We have too much to lose by not investing in women and girls

We have too much to lose by not investing in women and girls

Each year, with the release of its budget, the White House sends a message about its priorities, values and vision for the country and the world.

This year’s budget proposal is no different and the message it sends about our commitment to the safety and health of those abroad and at home, and to supporting women and girls in particular, is nothing less than alarming.  

Less than one percent of the budget goes towards foreign assistance, but that one percent has an enormous impact, particularly on the lives of women and girls.

 

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the world’s biggest development and humanitarian challenges.

Globally, women and girls make up 70 percent of people living in poverty, 60 percent of those experiencing chronic hunger, two thirds of those who are illiterate, are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster.

It is estimated that 35 percent of women will experience gender-based violence in their lifetime.  Every year fifteen million girls, or one girl every two seconds, are forced into marriage.

Last year the president's budget request recommended slashing funding for foreign assistance by over 30 percent, causing an outcry from everyone: faith leaders, corporate leaders, military generals,  and members of Congress and the development and humanitarian communities as a whole.

The proposal included a recommendation to eliminate family planning assistance. This would have ended a 50-year bipartisan history of supporting women and families through family planning and reproductive-health services.

The proposed loss equates to 25 million women without access to contraceptives, almost 200,000 additional people infected with HIV and 31,300 new mothers, newborns or children who would die unnecessarily.

As Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump rattles Pentagon with Korea war games decision National Guard soldiers Trump sent to border are shoveling manure, changing flat tires: report Overnight Defense: Trump explains comments on Kim's human rights record | Mattis praises Trump-Kim summit | Afghan war nominee to face Senate panel MORE has said, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I will need to buy more ammunition. The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice and hopelessness.”

In the year since that request, the administration has made several overtures on the importance of empowering women and girls globally. The president’s National Security Strategy noted that, in order to champion American values, governments must treat women equally in order for societies to reach their full potential.

In October of 2017 the president signed the Women, Peace and Security Act into law, ensuring that the needs and participation of women will be prioritized as the government engages in conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE’s statement on International Day of the Girl Child noted that the United States would, “commit to upholding the God-given rights of all and working to ensure that every girl is born into a world where she is free to live her life to the fullest.”

In April 2017 the United States, in partnership with the government of Germany and the World Bank Group, launched the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, giving women business owners in the developing world greater access to capital.

Yet this year’s proposal for the foreign assistance budget — which like last year proposes a cut of over a third — would have deadly consequences for women and girls if enacted. This proposal is on top of Trump’s expanded Mexico City Policy and completely defunding United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), one of the only organizations able to provide maternity care in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places.

Once again, this year’s budget has been met with resistance from veterans,  generals,  and the development community who have expressed their alarm at the impact the proposed cuts would have to the stability of countries that receive foreign assistance — and what that would mean for U.S. engagement in conflicts in the future. It would also signal a retreat and decline of U.S. leadership in this critical area, dis-incentivizing other governments to live up to their commitments as well.

It is worth the penny of every dollar spent by the U.S. government to support girls to stay in school and to help women entrepreneurs, business owners and small shareholder farmers to become more self-reliant.

These investments not only help those women but allow them to lift their families and their communities out of poverty. For each year of additional primary school a girl completes, her own future earnings increase by 15 percent, creating an upward cycle of growth and opportunity.

In one groundbreaking study, it was found that if women’s participation in the economy was completely on par with that of men, the global economy could grow by $28 trillion by 2025.

Women also have a huge part to play in leading the battle against the drivers of extremism and they are a unique and powerful force for peace in both preventing and resolving conflict.  

When women participate in conflict resolution, peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last 15 years or more — which, in turn, saves countless lives and the use of U.S. military forces.

Thankfully, Congress will likely not implement the president’s budget proposal as it is written. However, we should be alarmed that the policy proposals laid out within this document would so severely undermine years of bipartisan assistance for the world’s most vulnerable and make the world — and our country — less safe.

Ensuring robust funding for the U.S. foreign assistance is not only the right thing to do for the sake of women and girls around the world, but the smart thing to do to for Americans.

Congress should act to ensure that strong investments in women and girls are made and that these are seen as investments with a high return on security, prosperity and America’s own role on the global stage.  There is too much to lose if we don’t.

Rachel Clement and Teresa Casale are both policy advocates at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a non-profit organization that strives to empower women, advance gender equality and fight poverty.