Infrastructure investment, design and gender-based violence

By Dr. Anu Ramaswami | February 9, 2017

The Democrats, Republicans, and the White House are in the midst of hashing out a large scale infrastructure bill in the coming weeks and months. Aside from addressing the maintenance needs of much of the United States, infrastructure spending is billed as a way to boost jobs, and stimulate the economy. President Trump has also called cities dangerous war zones throughout the campaign and since taking office – a claim that has been challenged.  While he has not focused in his statements on violence against women within urban areas, it is possible that his proposed new infrastructure spending could be an opportunity to address gender-based violence and some of its affects.

In a 2016 interview, Dr. Anu Ramaswami, Director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota pointed out that cities are not gender neutral, and that very little is known about how safe women feel or best practices for incorporating safety from gender-based violence in public infrastructure projects.

‘So far, much of the study of women’s safety has focused on topics such as domestic violence, and relatively little is known about dangers to women in public spaces,’ said Anu Ramaswami. Now, efforts are increasing to figure out what makes certain areas feel insecure. For example, women will cross the street if one side has certain types of shops or businesses – from liquor stores to more off-putting establishments. ‘Cities are not gender-neutral,’ Ramaswami said. ‘We should think about how planners can help from a gender perspective and make sure that social services – the police, the judiciary, hospitals – are engineered while taking gender issues into account.’ Building Safer and More Inclusive Cities

Some consequences of women feeling unsafe in urban spaces include decreased employment and educational opportunities and more driving/less public transportation (both of which disproportionately affect low income women).  These conditions can be alleviated through thoughtful design in infrastructure planning, such as lighting, wait times, etc.   For example, Yingling Fan, Associate Professor in the Urban and Regional Planning area at the Humphrey School, found the “basic amenities including benches and shelters significantly reduce perceived waiting times. Women waiting for more than 10 minutes in surroundings perceived to be insecure, report waits as dramatically longer than they really are, and longer than do men in the same situation.”  Perceptions of longer wait times can decrease use of public transportation.

However, according to the World Bank the consideration of gender-based violence in infrastructure projects is growing.  “GBV [gender based violence] is increasingly brought into the design and implementation of large-scale projects, particularly in the transport, infrastructure, and urban development sectors. Incidents of GBV span the map of women’s daily movements—so a broad focus is needed in developing safe environments.”  The World Bank highlights two projects they funded – one in Brazil and another in Ecuador, where major transportation infrastructure projects were designed with safety for female users at the center.

What if US infrastructure projects included a similar requirement?  Given an administration that seeks to reduce regulations, this may be unlikely.  However, there may be other ways to work with the state and local governments implementing infrastructure projects to adopt a similar approach.  With a possible trillion dollar investment forthcoming, perhaps now is the time to figure those strategies out.

Dr. Anu Ramaswami, Director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

Implications of Repeal of the ACA for American Fertility

By June Carbone | January 27, 2017

In considering the potential impact of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and other actions that may affect women’s health, most of the discussion has appropriately been on the impact on individual women. Indeed, Texas demonstrates the risks. The state had operated a Medicaid financed family planning system that included funds for Planned Parenthood. In 2011, the state legislation cut family planning grants by 66%, and tried to redirect federal funds from Planned Parenthood to more general county-based programs. Although litigation initially prevented the switch, Texas eventually succeeded in replacing the federal funds with state money, and moving such funding away from family planning providers.

The result produced a shift in contraceptive use, and an increase in Medicaid funded childbirths.  Between 2010 and 2012, as these results were taking effect, the state’s maternal death rate doubled, though no thorough study has yet to determine the causes.

Less examined is the potential impact on overall American fertility. The United States is unusual among developed nations both in its high birth rate and its correspondingly high rate of unintended pregnancies. Until the Great Recession, overall American fertility had been at 2.1, that is, an average of 2.1 children per woman, just above replacement levels. Since the Great Recession, however, that rate has fallen to 1.86, a rate that resembles Northern Europe. The potential implications are complex and potentially far-reaching. On the one hand, lower overall fertility, particularly in developed countries, can lead to lower economic growth.  On the other hand, if the decline comes primarily from fewer unplanned births, it can lead to greater investment in children, and a narrowing of class-based disparities in the timing and number of children.  The decline in unplanned pregnancies also tends to increase women’s autonomy and to reduce the incidence and importance of abortion.

