Title IX and Campus Sexual Assault under Trump

Two important Trump education picks have either refused to endorse or openly criticized Title IX, the landmark 1972 federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded program. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, refused to answer whether she would enforce the law during her confirmation hearing, while Jerry Falwell Jr., Trump’s pick to lead a federal task force on higher education, has stated he would like to curb the rules that require colleges to investigate campus sexual assault under Title IX. What might a rollback of Title IX under the Trump administration imply for the incidence of campus sexual assault and campus climates? The challenges and opportunities to fight sexual assault on campus are better understood when we consider 1) legislation in place concerning campus sexual assault, and 2) the role of formal and informal institutions in the enforcement of these laws.  Specifically, enforcement of existing formal rules has helped to create campus climates in which it is clear that sexual violence is not tolerated, and in which victims are encouraged to come forward and report crimes because they can expect a quick, protective response. A change in federal policy will bring about a corresponding and equally important change in informal institutions, sending a chill over campuses that have only recently begun to work in earnest against campus sexual assaults.

Existing Legislation

Title IX is one of three major pieces of legislation concerning sexual violence on campus. This legislation requires campuses to report and investigate cases of sexual violence and requires that campus authorities trained on issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and internal institutional hearing processes carry out the investigations.

Title IX is well-known for requiring women’s sports to be funded equitably. As part of the law’s protection against discrimination resulting from acts of violence against women, Title IX also calls for regulating campus reactions to sexual assault. Since violence against women has a chilling effect on women’s participation in academics and other activities on campus, violence systematically keeps women from accessing education.  (It should be noted that not all sexual assault is heteronormative, but the vast majority appears to be, which provides us with a starting point for policy.) Title IX measures are clarified and enforced by the Department of Education, frequently in the form of Dear Colleague Letters (DCLs). DCLs are a quick way for the administration to convey clarification or modification of existing law. DCLs are elements of sexual assault prevention or enforcement easily modified within an administration or with an incoming different administration.

The most recent DCL germane to sexual assault and Title IX was issued in 2011, to clarify that in cases of alleged sexual assault, schools are to follow the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard in order to determine the accused’s responsibility. In other words, the accused will be considered responsible for sexual assault if evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the accusations are true.

While the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof is better known, that is the standard for determining guilt in criminal cases. The ‘preponderance of the evidence’ burden of proof is the standard for enforcing civil rights legislation as well as for issuing civil protective orders. Current Title IX regulations thus allow college campuses to proceed quickly to hearings that protect students in cases of sexual assault.  Further, the 2011 DCL specifies that, “If sexual violence has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects, whether or not the sexual violence is the subject of a criminal investigation.”

The second key piece of legislation is the Clery Act of 1992.  Clery calls for colleges to compile yearly public reports of crimes on campus (not just sexual violence), and to issue timely reports to the campus community when there is a continued threat to public safety. The Clery reporting process is mandated for all crimes reported to “Campus Security Authorities” or local police, and the campus adjudication, which may follow, takes place separately from any criminal proceedings.

Congress has revised the Clery Act various times, most recently in the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, first passed in 1994): the third key policy regulating campus responses to sexual assault. The 2013 re-authorized VAWA includes a specific section on college campuses called the Campus SaVE Act (Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act), which, among other things, adds stalking to the list of Clery-reportable crimes.   Public policy has thus been carefully crafted to facilitate formal institutional reporting processes, and to make crime information public and accessible.


Formal and Informal Institutions

There are both formal and informal mechanisms at work in institutional responses to sexual assault on US college campuses. As economist Douglass North has defined them, formal institutions are “rules that human beings devise” (North 1990, 4). In this case, they are comprised of the government legislation and regulations regarding sexual assault on campus based on the legislation described above. On the other hand, informal institutions are “conventions and codes of behavior” (North 1990, 4). With regard to campus rape, informal institutions are those social norms and attitudes that impact key factors in campus responses: the victim’s decision to report or not report; the typically gendered perspectives on victims and perpetrators (specifically, campus officials’ reactions to reports and how these are colored by perceptions of who rapists (in most cases, men) and victims (in most cases, women) are; and the rape myths that are part of rape culture prevalent society-wide. Changes in culturally derived informal institutions will typically lag behind changes in formal institutions, creating an inefficient tension between the two (North 1990, 54).

