As President Joe Biden approaches his first 100 days in office, foreign policy analysts have begun to herald a shift from the four years of exclusionary policies that marred US international engagement on women’s rights under President Donald Trump. The Biden administration now has an opportunity to reinstate the United States as a global leader in women’s rights and must build off current momentum to solidify a foreign policy that prioritizes evidence-based policies on gender equality, inclusion, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for all.
Under the Trump administration, extreme steps were taken in the international arena to turn back the clock on decades of progress on women’s rights, formerly an issue championed by the United States under the Obama administration. The Trump administration consistently pushed back against language on reproductive rights and gender equality, for instance watering down resolutions on sexual violence. Among other measures, the administration pushed for weaker statements on women’s rights issues from international organizations like the G-7, diverging from past practices under Obama.
For instance, in her opening statement on the UN Security Council’s Resolution on Women, Peace, and Security in 2019, Ambassador Kelly Craft, then-Permanent Representative for the US Mission to the United Nations (UN), said, “We [the United States] cannot accept references to ‘sexual and reproductive health,’ nor any references to ‘safe termination of pregnancy.’” Craft was following the Trump administration’s guidance to voice opposition to any references to SRHR at the UN, which led to this language being struck from the Resolution, arguably weakening the Resolution as a whole.
The Biden administration has already made significant strides in reversing many of the Trump administration’s policies around gender and SRHR. One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to revoke the global gag rule (GGR), which prohibited foreign NGOs that receive US foreign assistance funds from engaging in any activity around abortion services. In practice, the GGR under President Trump was an enormous barrier to critical health and development services in the Global South because it cut off resources from organizations that offer a broad range of services in addition to abortion services, including organizations working to combat AIDS and HIV. President Biden’s reversal of the GGR is an important first step in restoring the United States as a leader in global funding for SRHR.
If the new administration is serious about championing gender equality globally, it needs to step up and adopt policies that reflect a deeper approach than simply ‘add women and stir.’
The appointments of Ambassador Samantha Power as administrator for USAID and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as Ambassador to the United Nations also represent a shift in US foreign policy, as both women have significant records of advocating for the rights of women, girls, and LGBQTI+ communities. These two appointments represent the Biden administration’s intention to call upon experienced women to take up important positions within the Biden administration to restore the United States’ crucial role in the foreign policy space.
Perhaps the most exciting new development was the creation of a Gender Policy Council that will report directly to the President, collaborate with every agency across the branches of government, and have high-level representation in all government offices. High-level representation in all government offices will allow the Council to be involved in policy decisions every step of the way, rather than serving as an external Council that is not involved except at a high level. With promises that the Council will take a “government-wide approach to gender equity and equality,” it has all the trappings of a successful operation.
While the administration has made laudable initial steps towards implementing recommendations on gender equality, much remains to be done. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic – wherein we have seen a devastating increase in violence against women, a breakdown of women’s inclusion in peace processes, and an over-reliance on the care economy of women workers — prioritizing women’s rights is more critical than ever. If the new administration is serious about championing gender equality globally, it needs to step up and adopt policies that reflect a deeper approach than simply ‘add women and stir.’
Challenges such as gender inequality, violence against women, and access to SRHR are daunting, but the government possesses the tools necessary to restore the United States as a defender of these rights. There is also ample evidence that prioritizing gender equality will help Biden achieve other domestic and foreign policy goals. In countries where gender equality is a top domestic and foreign policy priority, studies show that raising the status of women and girls increases GDP, improves global health, combats extremism, and strengthens peace and democratic institutions.
The call to “build back better” was oft-repeated throughout the Biden campaign — this mentality needs to be applied to the implementation of a foreign policy that fights for gender equality and meaningful inclusion of women across the world.
Julia Canney is a practitioner and advocate with expertise in gender, violence prevention, and transitional justice. She currently serves as the Policy and Communications Associate for the Impact:Peace initiative at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. Julia received her MSc Human Rights with a focus on gender and security in Dublin, Ireland.