USAID gender policy faces backlash from advocates, lawmakers

A general view of the U.S. Agency for International Development headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and advocates have raised numerous concerns about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s new draft gender policy, saying it would be a step back for the U.S government’s gender equality work.

“Far from advancing gender equality, this draft policy reads like a political document and reflects priorities that will undermine gender equality,” a group of 15 senators, led by Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter they sent to USAID acting Administrator John Barsa on Monday.

The advocates and lawmakers said they were concerned that the new policy narrows the agency’s approach to gender equality, and that it is less inclusive and unlike the previous policy leaves out any mention of LGBTQI individuals. They said it also doesn’t explicitly outline women’s rights as human rights and does not address comprehensive reproductive health care as a component of gender equality efforts.

The policy took more than a year to develop and was released for public comment on Aug. 19, with the window for public comments closing Aug. 27. This draft policy would replace the 2012 gender policy.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence they dropped it while everyone is on vacation,” said Justin Fugle, Plan International’s head of policy.

“I’m not sure exactly how this will play out and who holds ultimate sign off.”

— Aria Grabowski, policy and advocacy manager, the International Center for Research on Women

The agency had said that this change would be a technical update primarily to include the Women Peace and Security Act and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, which advocates agreed was worthwhile, he said.

But this policy instead is a “strike and replace” and “we don’t feel that’s justified,” Fugle said.

The policy was updated because “the technical and policy environment has evolved,” a USAID official wrote to Devex. “This updated policy also reflects current best practices, latest evidence, including expanding from seven to 13 programmatic sectors, recent policy achievements and promotes key USAID Journey to Self-Reliance priorities.”

The policy aligns with the objectives of the WEEE Act, the official wrote.

Advocates don’t necessarily agree. The policy uses qualifiers such as “legal” or “basic” or “unalienable” to describe rights, which minimizes them, creates ambiguity, and is not aligned with the WEEE Act language, said Aria Grabowski, the policy and advocacy manager at the International Center for Research on Women.

There was a big effort across the gender community to send in comments, Fugle said, along with the effort to raise awareness on Capitol Hill, which resulted in the Senate letter and a separate letter signed by 86 members of the House of Representatives, which was sent to Barsa last week.

The House letter said that USAID’s central governing document overseeing gender equality “should reflect evidence-based approaches” and should be written “with a focus on technical expertise, with minimal political interference.”

Rep. Grace Meng, who along with Rep. Barbara Lee led the House letter, called the policy “a disaster” in a statement and urged Barsa to “immediately reverse course” and engage Congress to address concerns.

In its comments to Devex, USAID pushed back on some of the concerns expressed by lawmakers and advocates.

The gender policy ensures that no one is excluded, with “pursue an inclusive approach” as one of its guiding principles, and it references USAID’s inclusive development definition, the USAID official wrote. That definition says “The concept that every person, regardless of identity, is instrumental in the transformation of their own societies and their inclusion throughout the development process leads to better outcomes.”

In response to concerns about specific language on family planning, the USAID official said that it “supports all the key components of effective family planning and reproductive health programs: service delivery, performance improvement, contraceptive method supply and logistics, health communication, biomedical and social science research, policy analysis and planning and monitoring and evaluation.”

USAID received a “significant number” of public comments from a “wide-range of stakeholders” and is still compiling and reviewing them, the official wrote. USAID “will keep stakeholders informed as we determine our next steps in the policy process,” the official wrote. A specific timeline is unclear.

“We’re hopeful they will make changes,” Fugle said.

The fact that so many members of Congress signed onto the letter, despite it being a vacation period, will hopefully have an impact, Grabowski said.

“You would think that would be enough normally for USAID to say ‘OK, we got something wrong here and need to go back to the drawing board and update this,’” Grabowski said, adding “I’m not sure exactly how this will play out and who holds ultimate sign off.”

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.