By Dzena Berbic, Program Officer
News that the Trump transition team asked the State Department for information on its “gender-related staffing, programming, and funding” made headlines late last year. Reporting indicated that this put the incoming administration’s interest in global women and girls efforts on par with its requests for information on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. What does this mean? Is the president-elect interested in dismantling or elevating the role of women and girls in global affairs, or does it mean anything at all?
Given recent increasing efforts of the US government to incorporate gender equality as a component of its domestic and foreign policies, including through the formation of roles such as the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the White House Council for Women and Girls, the question is an important one.
The role of gender in international affairs is something the Council itself has elevated through its Women and Global Development Forum event series. This past fall, we examined how we can address disparities in gender equality that continue to exist at home and abroad.
First at home. The United States ranks reasonably high on the gender gap index, (45th out of 144.) It is therefore surprising that “we are one of the only countries in the world that does not have paid maternity leave, equal protection under our constitution, and rights against sexual harassment,” noted Ellen Chesler, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, who spoke at the Council’s Global Women’s Movement program in November. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among 41 surveyed nations only the United States does not mandate any paid leave for new parents, while countries such as Burkina Faso and Chad offer fourteen weeks.
More broadly, there continues to be a massive gender leadership gap. Only 22 percent of parliamentary positions are held by women globally, despite a substantial increase of their participation over the last twenty years. Just as the US election featured its first-ever female candidate at the top of the ticket, a push was made to elect the first-ever women UN Secretary-General. Susana Malcorra, foreign minister of Argentina, was one of five women who ran for the position. At the Council in September, Malcorra shared her excitement about the possibly that a women could break the “cement ceiling” at the UN. Neither election ended up making gender history.
Catherine Bertini, a distinguished fellow at the Council argued on the same Council platform as Chesler that domestic and foreign policy directives should be built around how policies impact both women and men. She further noted that we must not assume that every policy will treat women equally. If we consider the labor market, for instance, women comprise almost half of the workforce and exceed men in higher education, yet they are continuously paid less than men. In the 25-34 age group, 38 percent of women have undergraduate degrees or higher, compared to 30 percent among men. Yet in 2015, female full-time workers reportedly earned only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.
Education rates among women may be high in the United States, but globally 130 million girls worldwide are not in school, and millions more face barriers to staying. This is even more severe in regions such as Waziristan in northern Pakistan, where female literacy rates are less than 8 percent. In an October program, professional squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir shared her experience of growing up in this Taliban stronghold where girls are not expected to play sports or even attend school. On the deeply entrenched gender disparities in the region, Wazir said: “Women are not allowed to go outside unaccompanied, and arranged marriages are highly common. Education is considered as a vulgarity, and it is believed that educated women may escape from the family and men are at risk of losing power. Men who want to be in control deliberately avoid sharing information with women at home, where TV, radio, and news are not permitted in fear of westernizing women. This is how the region operates.” Waziristan’s slightly remote location and aspects of its tradition have proven to be a breeding ground for the Taliban. Pakistan is ranked second to last, 143rd out of 144, according to the 2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
While countries such as Pakistan, Liberia, and Niger continue to feature on lists of “the toughest places to be born a girl” according to ONE’s Poverty is Sexist report, it then comes as a surprise that the United States does not lag far behind when it comes to maternal mortality and domestic violence rates. Maternal mortality rates have decreased globally, yet the United States has become an outlier among developed nations, reporting an increase in the last ten years. Similarly, violence against women is a global epidemic. Some 35 percent of women have experienced either physical and or sexual violence around the world. “Violence against women is the main issue we are falling behind in. This issue crosses every single border around the world. Domestic violence, human trafficking, and rape as a weapon of war, is getting worse,” said Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Partnerships, at a September sustainable development goals program. If that doesn’t wake people up, how about this? Domestic violence is costing the United States $8 billion a year, she said.
Perhaps ONE’s report outlined the issues at stake most accurately when it said: “Nowhere on earth do women have as many opportunities as men. Nowhere.”
As we look forward to the next four years, is the State Department inquiry an indication that the Trump administration might focus on gender equity and empowerment? Susan Chira’s recent New York Times commentary discussed Trump’s anti-women stance and pointed toward the detrimental positions his cabinet members have taken on issues such as abortion, contraception, funding for domestic violence, tax credits for child care and the prospect of paid maternity, and raising the minimum wage. Yet Ivanka Trump is believed to be more sympathetic.
Supporting women and girls has been a bipartisan issue, something Republicans such as Laura Bush have championed. The Trump administration should continue these efforts. Gender equity must remain a top domestic and global priority.