Female lawmakers, candidates must be the voice for women worldwide
Women are often invisible victims in crises across the globe. Whether as victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Syria or South Sudan, or of heightened vulnerability in drought or disasters from climate change worldwide, women suffer disproportionate to men but rarely have leading roles in policy decisions.
In the United States, less than a quarter of U.S. cabinet and cabinet-level positions or ambassador titles are held by women. Meanwhile, less than one-in-five members of U.S. Congress are women. With a record number of women running for congressional office and faring well thus far in the 2018 primaries, Capitol Hill might have an influx of new female leaders come 2019. But whether these women can make invisible victims of crises visible may require more than a House or Senate seat.
In fact, the United States has a lot of ground to make up in the race for equal female representation in Congress. The United States ranks in the bottom 50 percent of nations worldwide in terms of parity and two ranks below Saudi Arabia — where women only earned the right to run for office in 2015 and could not legally drive until June 2018. African, Latin American, and Scandinavian countries top the gender-parity chart. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Middle Eastern countries of Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Morocco all have greater female representation in parliaments than the United States. Between the shortage of women in the Trump administration’s executive team and inadequate representation in Congress, the United States is far from setting an example for the world of what gender equality in government looks like.
But how could women in Congress weigh in on global issues? First, through oversight. Committee hearings could provide congresswomen the opportunity to press cabinet members, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Defense to answer pointed questions on what measures they are taking to protect women against climate change-induced poverty or rape at the hands of warring parties and aid workers.
Second, through funding. The “power of the purse” provides Congress the opportunity to investigate and approve (or disapprove) funding for U.S. actions that could better or worsen the plot for women worldwide. The United States plans to spend nearly $30 billion in 2019 on foreign assistance, money that could include stipulations for inclusive economic development that benefits women as well as men, health services unique to women from contraceptives to prenatal care, and education programs that empower women ranging from parity in literacy to pursuit of advanced degrees.
And third, through approving military action. While subsequent commanders in chiefs have repeatedly taken military action without seeking approval, Congress has the explicit authority to declare war. Looking ahead, if Congress regains control of this constitutional power, having congresswomen in the room could draw attention to the effect of war on women and the need to mitigate its consequences.
To be leaders in these discussions and decisions, however, success at the polls is not sufficient. Rather, new congresswomen could push for greater representation on key committees to challenge the male dominance of foreign policy discussions. Women make up no more than a quarter of members in any of the House or Senate appropriations, armed services, or foreign affairs committees — and none of the committee leaders are women. Worst of all, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) is the only female out of 21 members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Notably, assignment to congressional committees is among the least transparent processes on Capitol Hill. Assignment procedures on the Senate and House sides involve a mix of explicit rules and discretionary decisions including seniority and expertise. Junior members of Congress face barriers to entry into these committees — which suggests a transition to gender parity may take time and is far from inevitable.
Female congressional candidates, therefore, need to take action now if they want to change conditions and norms for women from Hollywood to Aleppo. On the campaign trail, female candidates can give a voice to women as victims of conflict, climate change, and crises across the globe. Female candidates can make clear they will not standby while men dominate policy discussions that disproportionately affect women. And female candidates can make clear they will, as future congressional leaders, make visible the invisible victims of conflict, climate change, and wide-ranging crises.
Andrea Taylor is a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.