Three big stories underlie the change in overall fertility. First, is the bifurcated nature of American fertility. Between 1990 and 2008, the best off Americans saw their unintended pregnancy rates fall by half, while they increased substantially for poorer women; those trends reversed after 2008. Second, the effect has been particularly marked among Latinas. They have had the higher fertility rates than any other segment of the American population leading into the Great Recession. Since 2008, however, Latina fertility, particularly in what had been the peak childbearing years between the late teens and early twenties has fallen off a cliff, explaining half of the overall American fertility drop. Third, the consensus among the few studies to date is that the increased efficacy of contraception has played an important role in the drop in fertility. While rigorous studies have yet to be undertaken, the evidence suggests that increased access through the Affordable Care Act, which mandates contraceptive coverage as part of private health insurance coverage and expands access through Medicaid, is an important part of the explanation.

The Bifurcated Nature of American Fertility

According to the Guttmacher Institute, between 1981 and 2008, unintended pregnancy became a product of class. For the wealthiest part of the population, unplanned births fell in half at the same time they increased substantially for the poorest part of the population.  For the better off, the steady drop in unplanned pregnancies almost certainly reflected systematic use of contraception together with a small drop in sexual activity in the mid-teens. Better off teens have become more likely to use contraception before they begin sexual activity, and doctors (including Web M.D.) emphasize the advantages of the pill in controlling acne, regularizing menstrual periods, and alleviating cramps. Indeed, more than half of women who use the pill do so for reasons other than the prevention of pregnancy.  During that same period, poorer women received less (and often no) information about contraception compared to the better off, and restrictions on immigrant women’s access to contraceptive services increased.   Women without health insurance are thirty percent less likely to use prescription methods, which are more effective than the alternatives.

The Decline in the Latino Birth Rate

Since 2008, however, unintended pregnancies have declined for all groups, with the largest declines occurring among poorer women and Latinas.  “Between 2006 and 2013, the Hispanic birth rate plummeted 25 percent. By comparison, the rate for non-Hispanics declined just 5 percent—though the latter was already much lower.” For Americans generally, the biggest decline in births has been among younger women, and that has been particularly true for Latinas. During the 2006—13 period, Latina birth rates declined by 45 percent among 15- to 19-year-olds and by 34 percent in the 20-24 year-old age range. Together with the decline in immigration, this has slowed the growth in the Latino percentage of the overall population.

The Factors Producing the Declines

The precipitous decline in births, with Latinas accounting for 50% of the total American decline and even more for teens, reflects a combination of factors.  First, the decline in construction jobs, which have been particularly important for Latino men and which boomed during the housing bubble in the early 2000s, almost certainly played a role. Latinos constitute about a quarter of construction workers and were particularly hard hit during Great Recession.  Partly as a result, Latina women have been staying in school longer and delaying pregnancy. Second, foreign-born Hispanics indicate greater support for teen births than do those born in the United States. In 2009, a Pew Research Center study found, for instance, that while 69 percent of first-generation Hispanic teens called teen pregnancy a bad thing for society, 86 percent of Hispanic teens who are third-generation and higher gave that response. As immigration declines, a higher percentage of Latinos are American born, which may contribute to changing attitudes.

While the recession and changing immigration patterns accounts for some of the drop in fertility, however, it is not the entire story.  Since the onset of the Great Recession, poorer women have experienced the greatest drops in unplanned pregnancies – a reversal of the trends of the last quarter century. Colorado provides a particularly dramatic example.  Between 2009 and 2013, the state provided free access to IUDs and long acting hormonal implants to teens and poor women.  Birth rates for the group dropped by 40% (and abortion rates dropped by even more). Looking just at teen pregnancies between the ages of 15 and 19, which is the group with the greatest declines among Latinas, the largest factor appears to be a change in contraceptive use, with an increase in hormonal contraceptive use from 37% in 2006–2008 to 47% in 2008–2010 of sexually active teens nationally. There has been a similar change in increase in the use of long acting contraceptives generally, with large increases after adoption of the ACA, though the causal factors have not been established. What has been documented is the decline in costs: for women with private health insurance, the proportion who paid nothing out of pocket for birth control pills rose from 15% in 2012 — before the federal requirement took effect — to 67% in 2014 — after it was implemented.

In addition, while the Great Recession appears to have triggered the changing fertility patterns, the recovery has not produced more births to young women – the first three months of 2016 saw overall U.S. fertility rates fall to their lowest levels in recorded history, and between 2014 and 2016, the births to women under the age of twenty-five continued to fall.


