Advancing the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality
“Improving the status of women and girls strengthens economies, democracies, and societies across the board. That’s why I made gender equity a cornerstone of my Administration by creating the White House Gender Policy Council shortly after taking office a year ago. It’s why we issued the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality—an ambitious agenda to support women and families through both domestic and foreign policy.”
— President Joe Biden on March 8, 2022.
The urgency and the challenges of advancing gender equity and equality are glaringly evident around the world. While the impacts of Covid-19 are reversing decades of health and development gains for women and girls, conflicts from Afghanistan to Ethiopia and, increasingly, Ukraine expose how failure to address gender dynamics significantly worsens those crises and further undermines global peace, prosperity, and security. This is an inflection point for U.S. policymakers—a year into a Biden administration that has made bold pronouncements on gender, with a world celebrating Women’s History Month—to assess the road ahead for the global dimensions of the new National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. Amid so many competing priorities, the question is, what will it take to propel this significant gender initiative to the next stage and establish the credibility and attention to deliver concrete results, not simply aspirational words?
On March 8, 2022, International Women’s Day, President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to advance gender equity and equality domestically and globally. Framed by the launch of the first-ever national gender strategy and supported by a $2.6 billion budget request for gender programs in foreign assistance, the administration is seeking to reinvigorate U.S. leadership with an ambitious vision for a whole-of-government approach. The administration has put in place exceptional leadership and capacity to deliver at high political levels, including at the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Yet the time window for action and impact is narrowing, and next steps for implementation involve protracted, inside government processes. At the same time, the path ahead is increasingly complicated, with multiple world crises, a global pandemic, toxic partisanship, and institutional resistance all threatening to derail the agenda. After the sustained attacks on gender-related issues under the Trump administration, especially around sexual and reproductive health and LGBTQI+ rights, the Biden administration is faced with the strategic imperative of advancing gender equity and equality as essential to achieving U.S. goals on global health and development, economic prosperity, and national security, and proving that this can be accomplished.
To demonstrate the necessity of prioritizing global gender issues, the strategy will have to be executed effectively and deliver results. This will require the administration to expedite the timeline, identify a limited number of top-line priorities, widen the circle of committed champions, and garner operational and political support from key external, global partners.
This agenda has never been easy, but the current state of world affairs makes it seems even more daunting now to elevate the gender equality strategy and get the necessary traction. The administration has significant capacities working in its favor through skilled leadership and dedicated gender experts. But to achieve its ambitious goals, the administration will have to ramp up attention to and implementation of its key global gender priorities. Lessons can be learned from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) DREAMS partnership, an ambitious U.S.-led program to address HIV prevention, gender inequality, and health security. Importantly, DREAMS has the resources and has maintained bipartisan support, a rare feat in the current polarized environment.
The White House Gender Policy Council
The foundation of the administration’s approach revolves around the creation of the White House Gender Policy Council and its development of the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, both mandated by executive order on International Women’s Day 2021. While other administrations have had offices focused on women and girls, the current White House Gender Policy Council is the first policy council within the Executive Office of the President focused on gender equity and equality—including women and girls, but significantly more inclusive of the broader gender agenda, including LGBTQI+ issues. The Gender Policy Council includes nearly all members of the president’s cabinet and federal agencies and the heads of other White House offices, with each member appointing a senior representative to support the council. In addition to having developed the national strategy, the Gender Policy Council is working on the first interagency strategy on women’s economic security, the first-ever domestic national action plan on gender-based violence (GBV), and an update to the 2016 U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.
However, the staff of the Gender Policy Council remains very small—four full-time staff, a mere fraction of the other policy councils—and is tasked with tackling significant domestic priorities as well as the global agenda. Of the original two cochairs, Julissa Reynoso and Jennifer Klein, Reynoso has already left to be U.S. ambassador to Spain and has not been replaced. Inevitably, this limited capacity means that the Gender Policy Council will have to rely on the gender leads at U.S. agencies and bureaus. While convening and coordinating the interagency process will presumably remain with the White House, it will have to navigate the tensions and competition between and among agencies, which will require consistent, high-level support and staffing from the administration. Outside engagement and consultation with civil society and the private sector will be critical to ensure transparency, accountability, and results.
The National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality
In October 2021, the White House released the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. The strategy is designed to be catalytic and to guide practice across U.S. government agencies, bridging domestic and global. It is a highly comprehensive and intersectional document, which lays out more of a vision than an operational strategy, since that falls to the agencies to develop.
The plan is for each federal agency to identify its priority goals and what it will accomplish over the next one to three years, in liaison with the Gender Policy Council. At this writing, each agency is developing at least three priority goals to advance the strategy, to be followed by implementation plans, which are to be finalized in July 2022. At least one of the goals is supposed to be achievable within current authorities and resources. For each goal identified, agencies have been asked to identify (1) the gender gaps they aim to close; (2) outcome measures; and (3) budgetary, staff, and other institutional actions needed to achieve targeted objectives.