Such tensions are evident between the formal institutions facilitating reporting of sexual assault, and the informal institutional practice of under-reporting these crimes. Under-reporting of rapes and sexual assaults ranges from 95% on college campuses to 65% nation-wide. Yet, under-reporting does not get as much popular attention as false reports do. Indeed, there is much hand-wringing over the phenomenon of false accusation, even though it is really quite rare.  Studies on false reporting of rape indicate rates ranging from 2% to 13.7%, with a couple of outliers at 41% and 45%. False accusations (where specific perpetrators are named) are especially harmful of course, and these are a small subset of false reports. Despite the infrequency of false reports and accusations, vivid accounts capture media attention. The Duke lacrosse case, for instance, is often referenced in discussions of campus sexual assault. Class differences, which often but do not always overlap with race differences, further complicate perceptions of perpetrators.

Because of enduring stereotypes of rapists as visibly disturbed strangers who leave obvious physical injuries on their victims, campus communities are often reluctant to view college students as assailants. Yet there are key commonalities between rapists who are incarcerated as a result of conviction, and rapists who are undetected by the criminal justice system and never brought to justice.

According to the ‘predator theory’ in psychology, each set of assailants tends to be repeat offenders. These aggressors usually brag about overpowering women, they typically assault acquaintances, and they often leave no clear physical injuries. Despite the actual similarities in criminal behavior between rapists who are caught and those who are not, general desires to avoid falsely accusing alleged assailants who do not conform to society’s image of how criminals look further complicates Title IX enforcement.

Also important for our consideration are systematic informal institutions of bias, typically gendered, against the accusers. Men are excused for sexual aggression because they are drunk, for instance, while women get less sympathy for an assault if they have been drinking. Instead, women are often assessed as being irresponsible for ‘allowing’ assault to take place.

Rape myths and gendered biases are part of the rape culture that surrounds us. Rape culture presents violence as sexy, and sex as violent, thus providing a permissive social context for sexual violence.  Indeed, sexual violence is a reflection of the intersection of gender inequity and violence in society. Much of this violence is heteronormative and disproportionately victimizes women, although the sexism inherent in sexual assault is connected to other forms of oppression including homo- and trans-phobia.

In the end, both formal and informal institutions need to be utilized in the fight against sexual violence on campus.

While I have focused on the challenges presented by informal institutions that educational leadership will have to take into account, each of these challenges has its corresponding opportunity: informal institutions, like culture itself, are ultimately malleable. If the incoming administration shifts the focus to the rights of the accused, by limiting the response of campus sexual assault to the criminal justice system as suggested, this also limits on-campus victim protection options. All of this is likely to bring on a corresponding shift in cultural norms where victims are even less likely to report incidents of sexual assault, and campus communities are even less likely to take sexual assault seriously.

– Anne Marie Choup, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Alabama in Huntsville

Photo by Wolfram Burner

Betsy DeVos, Focus on the Family, and our Public Schools

From 1998 to 2010, Betsy DeVos and her family’s foundations donated millions dollars to Focus on the Family. A decade earlier, she and her parents gave the organization funds to launch its political lobbying firm, the Family Research Council. Their donations helped transform Focus on the Family from a small organization centered on James Dobson’s conservative Christian parenting books into a multimedia empire with syndicated radio broadcasts, a publishing house, and an extensive online presence that promotes and echo-chambers its conservative Christian worldview. The immense investments in Focus by DeVos and her family reveal her deep connection to the ideals of the organization and to Dobson himself, who was its CEO until 2009. When DeVos states, “If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child . . . we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative,” we should not assume that she agrees with most educators on the definition of what constitutes a “great public school” or an “unsafe” one.

