The United States sent a historically senior and diverse delegation to the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, where Vice President Kamala Harris delivered an address to the United Nations last week — making her the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever to do so at the event.
Harris used the opportunity to confirm the U.S. commitment to women’s rights on the world stage. “Eleanor Roosevelt, who shaped the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, once said, 'Without equality, there can be no democracy,'” she said. “In other words, the status of women is the status of democracy."
This show of support wasn’t lost on women’s health and rights advocates, who are watching President Joe Biden’s administration to gauge whether early signals will evolve into global policy and funding choices that elevate women’s voices and agency in the COVID-19 pandemic response and beyond.
The largest annual U.N. gathering on women’s rights — which has taken place in a mostly virtual format over the past two weeks and ends Friday — followed a flurry of U.S. legislative action in the first months of 2021.
In January, Biden rescinded the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” which denied U.S. global health assistance to international organizations providing abortion information or services. The Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act, which would permanently prohibit future use of the rule, was reintroduced in Congress days later. And earlier this month, several Democrats in the House of Representatives presented the first bill to repeal the so-called Helms amendment, a 47-year-old anti-abortion policy.
“We are so close to making this happen,” Serra Sippel, president at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said of the long-standing effort to end the global gag rule for good.
Work to repeal the Helms amendment is still in early stages, she noted. Still, having a U.S. president who supports sexual and reproductive health and rights “is unprecedented,” Sippel told Devex. “So it’s not ‘building back better.’ This is building something new.”
“The status of women is the status of democracy.”— U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris
Advocates are looking to Biden’s newly established White House Gender Policy Council, in particular, for clues as to what’s next from an administration outspoken in its commitment to equality and inclusion. The council is tasked with guiding and coordinating government policy that impacts women and girls, including economic, health, racial justice, gender-based violence, and foreign policy.
Access to sexual and reproductive health care services and combating gender-based violence — both at home and abroad — are two of the council’s immediate priorities, according to co-Chair Jennifer Klein. Early efforts will include creating a national action plan to end gender-based violence and updating the 2016 version of the U.S. strategy to prevent and respond to GBV globally.
“This administration is not only deeply committed and convinced of the need to marshal this whole-of-government approach to drive gender equality,” Klein said during a panel at CSW. “We are deeply committed to doing so.”
Her statement is reassuring to advocates pushing for broader change, such as a U.S. government commitment to a “feminist foreign policy” — a political framework that borrows from intersectional feminism to center the experiences and agency of women and marginalized groups. It’s an approach that has been adopted in various forms by countries such as Sweden, Canada, and Mexico.
The U.S. administration has already taken up some of the recommendations from a memo drafted by the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States, according to Aria Grabowski, policy and advocacy manager at the International Center for Research on Women.
One of the remaining questions, Grabowski said, is whether Biden’s 2022 budget request will reflect a full commitment to gender mainstreaming, which would ensure that gender analysis informs how money is allocated.
It is currently easier for the U.S. to fund large nongovernmental organizations than it is to build relationships with feminist organizations in the global south, according to Global Fund for Women President and CEO Latanya Mapp Frett — something she would like to see change.
The U.S. could update grant mechanisms and defer to the expertise of feminist funds, “as opposed to [doing] what is comfortable,” she said. “We want to offer them various vehicles of doing that. All of this learning, all of these relationships exist.”
In the meantime, government negotiations around a CSW outcome document dragged into Thursday night. The document is meant to provide a set of agreed conclusions and concrete recommendations on CSW priority themes, which this year centered on women’s leadership.
COVID-19 has shown the economy depends on women’s unpaid work. Short-term responses should be rolled into systemic change, according to experts at the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
The U.S. “has been much more of an ally in supporting key issues this year than it was in the past few years,” said Spogmay Ahmed, global policy advocate at ICRW. “This includes language on sexual and reproductive health and rights, which is really encouraging to see in the agreed conclusions.”
The advocacy community is also hoping to find language supporting leadership and agency of adolescent girls, which has turned out to be a controversial issue with regard to other member states, Ahmed told Devex.
As of Thursday night, the negotiation was a waiting game to see whether governments could agree on conclusions at all, considering continued pushback from Russia on language around diversity that other delegations consider vital. Language describing sexual and reproductive health and rights, currently in the draft document, had not yet been broached.
Overall, the U.S. has demonstrated quiet diplomacy at this year’s event in an “attempt to show back up at the table,” Frett said, adding that the forum has provided an opportunity for the U.S. to reengage in women’s rights and secure a better position to influence outcomes in coming years. The CSW outcome document, if agreed upon, can also act as a gauge ahead of next week’s Generation Equality Forum, a “champions-only” event outside of the U.N. system to mark the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
“How hard is the fight to get the language right? Who’s in, who’s out? And once the statement is out, who lifts it up and claims it as a victory?” Frett said. “Those are all really good signs to see where we are.”