Can women and girls be at the center of US humanitarian assistance?

Girls at one of the schools supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development in West Bank. How can the new USAID Administrator Gayle Smith ensure that women and girls are at the center of the country’s development efforts? Photo by: Bobby Neptune / USAID / CC BY-NC

Gayle Smith may not be a household name, but she has the potential to be a critical player in U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.

Smith is the new head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency in charge of working with countries to spur economic and social development and decrease poverty throughout the world.

With just one year left in Obama’s term, she has an important role to play in making sure that women and girls are not an afterthought in development efforts, and instead are key players in their own communities to tackle poverty. In fact, USAID’s mission to tackle poverty around the world cannot be achieved if half the population is left out.

Smith has long been an ally for the development community, particularly in terms of making sure that aid that goes abroad is transparent and as effective as possible. She has also been a key architect of many of Obama’s Africa initiatives, from Power Africa, to the first U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, to the U.S. government’s Ebola response. She navigated a difficult confirmation process, and must now contend with a chorus of groups demanding change on their particular issues in the fleeting moments of her administration’s tenure. It’s a tall order, but one that is not insurmountable.

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A few key steps Smith could take as administrator would cement the administration’s progress on gender issues, filling in lingering gaps and helping her advance progress on several of the most pressing development issues of our time.

Last June, when Smith presented her four-point agenda for leadership at USAID, girls and women were conspicuously absent. The closest thing to a gender focus in the testimony was a brief discussion of her priorities as they relate to this administration’s focus on ending preventable child and maternal deaths, a longstanding and important — though not gender-transformative — agenda.

U.S. foreign assistance can — and often does — go beyond concern for women as more than dying mothers. Foreign assistance programs support girls’ education, protect women from violence, prevent child marriage, support female enterprise and employment, promote land tenure and agricultural development for female farmers, and so much more.

This support is critical, both because it is the just and right thing to do, and also because achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls have been shown to help advance other development priorities such as global health, economic growth and democratic governance. For example, each year of primary school has the power to increase a girl’s earning power by 10 to 20 percent, while the return on secondary education is even higher. When girls are educated and have higher earning power, they’re better able to provide for the families, the effects of which trickle down for generations.

Bottom line: Intentionally and explicitly incorporating a focus on women and girls in American assistance abroad will help Smith and USAID achieve their goals.

So what can she do? We have four suggestions on what she can do right now to improve the lives of women and girls from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe:

1. Lead for girls. 

Three years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to do its part to end the global scourge of child marriage, a violation of girls’ human rights that effectively ends the childhood of 15 million girls every year. A centerpiece of that legislation included a call for a U.S. strategy outlining how the various diplomatic and development tools could be put to work to protect and empower adolescent girls globally.

Three years later, there is still no strategy. If this policy is not finalized soon, much worthy work will have been wasted and the needs of millions of girls will continue to be inadequately addressed.

2. Work with Congress to ensure vulnerable gender positions and policies are codified and future progress is possible. 

The Obama administration has elevated gender in foreign policy and assistance more than any previous administration, so this is an important priority for Smith to carry forward. But key posts and policies that have come to fruition under the Obama administration have not been legislatively enacted, meaning it is up to the next administration — which may not hold gender issues in as high regard — to elect to continue this work as part of foreign policy priorities.

That’s a risk we cannot afford to take. Smith must include codification of the State Department and USAID gender offices and leadership as permanent fixtures in U.S. global affairs architecture. The elevation of the Office on Global Women’s Issues as reporting directly to the secretary of state (with an ambassador-level official to lead it), and the creation of a senior coordinator for gender at USAID reporting to the administrator were all through executive action. This means that these critical positions can vanish if the next administration does not prioritize issues around women and girls.

Smith should work with Congress to ensure these posts are protected by law. Further, the National Security Council recently eliminated the position of gender and human rights director — a position that Smith used to oversee. This was an essential position in the coordination of multi-agency efforts to end violence against women, promote women in peace processes and, most recently, empower adolescent girls.

Congressional leaders have prioritized women’s leadership in Afghanistan, the elimination of gender-based violence overseas and the prevention of child marriage globally — there are eager leaders on both sides of the aisle who would work with her to cement these important gains; Smith should capitalize on this interest to ensure these valuable positions are protected and empowered for future progress.

3. Ensure that USAID staff at home in Washington and globally have the resources they need to make the biggest impact for women and girls. 

The gender team at USAID currently does not have the authority to employ, nor the capacity to track, U.S. investments in various gender-related development programs. Smith should give the senior coordinator for gender a budget and a seat at the table in determining how the agency should spend its substantial resources.

Finally, Smith should use her leadership to ensure far greater attention and priority to adolescents and youth across USAID. The agency issued a strong Youth in Development Policy in 2012, but has only minimally funded YouthPower, the mechanism used to implement the policy, and has kept the position of youth coordinator vacant for far too long. A vocal and solid commitment from Smith to empowering youth through USAID, backed by significant financial resources, can go far toward ensuring that all young people, including girls, benefit from U.S. assistance.  

4. Ensure that women and girls don’t bear the brunt of conflict and crises. 

Smith has a great breadth of experience in humanitarian disasters and crises, and should respond to the community’s repeated calls for a focus on women and girls through USAID’s humanitarian response. From Boko Haram’s abduction of schoolgirls in West Africa to the Islamic State group’s sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls, wars are being waged on women’s bodies and their voices too often silenced in global peace talks.

USAID disaster and humanitarian assistance programs should include greater priority attention to women, girls and gender issues. This should include screening for and prevention of gender-based violence, including child and forced marriage; provision of well-lit refugee camps with separate, secure female bathrooms; livelihoods opportunities for female refugees; safe spaces and education for girls; and comprehensive health services — including abortion services for refugee women who are raped, which is allowable under U.S. law, but not under USAID’s overly strict interpretations of it.

Gayle Smith certainly has her work cut out for her, as she’ll likely be pulled in a million different directions from advocates, policy-makers and others who want to ensure that the USAID agenda reflects their priorities. But cementing the agency’s department on women and girls is a win-win. It empowers at least half the population, whose needs for far too long have been overlooked, and it boosts agency priorities, from spurring economic growth, to educating the next generation, to finally tackling poverty at its roots.

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About the author

  • Lyric

    Lyric Thompson

    Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. In this capacity she leads the institution’s formulation of evidence-based policy recommendations and manages ICRW’s advocacy efforts with the U.S. government and internationally. In addition to serving as the co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA advocacy coalition, Lyric is also on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Gender-Based Violence Globally, the board of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, the Executive Committee of the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the board of the Community Center for Integrated Development of Cameroon.