Due to her financial support of Focus on the Family, it is reasonable to believe that her priorities align closely with Dobson’s. A closer look at Dobson’s public efforts to bring conservative Christian perspectives into the public conversation about schools will make the differences in these pivotal definitions more apparent.

Beginning in 1970, with his bestselling childrearing book Dare to Discipline, Dobson has attempted to transform the American family and the American school system from one centered on children and multicultural pluralism to one centered on his conservative understanding of biblical truth. His ultimate goal for students is not to increase their critical thinking skills but to ensure that they can achieve salvation and help bring the nation closer to his theological ideal. Dobson includes chapters such as “Discipline in the Classroom” and “The Barriers to Learning,” criticizing the consequences of an education system centered on societal rather than divine goals.

This book was written during the era of ongoing racial desegregation and protest, but he addresses these questions obliquely by highlighting the consequences of permissive leadership in public schools. Dobson, for instance, linked the Supreme Court’s rulings that removed religious devotion in the schools to an increase in disciplinary problems.

He seeks to redress this by advocating that teachers enforce their authority. In Dobson’s view, teachers, like parents, teach through role modeling:  teachers must embody their divine role as leaders to whom children must submit while also teaching curricula that reflects God’s Truth—a truth that must be embodied but never questioned.

Focus supported Christians attending public schools through the 1990s, even as these schools were embracing pluralism and representing their diversifying student body in their curricula. Dobson and Focus argued that public schools gave Christian students and teachers an opportunity to influence liberal Christians and non-Christians through words and actions. They pushed these public-school missionaries to advocate for a curriculum that reflected their values. The appropriate curriculum for Dobson was the narrative that he learned in school in the 1950s and 60s: histories of triumphant white Christian men modeling leadership qualities as they built an exceptional nation of founded on democracy, economic strength, and military might.

In 2002, however, Dobson called for parents to remove their children from public schools after students in one California district attended a play that included the lines “I’m gay and that’s okay.”

In representing the Christians parents’ perspective, Dobson emphasized that the school had ignored the Christian students’ (eternal) safety in favor of the (immediate) safety of others. The school, he argued, had put the children at risk of imitating the attitudes of their teachers, actors in these dramas, and friends who were no longer forced to hide their sexuality. Such imitations of any non-heterosexual conduct, Focus has long taught, disobeyed God by rejecting divinely-ordained conventional gender roles. With the risk of damnation looming and efforts at reform failing, Dobson urged parents to do what he did in 1973 when the American Psychological Association voted to depathologize homosexuality–drop out in protest to promote Christian alternatives.

During the many decades that DeVos family has financially supported Focus, the organization has shared its vision with Betsy DeVos and other supporters of what constitutes a great school:

great schools center around a singular narrative of America driven by the stories of great (white Christian) men; great schools teach curricula and employ teachers who act as “safe” heterosexual role models for students; and great schools teach children to submit to adults rather than challenge them.

Unsafe schools do the opposite, teaching critical thinking, multiple truths, and modeling a variety of ways to be ethical men, women, and transgender citizens.


— Susan B. Ridgely is associate professor of American religion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Practicing what the Doctor Preached: At Home with Focus on the Family (Oxford, 2016).

Photo by Matthew

Gender Bias in Policing: Will Sessions Continue Progress?

On January 12, 2017, the United States Department of Justice and the City of Baltimore adopted a settlement agreement, known as a consent decree, governing changes to policing in Baltimore.  On February 2, 2017, representatives from the Department of Justice and Baltimore City officials assured U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar that they remain committed to enforcing that agreement.  But will Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions commit to the consent decree’s enforcement?

The consent decree was the culmination of a Department of Justice investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department, an investigation triggered by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April 2015 and the uprisings that followed.

The investigation was wide-ranging, looking not just at police misuse of force, but a number of other deficits in policing alleged by the citizens of Baltimore.  Included in those complaints was the contention that Baltimore City Police engaged in gender biased policing.