The strategy outlines 10 strategic priorities, which it acknowledges are interconnected and will have to be addressed together:
1. improving economic security and accelerating economic growth;
2. eliminating gender-based violence;
3. protecting, improving, and expanding access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health;
4. ensuring equal opportunity and equity in education;
5. advancing gender equity and fairness in the justice and immigration systems;
6. advancing human rights and gender equality under the law;
7. elevating gender equality in security and humanitarian relief;
8. promoting gender equity in mitigating and responding to climate change;
9. closing gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields; and
10. advancing full participation in democracy, representation, and leadership.
Upon completion of the implementation plans, the Gender Policy Council will then produce its first annual report to President Biden in early autumn 2022 (possibly October), accounting for progress made in implementing the strategy, including the action plans. However, it is not clear if either the action plans or the report to the president will be made public, although portions may be released.
New Resources and Initiatives
On March 8, Biden administration officials announced that the president’s 2023 budget request will include $2.6 billion for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equity and equality around the world. This marks a doubling of the FY 2022 request and would support USAID and the State Department-funded programming meant to align with the national gender strategy. However, it remains to be seen how much of that request is actually new money, how much is simply attributions, and ultimately what Congress will decide. This budget request is aimed at global investments to address the disproportionate impacts on women and girls in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic (including women’s workforce participation and care infrastructure), climate change, gender-based violence, and conflicts and humanitarian emergencies around the world.
The budget request also incorporates $200 million for the Gender Equity and Equality Action (GEEA) Fund (doubling the FY 2021 allocation of $100 million), which focuses on women’s economic security holistically. This fund grew out of U.S. commitments at the United Nations’ Generation Equality Forum in June 2021.
The Biden administration’s Build Back Better World initiative, launched with G7 partners in June 2021, includes a pillar on gender equity in infrastructure needs in low- and- middle-income countries. The goal is to mobilize private sector capital to complement and catalyze investments from the respective development finance institutions.
Increase Focus on Gender and Global Health Security
Despite the administration’s focus on Covid-19, global vaccinations, and global health security, there has been little systematic attention to their gender equity and equality implications. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored and exacerbated the gender inequities and inequalities in global health and development, demonstrating that strengthening global health security requires a concerted focus on gender issues. This necessitates concerted action to ensure that the U.S. global response to Covid-19 and its focus on vaccine distribution around the world includes systematic attention to gender equity in the Covid-19 response and pandemic preparedness and embedding these issues into the evolving global health architecture. While the Biden administration appears to be open to this approach, it has not yet been elevated as a central priority. The gender strategy offers significant opportunities to increase attention and investments in the gender impacts that have been overlooked in the Covid-19 response and in global health security more broadly, including the importance of collecting and analyzing gender data.
Next Steps for Implementing the Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges
The Biden administration has an unprecedented opportunity to advance an innovative approach to U.S. policy and global leadership on gender equity and equality. Yet this agenda is complicated to execute, and the time window is narrowing to institutionalize its vision into U.S. government policies, processes, procedures, rules, and budgets. The administration, with important leadership from the White House Gender Policy Council, will have to make critical decisions about which priorities it can address in coming years and what will be required in terms of high-level engagement, budgets, and staff. These decisions should be buttressed by ongoing outreach to and consultation with civil society organizations, gender experts, and private sector leaders to provide critical input and accountability. Simultaneously, the administration should continue to repair the damage done during the last administration, reflected in a return to multilateral fora with humility and in reinforcing the diminished gender capacity and expertise in the U.S. agencies.
To build momentum for this agenda globally, it is time for a reset to accelerate implementation. The administration should put its gender planning on a faster track and develop and invest in an aggressive communications strategy to elevate attention to the global gender equality strategy within and outside the U.S. government. This entails picking a set of top-line priorities and demonstrating results. Areas of focus could include systematically elevating coordinated strategy and programing to address gender in humanitarian and crisis response, including sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence; strengthening and resourcing programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally, including through support for women’s organizations and leadership; and mitigating the gendered impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, notably on women’s economic security and health, girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health, and in global vaccination programs.
To solidify support for these priorities, the administration should strive to widen the circle of committed champions, reaching beyond the usual gender supporters to engage former senior U.S. government officials and leaders representing civil society, private sector, media, Republicans, and faith-based organizations. The United States should build an international coalition in support of gender equity and equality, ensuring that UN agencies and multilateral organizations—UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, the World Bank, the Global Fund—join with G7 and G20, and regional bodies like the African Union as well as civil society organizations, to drive this ambitious agenda forward.
It means fulfilling the promise of the president and vice president in their introduction for the gender strategy: “We have an unprecedented opportunity to chart a course for a future in which gender equity and equality are instilled in every part of our country, and—through our defense, diplomacy, foreign aid, and trade efforts—to advance the rights and opportunities of women and girls across the world.”
Janet Fleischman is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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