Overall, greater use of contraception accounts for a large portion of the drops in unintended pregnancy, though individual state rates continue to vary substantially.  The Guttmacher Institute concludes that both more use of contraception and greater use of more effective forms of contraception contribute to the changes; Pew, looking at just teen births, attributes a greater role to more effective forms of contraception. The most effective forms of contraception require a prescription and can be expensive.  ACA mandates for their coverage make them accessible to a larger group of women, and Guttmacher ties at least some of the regional variations to insurance and Medicaid coverage.  The declines in unplanned pregnancies have had beneficial effects on families, including increasing the percentage of births within marriage for the first time in decades and reducing the percentage of births to teens.  Changes to the ACA mandate may reverse the recent trends, which have finally seen poorer women adopt some of the techniques that have long been available to better off women.

June Carbone, Professor and Robina Chair in Law, Science and Technology, University of Minnesota, School of Law

What’s to come for more gender-responsive climate policy?

Peder Garnaas-Halvorson & Gabriel Chan | January 16, 2017

Climate change and gender equality are fundamentally linked. The effects of climate change are, and will continue to be, disproportionately experienced by women. Climate vulnerability is not gender-neutral because women have higher levels of poverty, greater reliance on climate-vulnerable natural resources, fewer legal rights, less access to international institutions and finance, and often face more restrictive cultural norms.

But women also hold critical capacity to make the response to climate change more effective in agricultural production, household energy use, community management, natural-resource and biodiversity management, and education of children, among other channels (UNDP).

In recognition of this disproportionate impact and the important role of women in addressing climate change adaptation and mitigation, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other international bodies that engage in climate policy have begun processes to mainstream gender in their work. At the 20th UNFCCC conference in Lima, Peru, in 2015, the Lima Work Programme on Gender was established to increase both gender-responsive and gender-inclusive climate change policies.

Gender equality was also highlighted in the historic Paris Agreement ratified in November 2016, which acknowledged that countries “should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on … gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

The increasing recognition of the relationship between gender and climate change is reflected in the development of gender policies in many—but not all—multilateral climate funds. These funds represent a critical mechanism for developed countries to make the global response to climate change more equitable and are a critical component of developed country pledges to mobilize $100 billion to finance climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

Multilateral climate funds, including the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, the Clean Technology Fund, and the Global Environment Facility, have created requirements such as gender representation or the reporting of gender “co-benefits” in project proposals. These requirements help make multilateral climate funds an important intermediary step in translating gender-responsive climate policies into action.

Over the last eight years, the United States has become a leader in drawing attention to the linkages between gender equality and climate change through its international development policies and engagement with international bodies. The United States has deposited around USD 5.7 billion since 2003 to the multilateral climate funds (and has pledged to increase its support). Its historic support and future pledges makes the United States one of the largest donor countries (behind the UK and Norway) to the funds referenced above, and this commitment provides considerable support to climate projects under multilateral funds with specific gender policies.

Further, the United States has initiated gender-responsive climate policies through the State Department and USAID through new programs such as the Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities, Women in African Power, and the Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables.

In light of this progress in integrating gender equality and climate change response efforts, the incoming Trump Administration has denied the connection between human activity and climate change and has promised to withdraw the United States from international climate agreements. The incoming administration also appears likely to renege on the United States’ pledges for climate finance, which could decrease the global availability of finance under multilateral climate funds by 25%. In stepping back from engagement on climate change both politically and financially, the United States will be weakening many domestic and international institutions that work to address gender disparities in the context of climate change.

It remains to be seen whether President Trump will choose to be an active obstructionist or simply a passive isolationist when it comes to international climate policy. It is even more difficult to know exactly how the Trump Administration’s promises to renege on the United States’ climate change commitments will determine how these actions will affect gender-responsive climate action. However, if the United States pulls out of all United Nations climate agreements and fails to fulfill its financial pledges, the bodies currently working to address gender disparities in the context of climate change will lose one of their most effective advocates for making the linkage of gender and climate issues stronger.

Many questions remain to determine how actions of the Trump Administration will affect women around the world. Through the course of this initiative, we will monitor the new administration’s engagement with the international community in the hopes to better understand the complex relationships between gender-responsive climate policies at the level of international bodies, financial flows, and ultimate gender and climate outcomes at the local level.

-Peder Garnaas-Halvorson, MS-STEP Student, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
Gabriel Chan, Assistant Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

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