The Department of Justice ultimately found evidence of gender bias in the Baltimore City Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases: in the treatment of victims of sexual assault, particularly transgender victims, and in the failure to adequately investigate reports of sexual assault, including the failure to routinely request testing of rape kits.

In December 2015, the Department of Justice issued guidelines to help law enforcement identify and prevent gender bias when responding to sexual assault and domestic violence.  The guidelines suggest that police departments provide:

  • training and review and revise policies to ensure that police gather evidence in an unbiased manner;
  • that police treat victims with respect and conduct interviews in a manner that encourages victims to participate;
  • that police investigate sexual assault and domestic violence claims thoroughly and effectively and appropriately classify reports of sexual assault and domestic violence;
  • that police departments collect and use data regarding sexual assault and domestic violence to inform their policing;
  • and that police departments hold officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable for their actions.

The Department of Justice has investigated gender biased policing in a number of police departments.  In Puerto Rico, the Department of Justice found that police officers who committed intimate partner violence were permitted to continue to work, in some cases despite multiple arrests.  The Department of Justice found that sexual assault cases were routinely mishandled in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Missoula, Montana, and entered into consent decrees in each of those jurisdictions which required police to adopt policies and practices based on the guidelines.

Similarly, the Baltimore consent decree requires that the police adopt a trauma-informed, victim-centered, multi-disciplinary response to sexual assault cases, including training for detectives, thorough investigation of reports of sexual assault, and enhanced data collection, analysis and reporting.

Senator Session’s views on sexual assault became the subject of public scrutiny when Sessions told a reporter that although President Donald Trump’s boast about grabbing women’s genitals without consent involved “improper language,” Sessions would not characterize such actions as sexual assault, calling the characterization “a stretch.”  In his confirmation hearings, however, Sessions told Senator Patrick Leahy that such an act would “clearly” be sexual assault.  At best, there is reason to be concerned about Sessions’ understanding of sexual assault and his willingness to commit the Department of Justice to continued monitoring of police handling of such claims.  Moreover, Sessions has been noncommittal about his willingness to support legislation addressing violence against women.  Sessions voted against the 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act and stated that he would defend the Act only if he considered it “reasonably defensible” during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Moreover, according to media reports, Senator Sessions has been critical of consent decrees like the one entered in Baltimore.  In his confirmation hearings, Senator Sessions would not commit to continued enforcement of the consent decrees if police show improvement short of full compliance.

President Trump is reported to have been “taken aback by the waste of money” required by federal monitoring of consent decrees.  Police unions in some cities (although not currently in Baltimore) are eager to renegotiate the consent decrees and believe that those efforts will be well-received by the Department of Justice under Sessions (although modification of the decrees would ultimately require approval from the federal courts overseeing them).

All of this raises concerns about Senator Sessions’ commitment to improving the quality of policing in cases of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.  There is reason to wonder whether the Department of Justice will continue to investigate and seek to remedy gender biased policing under the current administration.  Victims of sexual assault in Baltimore will simply have to wait and see whether the Department of Justice continues to push for needed police reforms.

– Leigh Goodmark, Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Federal Block Grants Are Not Budget Neutral

Although President Trump has not yet proposed any specific policy plans regarding American safety net programs, he will need to build a collaborative, if not intentional, relationship with leading Republican officials such as House Speaker Paul Ryan in this policy area. Speaker Ryan’s signature interest focuses on safety net spending reform, and his 2014 Poverty Plan and his 2016 Better Way plan call for the creation of block grants: a strategy of welfare reform that we have significant experience with dating back to the 1960s. This history tells us that block grants are not budget neutral; people of color and those with low to moderate incomes are likely to be disproportionately negatively affected by block grants, and within these groups, those most affected will be single women-headed households with children.

Under a block grants system, each state would essentially receive a lump of federal money from which they can determine the distribution of funds among the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), child care, housing assistance, and many other programs, thus ensuring that states control programmatic outcomes.

Federal block grants were first used by democrats in the 1960s and later extended by Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s. The Nixon administration used this tactic to consolidate hundreds of War on Poverty programs into a few block grant programs.

