2018 Was a Long Women’s March Through Congress
It was a year of quiet, but major, progress for women’s issues in the U.S. government—and 2019 promises even more.
Plenty happened this year that affected global women’s issues, for better and worse. Conversation about sexual assault deepened in the United States due to the Kavanaugh hearings and the spread of the #MeToo movement; there was also an unprecedented number of women elected to political office. Elsewhere in the world, there was record-setting violence against women campaigning for political office, and there were assassinations of female journalists and human rights defenders. “The women we talked to are really in much more danger than before from right-wing misogynistic movements in their country and their own government,” said Yifat Susskind, executive director of Madre, an international women’s rights organization.
Those trends have all been clear to anyone paying attention. What’s gone overlooked, however, is that women’s issues also had a reasonably good year in terms of U.S. government legislation. Nothing has yet been signed into law, but several measures seeking to promote the global rights of women and girls quietly moved forward with more energy and bipartisan support than in past years.
The headline was passage of legislation–starting in July with the House, and then in the Senate just days ago and only narrowly squeaking through before the 115th Congress adjourns this month—expanding the U.S. Agency for International Development’s work on women’s economic empowerment and recognizing gendered challenges women face such as constrained access to land and property rights, disproportionate care burdens and gender-based violence curtailing their economic participation and economic growth globally. U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation, given his daughter’s public support of it.
While the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 is the only legislation that passed this year, a number of other measures have gained traction. Since 2012, advocates have been trying to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, the foreign policy companion to the domestic version, which authorizes a number of global efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. It still didn’t pass in 2018, but it received its highest number of cosponsors in history. Similarly, the Global HER Act, which would end the Global Gag Rule, has 165 co-sponsors, a strong showing of support. In both cases, advocates are hopeful that the high number of cosponsors sets the stage for 2019; perhaps the record number of women in Congress will help push them over the finish line.
And the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Isssues similarly introduced bipartisan legislation to increase U.S. investment in girls’ education and in helping to end child marriage, female genital mutilation, and other challenges girls around the world face, building on legislation introduced earlier in Congress to expand girls’ access to school in conflict and crisis settings.
Skeptics might argue that, since most bills failed to become law or receive dedicated funding, it’s not much worth celebrating. But it’s normal for it to take years to pass legislation, and things like the number and bipartisanship of co-sponsors, or movement through committee, or—in the case of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Act of 2018—passage through the House, are important measures of success. By those measures, these bills saw more momentum than in past years. Taken with the results of 2017, which saw passage and signing of the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, the track record for global women’s issues in the 115th Congress is not bad.
In the executive branch, results were mixed. Regarding efforts to increase women’s presence in peace and conflict resolution processes, movement was sluggish. The Trump administration missed a congressional deadline to produce a strategy outlining what it would do to protect and empower women in conflict settings, the mandate of the only global women’s issues bill that passed this Congress. This is a dark spot in an otherwise positive development of the legislation’s success, made worse so by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report finding a program that spent nearly $100 million on Afghan women was “a flop” with no evidenced results and most of the money going to private (male) security contractors.
Also this year the devastating effects of the expanded Global Gag Rule—which the Trump administration reinstated two years ago this January and which bars international healthcare providers from receiving U.S. funding if they provide, refer or advocate for abortion—were felt, with hospitals struggling with withdrawn funding. This despite the fact that the measure has been shown to increase—rather than decrease—the rate of abortions globally. And women looking to escape domestic violence had a door slammed in their face when, over the summer, an order blocking survivors of domestic violence from petitioning for asylum was issued by the Trump administration.
It wasn’t all bad news from the executive branch, however: In June, The United States’s little-known development finance bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, leveraged the G-7 stage to launch a multibillion-dollar initiative lending to women-owned or -oriented enterprises around the world. This reflects the Trump administration’s view that women’s empowerment is best done through a financial lens.
So on the heels of a year like this one, what can we anticipate in 2019? Congress could continue to prove a bastion of bipartisan collaboration, with a boost in focus on women’s rights owing to the influx of new female members and committee chairs.
Representative Nita Lowey will chair the powerful Appropriations Committee, including the subcommittee dealing with foreign affairs, providing the proverbial cherry on top of what could be a full-fledged women’s rights agenda. While men will lead the Foreign Affairs Committee, some are calling for the establishment of a subcommittee dealing with global women’s issues. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did so a decade ago, so the lack of a counterpart on the House side, particularly a House that will boast female leadership and a record number of members, seems incongruous. Having a specific subcommittee on gender could be the boost needed to get these pieces of legislation over the finish line: Members would be able to call hearings on them, increasing the visibility of the issues they seek to address. It would also enable members to conduct oversight on some of the executive branch’s more damaging policies, such as the global gag rule.
“The work of women’s rights is multiplying,” said Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “We have to fight on many fronts and take on new issues and refight things we thought we had won.”
Given the new and more representative body, with record numbers of women, including more women of color and LBT women, the first Muslim and Native American women and the first Somali-American and Palestinian-American women, we might expect a number of bills on global gender equality and women’s rights issues. Certainly those bills that didn’t quite make it over the finish line will be back, so violence, economic empowerment, and girls’ education are safe bets, as is the legislative override of the gag rule and reinstatement of funding for the U.N. Population Fund, which also has been eliminated in this administration.
One gap that surfaced in 2018 was in support for women-led and gender-sensitive interventions in America’s humanitarian relief efforts. Advocates say the U.S. Congress can play a role in prioritizing the prevention of gender-based violence and exploitation of women and girls in emergencies, and directing government agencies and programs to partner with local women’s organizations on the ground. We’ll likely see a big push on legislation that was introduced just days ago to protect women’s human rights content within the State Department Human Rights Reports; those reports were recently stripped of valuable information with regard to reproductive rights, gender-based violence, and the rights of LGBTQ people. And finally, advocates are calling for increasing appropriations to support gender equality, and efforts are overdue to bring our governing legislation on foreign assistance, the Foreign Assistance Act, up to date with regard to an emphasis on women’s human rights as a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy.
It is an open question, however, as to how these proposals will fare. Analysis suggests that the ideological divide between the two parties has actually increased this cycle, on the heels of a number of retirements and defeats by moderates. In a scenario where the left is “leftier” and the right is “Trumpier,” the prospect of the kind of bipartisan compromise we saw in the 115th Congress may be smaller, no matter how many women were elected. After all, female political leaders, research suggests, are no less partisan than men—especially, one would have to presume, going into a presidential election cycle.
Looking ahead, some advocates pointed to preparations for the 25th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women in 2020 as a rallying cry. “There will be a lot of mobilization and reflections,” said Hakima Abbas, co-executive director for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. “2019 really should be about us articulating our agenda and solutions and pushing those forward.”
This article was updated on Dec. 22 to reflect the latest legislative developments.
Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. @lyricthompson