the governing document of most U.S. international assistance. However, in the context of today’s development issues, many deem the act to be outdated.
Several attempts by legislators to modernize U.S. foreign assistance in 2010 were met with limited success. The Obama administration, however, is moving forward on two fronts to keep pace with the changing times, especially as it relates to further integrating women into foreign assistance programs:
The first one is through President Obama’s “Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development”, which was released last year and further clarified his commitment to empowering women and girls as well as integrating gender throughout all development programs. “We’re investing in the health, education and rights of women…” Obama said during the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit in September 2010, “because when mothers and daughters have access to opportunities, economies grow and governance improves.”
Second, the State Department last month released the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which pledges to “integrate gender issues into policies and practices at the State Department and USAID.” The QDDR will serve as a blueprint of reforms to be implemented at State and USAID, starting in January 2011, to make foreign assistance more effective.
“In order to make these executive-level commitments permanent, Congress needs to pass legislation to reform the Foreign Assistance Act,” Martin said. “And to do that, administration officials will have to reach out to counterparts on the Hill to find common ground.”
Roxanne Stachowski is ICRW’s external relations associate.