Many of the programs that were consolidated targeted low-income communities and people of color living in impoverished areas. During the War on Poverty, these communities were for the first time empowered to participate in the creation and dissemination of federal program resources,  participation that was rolled-back with the introduction of block grants.

 The Nixon rhetoric is uncannily similar to President Elect Donald Trump’s campaign theme  ‘Make Our Country Safe Again’. The Nixon administration proclaimed that the “War on Poverty” was over and that the era of “law and order” had arrived, which meant a shift in tactics to policing the poor, rather than empowering them. Through the transition to block grants, Nixon was able to defund many of the war on poverty programs.

The Nixon administration consolidated a large amount of federal funding into a pool for states to control and in the process evaded the politics of citizen participation, which was so essential to the war on poverty programs.

This dismantling forced many local officials, residents, and state employees to face their ideological opponents and “duke it out” over resources, programmatic visions, and outcomes that local residents –those most impacted– had once defined and implemented. In some cases, these state-level disputes resulted in denial of funds to local governments, forcing some, like Hennepin County Minnesota, to drain its own resources to keep open clinics like Pilot City now known as the NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center that were formerly funded by the federal government. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration went even further and consolidated the remaining programs into another set of block grants, which provided even less funds for once robust programs.

Block grants aim to reduce federal control over local government and provide fewer federal restrictions and less monitoring and oversight than the previous federal urban renewal programs. The previous federal programs had deemed monitoring essential to ensure equity in access to resources following histories of denial of federal entitlements to some groups. Ultimately, the block grant approach asked states to provide the same services with less funds and forced cities to rely more heavily on private funds, bonds, and other creative growth models for their urban regeneration efforts.

Today, as localities aim to reverse trends of unemployment and disinvestment in central cities caused by developers expanding their focus on the suburbs, the new metropolis is too often compelled to place its fiscal fruition above the needs of its most vulnerable populations. Cities have moved away from asking those most affected what they need and instead are focused on narrow fiscal concerns, spurred by tight budgets.

Like block grants of the past, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans will exacerbate this trend by not only providing less funds for entitlement programs and providing fewer services, but will also continue this tradition of denying those most affected by poverty their right to participate in how these resources are distributed and what outcomes are most important.

As co-curator of the Economic Security page, I am interested in interrogating how the 115th Congress’ economic policy agenda will impact the country’s most vulnerable populations and their access to the services they need to survive or move into fiscal stability. I am also interested in the ideological frameworks that our local and national leaders use to justify “access” and who “deserves” economic resources and how these may be code for worth, value, and the right to participate in your own economic fruition. Block grants are just one of many potential policy proposals we will be following on this page.

– Dr. Brittany Lewis, Research Associate, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota

Photo from the Jack Rottier Collection

New President, Old Anti-Abortion Policy

Continuing Contradictions in US Global “Family Planning” Policies

On his third day in office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that prohibits reproductive health NGOs that receive US family planning assistance from providing abortion services, information, or referrals, or participating in advocacy to liberalize abortion laws. Since its introduction by President Reagan’s administration in 1984 at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Mexico City, this policy been reinstated by Republican presidents (George H. Bush and George W. Bush) and rescinded by Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). In other words, it represents a way of signaling, during the earliest days of each new administration, the government’s stance on global and domestic abortion politics.

Organizations that receive US family planning assistance are required to certify in writing that they will not use their own funds to engage in abortion-related activities and services prohibited by the policy. Reproductive health advocates have dubbed President Reagan’s 1984 Mexico City Policy “the Global Gag Rule” for its silencing effect on abortion research, services, and advocacy by international NGOs.  Despite the policy’s goal to reduce abortion, evidence suggests that declines in abortion rates have stalled in developing countries.   The anti-abortion stance of the 1984 Mexico City Policy belies an earlier interest on the part of the US government in deploying abortion as a mechanism of population control in developing countries.  Until the early 1970s, the US government significantly invested in the research, development, and global distribution of not only contraception but also abortion technologies.

