Can the U.S. Lead on Women's Rights?
Erica Ngoenha is a Program Officer at The German Marshall Fund of the United States where she works on transatlantic policy issues as they relate to the U.S. Congress. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author's own.
If his first weeks in office are any indication, Donald Trump’s presidency could mark a dramatic shift in the United States’ approach to women’s rights globally. As one of his first acts in office, President Trump reinstated the so-called global gag rule, which prohibits U.S. foreign aid funding to groups that provide or educate patients about abortions as a family planning solution. Trump’s decision was not entirely surprising. The policy has been continuously reaffirmed by Republican presidents since President Ronald Reagan first introduced it in 1984. The surprise is that Trump may have massively expanded the portion of U.S. development assistance impacted by the ban.
In previous iterations, the rule was applied narrowly to family planning dollars which total an estimated $600 million. Trump’s version of the rule is written more broadly, and activists fear it could impact about $9 billion in foreign aid. Given the size and scope of U.S. resources, the ban is likely to have far-ranging effects for some of the world’s most vulnerable women. Public health organizations will either have to forego U.S. government funding, or eliminate access to an important element of reproductive health services in order to retain funding.
Beyond the global gag rule, there are other reasons for concern. The Trump administration has hinted at efforts to weaken many of the vehicles through which the United States has worked to advance women’s rights. The administration has already circulated a draft executive order that would cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations by at least 40 percent. Through international treaties such as the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) -- a signature international treaty that aims to ensure the rights of women globally -- the United Nations has served as an important platform for furthering gender equality. If carried out, these cuts could cripple a critical player in the women’s rights movement.
At times, Trump has indicated that he will reduce U.S. foreign assistance. As the world’s largest aid donor, the United States is uniquely positioned to advance women’s rights through its development dollars. The government can require certain gender-related achievements as a condition of aid and make improvements on gender equality a major focus of its project evaluations. Even if the administration affirms the United States’ commitment to less controversial areas of women’s rights, including programs to curb child marriages, eliminate female genital mutilation, and provide equal access to education, a decrease in development dollars will likely lead to U.S. retrenchment on these issues.
A Mixed Legacy
While prospects for U.S. leadership on global women’s rights appear dim under Trump, the president already inherits a mixed legacy. On several key issues the United States lags behind not only its developed, Western counterparts but behind most other countries. The United States signed CEDAW in 1979 but has not ratified it, thus joining a small group of countries including Iran, Somalia, and Sudan who are not a party to the treaty. The United States is one of only nine countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. And the United States also falls behind its peers in wage equality, ranking 66th according to a global analysis completed by the World Economic Forum.
A Dream Deferred
These choices have long diminished U.S. credibility as a global leader for women’s rights. That is why for so many advocates of women’s rights, the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency represented a real opportunity for the United States to assume the mantle of leadership on these issues in a way that no administration had attempted before. The leader who boldly declared that “human rights are women’s’ rights, and women’s rights are human rights” would have joined Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May to complete the triumvirate of female politicians leading the Western world. In doing so, she would have surely expanded upon her career-long legacy of promoting gender equality across the globe. Instead, Trump, a man who had one of the most troubling personal tracks records with women of any modern presidential candidate, ascended to the presidency.
Foreign Leaders Fill the Vacuum
After Washington made it known that it would reinstate the global gag order, the Netherlands announced that it intends to create an international fund for abortions to fill the void the United States will leave behind. The Belgian government quickly voiced its support for the move, and another 20 nations are reportedly considering joining the Dutch. If the current trends continue, this will be a hallmark of the new global order ushered in by the Trump administration: Other countries will seek to fill the leadership vacuum left open by the United States. Unfortunately for women around the world, few other countries can muster the resources and influential platform that the United States has.
Cause for Hope?
Despite the troubling indications for U.S. leadership on global women’s rights issues, there are reasons to be optimistic. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to institute six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers, and proposed increased tax deductions for child care to ease the financial burden on working families. Ironically, a president with such a controversial record with women could bring about some significant improvements to the lives of American women and mothers. Implementation of these policies would give America a stronger moral footing upon which to stand within the international community, and it can send the signal that the United States is moving forward on these key issues, even as it loses ground on others. With his party in control of the U.S. Congress, Trump is better situated than Hillary Clinton, who would have undoubtedly faced at least a Republican House, to push these changes through the legislative branch.
Another point of hope: The government bureaucracy is large and slow. Changing the policy direction of individual departments will be difficult, and bureaucrats dedicated to their work might find ways to slow or impede the process. Therefore, it is unlikely that Trump will be able to fully dismantle the numerous programs across the U.S. government aimed at promoting women’s rights at home and abroad.
Regardless of any domestic progress during Donald Trump’s presidency, it will be difficult for the United States to play a leading role in advancing global women’s rights. Given the actions the Trump administration has already taken, President Trump’s own sordid history with women, and the strong opposition from women and women’s groups he faces at home, the world will be looking elsewhere for leadership on gender equality.