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Engendering a Strategy — Gender Equity and Equality Plan Issued by the White House

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order establishing a White House Gender Policy Council (GPC), tasking the administration with the development of a government-wide strategy to advance gender equity and equality to be released this fall. On October 22, after months of consultation and work by the GPC, advocates and the public are finally seeing the fruit of its labor. While previous policies and strategies have focused on specific aspects of gender equity either in the United States or around the world, the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality is the first that looks at interconnected priorities identified as critical for achieving gender equity both domestically and globally.

Pulling together this strategy was no small undertaking. The executive order directing the development of the document identified 10 priority areas for the strategy to address: economic security; gender-based violence; health; education; justice and immigration; human rights and equality under the law; security and humanitarian relief; climate change; science and technology; and democracy, participation and leadership. The GPC was tasked with not only looking at these issues individually, but also how they are interconnected. While the idea of having a holistic strategy that would address both U.S. and global gender issues created excitement, there was also concern around if and how it would adequately balance both the domestic and international components.

Ultimately, the GPC rose to the challenge, producing a comprehensive strategy that succeeds in accomplishing these goals. The strategy lays out the Biden-Harris administration’s intersectional approach to gender, recognizing the unique challenges that exist due to biases around multiple identities, such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and disability. It also creates an understanding from the start of how the administration sees working collaboratively across these issues will help advance gender equity. For example, the strategy states that restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) “undermine women’s ability to take care of their families, advance in the workplace, and lead in all sectors.” Furthermore, the GPC appears to have made a concerted effort to ensure that the priority areas are interwoven throughout the document, further emphasizing the interrelated nature of these issues. While the policy seems to skew slightly domestic, almost all priorities and subsections include a paragraph or two laying out the global situation and commitments to address the issues and problems identified.

International SRHR Commitments

Among the 10 priorities identified is SRHR. During their first 10 months in office, Biden-Harris administration officials have been vocal supporters of SRHR — a welcome change from the previous presidential administration, which sought to undermine SRHR at every opportunity. The strategy echoes many of the domestic and global commitments the administration previously made in its January 28 executive memorandum on women’s health and this summer at the Generation Equality Forum. Below is a rundown of the specific global SRHR provisions included in the strategy.

  • End the harmful Global Gag Rule (GGR): The Biden-Harris administration’s opposition to the harmful GGR is well documented, going back to its campaign platform prior to being elected. In fact, taking executive action to repeal the Trump-Pence administration’s GGR was among the current administration’s earliest actions upon taking office. The strategy continuing to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to “seeking to end the Global Gag Rule” shows its recognition that while its time in office offers a reprieve from this egregious policy, there is nothing yet in place to stop a future administration from reinstating the GGR. This reiteration of support for ending the policy could not come at a more critical time, as the House and Senate enter negotiations on the fiscal year (FY) 2022 appropriations package. Both the House and Senate bills include language to permanently repeal the GGR, which should make it nonnegotiable, but a show of support from the White House can only help to bolster the resolve of the Democratic congressional leadership to ensure that a permanent GGR repeal remains in the spending bill sent to President Biden for his signature.
  • Invest in high-quality, client-centered sexual and reproductive health services: As the strategy recognizes, the United States is the world’s largest bilateral family planning donor, a position the Biden-Harris administration intends to see maintained. It is refreshing and encouraging to see a whole-of-government strategy that acknowledges that investments in family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services are necessary for women’s well-being by allowing them greater bodily autonomy and control over their lives. However, this is an area where we have yet to see the administration take significant action. While the president’s first budget request included an increase for these programs internationally, it could be described as modest at best, falling far short of the amount needed to meet the U.S. fair share of addressing the needs of the 218 million women who aren’t using modern contraception. In fact, the president’s budget request for international family planning and reproductive health was wildly eclipsed by the proposed funding levels from the House and Senate. Hopefully, this strategy can serve as a motivator for increasing the administration’s funding request for FY 2023. 
  • Support the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): After four years of being declared ineligible by the Trump-Pence administration to receive U.S. funding, the Biden-Harris administration took action in January to allow the funds consistently earmarked by Congress to begin flowing to support UNFPA’s work around the world. The administration followed up that action by proposing a more than 70% funding increase to the agency in the FY 2022 president’s budget request. Therefore, it is no surprise to see the strategy reiterate the administration’s support for the crucial family planning and maternal health work of UNFPA. 
  • Integrate sexual and reproductive health service provision in humanitarian and post-conflict settings: The idea of the United States integrating sexual and reproductive health services into the humanitarian assistance it provides to those impacted by disasters or conflict is not new. It has not, however, tended to receive the attention that other areas of humanitarian assistance do, so the administration’s explicit commitment to “better integrating sexual and reproductive health service provision in global contexts, including in humanitarian and post-conflict settings” is a welcome advancement. This language is included not only in strategy under SRHR, but is reiterated in the humanitarian section, as well, which is important for highlighting this as SRHR and humanitarian priorities. Hopefully, the U.S. government will look for ways to align this commitment with various humanitarian initiatives in which it participates, including the Call to Action on Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies. 
  • Restore U.S. global leadership on sexual and reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education: The United States embracing the concept of sexual and reproductive rights in the diplomatic space is still new. U.S. support for the phrase “sexual and reproductive health and rights” only emerged at the end of the Obama-Biden administration, before being tossed aside for the past four years. A clear position on this concept matters — and setting this as the standard for how the United States will position itself at the United Nations and elsewhere is vital for U.S. efforts to regain leadership in this space.

Next Steps

While this strategy lays out the Biden-Harris administration’s intentions on SRHR, it’s a start that needs to go deeper on addressing barriers to advancing gender equity and equality. For example, while girls are mentioned throughout the document, in many cases, there is no acknowledgment of the barriers that they may face due to their age, marital status, etc., which may differ from the challenges faced by adult women. Recognizing the released strategy is only the beginning of the process, as it is now up to executive branch agencies to develop their detailed implementation plans. In the coming weeks, the GPC will issue guidance to agencies, kicking off a nine-month process in which each agency will have to identify specific goals and develop their plans to meet them, allowing them another opportunity to address any possible gaps.

Each agency is asked to identify at least three goals to pursue the advancement of gender equity and equality. However, the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, the lead agencies on foreign policy, will have to tackle many more if they are to ensure that the full spectrum of global priorities is addressed. Gender equity and equality advocates are eager to help these agencies think through their goals and develop the necessary implementation plans. While there are many things in the strategy that executive branch departments and agencies can and should advance with existing resources, in order to ensure that these implementation plans are actionable and sustainable, they will also need to be properly resourced going forward.

The Biden-Harris administration must be commended for its ambition in commissioning a gender equity and equality strategy along with many other bold endeavors during its first year, but it is the execution of these next implementation steps that will ultimately determine the strategy’s success.

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