The current iteration of the “Global Gag Rule” in many ways represents the culmination of a long history of the US government’s involvement in the field of global population and development, in which domestic debates about women’s access to abortion and contraception have been inextricably intertwined with foreign policy related to reproductive health.

By the mid-1950s, to respond to the perceived problem of overpopulation in developing countries, population experts in the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Population Council, and Pathfinder International were actively engaged in global family planning programming and research.  In contrast, US foreign policy remained silent on the issue of population until the mid-1960s.  In 1965, the same year that the US Supreme Court legalized contraceptive use for married couples in its Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, President Lyndon B. Johnson characterized population control as a matter of national security in his State of the Union address.  As countries decolonized in the global South, US policymakers grew increasingly concerned that the strain on resources caused by overpopulation in newly sovereign nations would render them sympathetic to socialism.  By the late 1960s, the USAID had officially incorporated family planning into development aid and was actively funneling money to organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) that provided family planning services in developing countries.

During the early 1970s, the Office of Population of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the manufacture and distribution of a syringe technology now known as the Manual Vacuum Aspiration (MVA) syringe. In 1973, the same year that the US Supreme Court legalized abortion upon request for American women, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibited the “promotion of abortion as a form of family planning.”

Under the Helms Amendment, federal funds could not be used to procure abortion services, drugs, or devices.  It signaled the growing influence of a domestic anti-abortion movement, galvanized by Roe v. Wade, that aimed to curb the application of federal funds to abortions at home and abroad.

In response to these new restrictions, the USAID delegated the manufacture and distribution of the MVA device to NGOs such as the International Pregnancy Advisory Service (now known as Ipas).  By 1978 approximately 175,000 MVA devices had been distributed to developing countries through Ipas, IPPF and the International Research Fertility Program (IRFP) for the purpose of menstrual regulation, a euphemism for abortion [1-3].

Despite the USAID’s continuing commitment to family planning as an essential development strategy, President Reagan introduced increasingly anti-abortion policies into foreign development plans during the early 1980s. The USAID continued to donate contraceptives and support family planning training for health workers, but stopped funding biomedical research on abortion and training of medical providers in abortion techniques. Additionally, the USAID began to promote natural family planning methods such as the fertility awareness method, also known as the rhythm or calendar method.

In 1984, the US delegation to the United Nations Population and Development conference in Mexico City unveiled the Reagan administration’s population policy.  While the US had taken a strong “population control” stance since the mid-1960s, at this conference the US no longer perceived high fertility as an impediment to economic development.  Instead, US delegates identified neoliberal reform as the solution to underdevelopment. Within the health sector, this meant scaling back state investments in primary health care recommended by the Alma Ata Declaration of 1978 and increasing user fees for health services.

Although the US reaffirmed its commitment to family planning in the Mexico City Policy, it categorically precluded funding for abortion services, referral or counseling, even in countries where abortion was legal. Additionally, in contrast to previous USAID language on contraceptive use as a matter of voluntarism and informed choice among women and couples, the 1984 policy framed contraception in terms of “preserving maternal and child health” and “meeting the interests of families” [3].

In other words, this policy prioritized access to contraception for mothers as a matter of family health rather than women’s sexual and reproductive health and choice.

In 1985, under the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, the Reagan administration withdrew funding from UNFPA because of its alleged involvement in enforcing China’s One Child Policy through “coercive abortion and forced sterilization.” US funding was restored to UNFPA in 2009 under the Obama administration. Some groups interpret Trump’s Executive Order as once again defunding UNFPA.

Not surprisingly, the 1984 Mexico City Policy did not achieve its goal of reducing abortion in countries receiving US aid.  To the contrary, evidence suggests that in response to family planning service cutbacks and clinic closures among NGOs affected by the policy, undesired pregnancies and abortions increased in these countries. A 2011 study of 20 African countries shows that the odds of abortion more than doubled during periods when the policy was in effect [4]. In Ghana, abortion increased among low-income and rural women and child health outcomes declined under the policy [5].

The US is one of the most generous donors of global family planning assistance, providing up to $575 million in 40 countries [6].

