The Obama administration has gotten at least one thing right on U.S. foreign policy: its emphasis on empowering women and their rights around the world.
Within weeks in office, President Barack Obama restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund and overturned the global gag rule. The administration created the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the White House Council on Women and Girls, to coordinate policies and programs that affect women and girls. On the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), UN Ambassador Susan Rice affirmed, “The Obama administration strongly supports this landmark treaty, and is committed to United States ratification.” And this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed the U.S. government’s support for women’s access to reproductive health care by committing to achieve the goals set forth in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development by 2015.
The Obama administration was also instrumental in pushing through two major women’s rights initiatives at the United Nations. One was the creation of a new top-level women’s agency promoting women's rights and gender equality. This was the outcome of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR), a coalition of over 300 organizations from 80 countries. According to Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director of Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership, “The real test will come with what kind of money the United States will invest in this new agency in the coming years.” Another major victory at the United Nations was the passage of UNSC 1888 by the Security Council, which builds upon 1820 and 1325, two UN resolutions that ensure women’s participation and leadership in peacemaking, and post-conflict rebuilding and protection from sexual violence in war zones.
Perhaps the most tangible evidence of the administration’s support of women through U.S. foreign policy is the additional $1.66 billion allocated through the foreign operations budget of the State Department for programs directly targeting women and girls. The Obama administration also emphasized the need to integrate gender and women’s empowerment across all foreign aid programs. They’ve even tacked on $3.1 million to create a new Office for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.
These policies and initiatives do indeed signal advances in the women’s rights agenda. But in the context of escalating war, financial crises, and other global challenges, even more can be done to transform women’s lives by addressing the conditions that create poverty for the majority of the world’s people.
Sixty percent of the global workforce are now women. Yet the predominant government response to the economic crisis has been stimulus packages focused on physical infrastructure, which create jobs that largely go to men — and to the private sector. Women are concentrated in jobs that build human capital — largely in the public sector — social workers, childcare providers, teachers, and librarians. As government revenues shrink under the global recession, key public services are on the chopping block. Not only are women less likely to be beneficiaries of stimulus packages, but they're more likely to lose public sector jobs.
The militaristic foreign policies from the White House have also been devastating to women in countries targeted by U.S. missiles, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Obama's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — despite a commitment to development — will continue to have deleterious effects on women there. According to the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association (RAWA), “Now the cases of violence against women are more than the Taliban time.” Infant mortality, maternal mortality and domestic violence are on the rise in Afghanistan.
There have been some improvements on paper in the Afghan constitution. But for most Afghan women, life has stayed the same. For a great number of women, life has worsened. According to Wall Street Journal Afghan correspondent Anand Gopal, “The situation of women today in the Pashtun areas is actually worse than it was during the Taliban time. The reason is because under the Taliban, women were kept in burqas and in their home, away from education. Today the same situation presents— they’re kept in their burqas, in their homes away from education, but on top of that, in a war zone.” It is now well-documented that in war and conflict zones, women and children suffer disproportionately and make up the majority of civilian casualties.
Although the Obama administration has made a commitment to improving women’s rights globally — with notable moves to back commitments with action — the escalation of war and the perpetuation of failed economic models eclipses these advances in women’s daily lives.
Christine Ahn is a policy and communications analyst at the Global Fund for Women, and a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus. Susanna Handow is development officer at the Global Fund and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.