U.S. government required to advance gender equity and equality abroad

At the close of International Women’s Month on April 1, Jennifer Klein discussed the top gender equity challenges currently facing the United States and the world – especially the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on women’s economic and physical security, and status as caregivers – and how these issues inform her work as the Co-Chair and Executive Director of the White House Gender Policy Council established on March 8, International Women’s Day. This action was a much a break from the past as it was a global signal to the U.S.’ commitment to its traditional role.

Recognizing the challenges women and girls face around the world, the Council, at the direction of President Biden, works to address these issues globally. But the Council’s role in these global efforts was not always guaranteed.

“It was not obvious that this Gender Policy Council would work both domestically and globally…this was a sort of new facet to the work,” Klein said at a State Department Foreign Press briefing Thursday. “Not that women’s rights and gender equality have not been front and center to the U.S. Government before, but that it was to name it and center it in a way that was really different than what had happened before.”

Just weeks ago, Biden signed an Executive Order establishing the “White House Gender Policy Council,” which Klein said is “unique” in that as a “freestanding council,” it works across domestic and global issues. The Biden administration, through the Council, seeks to develop a “whole-of-government approach” to coordinate on policies and programs that advance gender equity and equality in the U.S. and abroad.

President Biden on March 8 stated the reason for the Council’s global mandate: “Elevating the status of women and girls globally is the right thing to do – it is a matter of justice, fairness, and decency, and it will lead to a better, more secure, and more prosperous world.”

In accordance with the Executive Order, U.S. foreign policy is required to take a comprehensive approach to gender equity and take measures to include women in peace-building and humanitarian efforts, and work not only across the federal government but also with range of outside stakeholders.

“The order explicitly calls for gender equality through diplomacy, development, trade, and defense,” said Klein, reiterating the text in the order – members of the Council include the Secretaries of State and Defense, U.S. Trade Representative, USAID Administrator, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN, among others.

Additionally, “[The order] calls for implementing U.S. commitments to women’s involvement in the peace and security efforts and recognizing the needs and contributions of women and girls in the humanitarian crises and in development assistance,” she said.

The order also calls for the Council to engage with a variety of partners, from foreign government officials and multilateral organizations to the private sector and civil society groups around the world, to better coordinate and inform on the Council’s work.

The U.S., through its words  – Secretary Blinken, UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, Vice President Harris, and others’ –  and actions such as the State Department’s “International Women of Courage Awards,” has already signaled its commitment to issues of equity and human rights, but as Klein said, the goal is to “send more than a signal” and ultimately for the U.S. to engage in “living those values very much in the policies that we put in place.”

“As you all know, women are 50 percent of the population; gender equity and gender equality are issues that cross borders and that affect all of us, so not only women put people of all genders and men as well,” Klein said of the universal dimension of the Council’s work. 

In this sense, real action on gender equity and human rights could serve to benefit all of humanity. But the U.S. is also motivated to pursue these policies because they serve its own interests.

 The U.S., the Biden administration’s thinking goes, can distinguish itself from other global powers or those that seek to influence the international order through its advocacy of gender equity and human rights. This entails being open about the U.S.’ own shortcomings.

Vice President Harris, speaking at the UN’s 65th Session on the Commission of Women on March 16, said that although the number of women in the U.S. political leadership is unprecedented, the U.S. “still has work to do.” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield highlighted her leadership to support women peace-builders across Africa at a UN Security Council meeting on “Women, Peace, and Security,” adding that “we have to do this work within our own systems too” of supporting women in decision-making roles.  

Elsewhere, Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan admitted to similar shortcomings in meetings with senior Chinese officials.

“They’re [Human rights] issues of fairness, they’re issues of justice, and that should be enough. But they’re also issues of strategic importance, and I think you’ll see the United States, in all of our engagement, seeing that connection too,” said Klein, on the dual purpose of U.S. policy.

Still, the U.S.’ message continues to tie universal values to global prosperity, a powerful combination some have said. “At its best, democracy protects human rights, promotes human dignity, and upholds the rule of law. It is a means to establish peace and shared prosperity,” said Harris at the UN. “The participation of women strengthens democracy, and its true everywhere.”

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