The Mexico City Policy hinders the USAID’s ability to donate contraceptives and support health providers in developing countries where access to family planning is key to preventing unwanted pregnancy and reducing maternal mortality.  Additionally, it infringes on the sovereignty of national health authorities to address public health matters as they see fit [7].

In Nepal, for example, complications of unsafe abortion account for up to 50% of maternal mortality.  In 2002, the government legalized abortion to address the public health problem of unsafe abortion. When the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN), the country’s largest family planning provider, refused to comply with the Mexico City Policy, it lost up to $400,000 worth of contraceptives donated by the USAID. To continue operations in its national network of clinics, FPAN had to introduce user fees and lay off health workers.  Given that FPAN provides between 25 to 30% of Nepal’s reproductive health services, including contraception, infertility diagnosis and treatment, gynecological exams, and legal abortion, the Global Gag Rule directly restricts Nepalese women’s access to reproductive health care [8].

When President George W. Bush reinstated the Mexico City Policy in 2001, he exempted various services, programs, and institutions, including post-abortion care (emergency treatment for abortion complications), hospitals, governments, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  The 2017 policy makes no such exceptions and goes even further by extending to all organizations receiving US global health assistance, which totals approximately $9 billion in 60 countries [6].  Under President Trump, the Mexico City Policy could potentially threaten the ability of NGOs, governments, and hospitals in developing countries to treat life-threatening complications of abortion and diagnose and treat infectious disease such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, Zika, and Ebola.

There is no fiscal, geopolitical, or public health rationale for the “Global Gag Rule.”  The 1973 Helms Amendment already prevents the application of US tax dollars towards abortion-related services or devices abroad.

It has not contributed to declines in abortion in countries that receive US family planning assistance. In fact, while abortion rates have declined significantly in developed countries since 1990, they remain the same in much of the developing world [9].  The aim of the “Global Gag Rule” is simple: to restrict women’s reproductive autonomy.  In this sense, ironically, it echoes rather than disrupts the population control logics of the Cold War era.  The Mexico City Policy has simply shifted, and in its latest iteration, expanded the mechanisms through which women’s bodies are controlled.

—  Siri Suh, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies/Institute for Global Studies,University of Minnesota

Photo Credit: PBS News Hour


  1. Kulczycki, A., The abortion debate in the world arena. 1999: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Murphy, M., Seizing the means of reproduction: Entanglements of feminism, health, and technoscience. 2012, Durham, NC.: Duke University Press.
  3. Dixon-Mueller, R., Population policy & women’s rights: Transforming reproductive choice. 1993: Praeger Publishers.
  4. Bendavid, E., P. Avila, and G. Miller, United States aid policy and induced abortion in sub-Saharan Africa. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2011. 89(12): p. 873-880c.
  5. Jones, K., Evaluating the Mexico City Policy: How US foreign policy affects fertility outcomes and child health in Ghana. 2011, International Food Policy Research Institute: Washington, DC.
  6. Lederer, E., Trump expands anti-abortion ban to all US global health aid, ABC News. January 24, 2017.
  7. Cohen, S.A., Abortion politics and US population aid: coping with a complex new law. International Family Planning Perspectives, 2000. 26(3): p. 137-145.
  8. PAI, Access denied: The impact of the Global Gag Rule in Nepal. 2006, Population Action International.
  9. Sedgh, G., et al., Abortion incidence between 1990 and 2014: global, regional, and subregional levels and trends. The Lancet, 2016. 388(10041): p. 258-267.

Defending Human Rights in an Era of Retrogression

Monitoring international human rights protections for gender equality

Given the misogynistic tenor of the discourse used by the President throughout his campaign, as well as the trend toward repudiating established supranational spaces, many of us are justifiably concerned about the roll-back of the legal and policy advances that we have won in the global arena over the past three decades in terms of women’s human rights and gender equality.

In this section of the Report we will be watching how U.S. federal laws, policy, and diplomacy under the Trump administration will interact with various international systems related to the protection and promotion of human rights and gender equality and the direct and indirect impact on human rights on the ground.

