USAID’s draft policy retrenches on gender equality

The U.S. Agency for International Development has a long and honored record on advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality, supported by leaders in both parties in various administrations and Congress. While priorities shift, USAID’s policies and programs have increasingly recognized both the right to gender equality, as well as the importance of gender equality to developing strong economies and stable societies. But now, in a draft revision of USAID’s policy on gender equality and women’s empowerment, the administration proposes to step back in time.

The draft gender policy is being released while the world is grappling with a global pandemic that has both revealed and exacerbated the extent of gender inequality. Women and girls are taking on greater caregiving responsibilities, making it harder for women to earn a living and girls to return to school. Many countries have reported increases in gender-based violence and child marriage. As USAID looks ahead to what’s over the horizon in a post-COVID world, having a strong, technical, forward-looking gender policy is vital.

Unfortunately, the current draft will undermine USAID’s ability to meet these challenges.

On the positive side, the draft policy makes a strong and comprehensive case for the critical importance of women’s empowerment and gender equality, situating it in the agency’s vision of supporting countries’ “Journey to Self-reliance” and on the pragmatic grounds of economic, social, and policy efficiency and effectiveness. The deficiency comes in the retrograde concept of gender equality and the rush to finalize what appears to be an ideologically driven policy without due consideration of the impact of proposed changes.

On an important conceptual level, the draft policy uses the terms “unalienable rights” and “basic and legal rights” rather than the term “human rights.” On the surface, this would not appear significant. But to those schooled in the field, the words have very different histories and meanings and implications. “Human rights” is an internationally recognized term that has a long history in law, treaties, and practice—most fundamentally the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and is characterized by universality, inalienability, interrelatedness, interdependence, and indivisibility. “Unalienable rights” and “basic and legal rights” are not generally recognized terms and are used today to narrow the scope of rights to economic and religious. This framing does not necessarily include fundamental freedoms such as freedom of assembly, association, and expression that we take for granted as Americans, and that are at the bedrock of strong democracies. Often, glaringly left out are a woman’s reproductive rights and nondiscrimination against LGBTI people.

The draft also enforces a strict, binary definition of gender, talking only about women and men, deleting previous language about gender identity. Nowhere is there reference to LGBTI people, who are included in other USAID policy statements and its everyday gender work, but are glaringly absent in the draft gender policy. Nor does it talk about the important concept of intersectionality—which recognizes that many people face multiple forms of discrimination in their societies—such as gender and disability—and addressing these intersecting factors is vital to effective programs seeking to advance gender equality at scale.


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