Working with a diverse set of collaborators, we will seek to document and analyze how the actions of the administration of the 45th President and the 115th Congress directly and indirectly impact the human rights protections for particular groups and individuals, with a focus on gender. In the face of anticipated challenges, we will also explore how advocates might leverage the international law, fora, and mechanisms to resist rollbacks in U.S. policy and practice, to uphold human rights in challenging circumstances, and to further gender equality at home and abroad.

The international human rights framework is cross-cutting and relevant for monitoring the developments at home and abroad for each one of the policy areas of the Gender Policy Report. We will make a special effort to highlight the connections between international human rights and the monitoring and analysis in other parts of the Gender Policy Report.

Beijing as a benchmark

To measure the United States’ potential regressions in terms of international protections for women’s human rights and gender equality, we propose to use the Beijing Platform for Action as a set of benchmarks.

This agenda was the hard-fought outcome of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women and remains a relevant, forward-looking global policy consensus about the importance of gender equality and the barriers which must be overcome to realize women’s human rights. It is an agreed-upon set of standards and commitments against which we have been measuring the actions of all governments for the past 20 years.

The Beijing Platform is a useful analytical and organizing tool because  it organizes a review grounded in the international human rights framework and covering a broad range of areas key to gender equality—including peace and security, the environment, poverty and economics, and empowerment.

The twelve critical areas of the Beijing Platform are:

  • Women and the environment
  • Women in power and decision-making
  • The girl child
  • Women and the economy
  • Women and poverty
  • Violence against women
  • Human rights of women
  • Education and training of women
  • Institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women
  • Women and health
  • Women and the media
  • Women and armed conflict

In 2015 the U.S. government submitted an extensive summary and self-assessment report of its implementation of the Beijing Platform, including its domestic efforts to guarantee women’s rights (useful to many of the other sections of the Gender Policy Report), as well as its efforts to promote women’s human rights and gender equality abroad—our focus in this Section. This document, as well as activist and academic complements, serve as a useful starting point with which to monitor advances and retreats in U.S. law, policy, and practice.

Inquiries driving this human-rights monitoring initiative

The central questions that rise to the fore for the curators of this Human Rights Section of the Report are to what lengths will this new Administration go in trying to negate women’s international human rights, and what will be the durability of existing human rights laws and procedures in pushing back against those efforts? We will pay close attention to the diplomatic dance (or struggle) that shapes the Administration’s human rights policies before international institutions, especially regarding gender. So, for instance, if the most powerful government in the world seeks to roll back reproductive rights or gender equality in the global arena, what will be the efficacy of international legal and advocacy tools in pushing back?

Institutionally, we will monitor any key changes in U.S. institutions and personnel that would signal the undermining of international protections for women’s human rights and gender equality around the world: for instance, will the current office of the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues be eliminated? Who will assume the diplomatic appointments to key United Nations human rights fora?  Will the new Administration cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms, including treaty body reviews and invitations to U.N. special procedures? What will be the discourse promoted by the Trump Administration on the twelve critical areas of concern? How will the U.S. engage with the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda at the UN, including Security Council Resolution 1325 and the six subsequent WPS resolutions?

We will aim to flesh out the direct and indirect impacts of potentially retrogressive U.S. foreign policies on the security and human rights of women and LGBT persons, near and far. And finally, we will convey inspiring and innovative approaches leveraging the international systems to defend human rights and security, and to promote gender equality in the coming years.

We welcome guest observers, practitioners, and researchers to share their stories and insights. Through the lens of our collective experiences, we will monitor US policy in relation to the diverse international systems and fora dedicated to the protection and promotion of global human rights.

We look forward to your stories and collaboration to defend and promote internationally guaranteed human rights, including dignity, fairness and equality for all persons, regardless of their gender.

Barbara A. Frey, J.D., Director, Human Rights Program
Amanda Lyons, J.D., Executive Director, Human Rights Center

Photo by Milton Grant