The Women, Peace and Security Agenda Under the Trump Administration: Undercutting Advances with a Return to Masculine Militarism

By Barbara Frey | September 27, 2017

President Trump’s bombastic first speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on September 19 is yet another signal that the current U.S. administration is much more focused on war than on peace.  Threats to “totally destroy North Korea” as well as the tossing aside of a nuanced Iran treaty like it was just a bad real estate deal are bad omens for stability, human rights, and respectful bilateral and multilateral negotiations.  Trump’s view of security is also a bad omen for women.

The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda focuses on women and armed conflict and is based on UN Security Resolution 1325 and the six related resolutions that stem from it.  The Agenda looks at impacts and special needs/protections for women, as well as the transformative power of including women in decision-making and conflict prevention, resolution, and post-conflict recovery.

At the international level, the UN is mandated to include WPS considerations in its activities across the board, such as increasing the role of female peacekeepers and decision-makers, focusing on women in post-conflict negotiations, ending impunity regarding crimes against women during conflict, and including women’s protections/needs in emergency response. A central tenet of WPS is that women need to have a central seat at the table in all facets of domestic and international security policymaking.

The Obama Administration issued the U.S.’s first National Action Plan on WPS in 2011, fully eleven years after the Sec. Res. 1325’s adoption. The goal of the plan claimed to be “as simple as it [was] profound: to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence and insecurity.”

The Obama Administration took some important steps toward embracing the more powerful aims of WPS, such as training the U.S.’s own foreign service staff on gender equality, and working multilaterally to strengthen peacekeepers’ capacity to protect civilians from gender-based violence.

Weapons, not women

The Trump Administration’s approach to the WPS Agenda seems to be one of neglect, characterized by indifference to women’s issues, incompetence in diplomacy, and an infatuation with all things military. President Trump’s shift away from diplomacy and toward militant rhetoric undoubtedly threatens the critical space for WPS. The lack of diplomatic personnel and policy direction on WPS has a withering effect. In Trump’s world, safeguarding women is the job of strong men.

Conscious of these regressive policies, many are pushing back against the (masculinized) militarization of global security, which could suggest that the “era of women,” of which the WPS agenda is part, has moved the agenda far enough to withstand this assault.  Women remain in key security positions in governments and international organizations, and finance-conscious leaders understand that human-centered security is far more sustainable than butting nuclear warheads.

The most immediate impacts on the U.S. commitment to the WPS agenda are likely to come from the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts in the aid budget and the Administration’s overall “we’re taking names” posture towards the UN.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for the Department of State and USAID— the main entities with a role in the WPS Agenda—not only directly targets programs that benefit WPS and women’s rights, but they make a clear statement that militarism and masculinities will once again be front-and-center.  For example, Trump has vowed to slash 30 percent of the budget for the State Department and USAID.  The budget request is almost completely silent on women. Instead the priorities are peppered with phrases like “defeating terrorism,” “improving cybersecurity,” and “strengthening economic imperatives.” So much for democratic values.

The Trump administration also highlights reductions in collaborative international efforts such as joint peacekeeping operations.  A particular target for State Department budget cuts are U.N. programs.  Ambassador Nikki Haley warned, “Anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with.”  UN Peacekeeping Operations were Haley’s first target.  The U.S. advocated a $1 billion reduction to the blue helmets’ $8 billion budget, but settled for a reduction of $600 million.  An exuberant Haley tweeted, “Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started.”  

The U.S. pays a quarter of the U.N. Peacekeeping budget, so we just saved ourselves $150 million (with an “m”) by cutting peacekeeping troops in the Ivory Coast and Sudan.  Just for comparison, the Trump Administration is proposing more than $600 billion (with a “b”) for our military.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Beyond the numbers, the Trump Administration has been sending signals on women and human rights through active steps to destroy the few institutions created to further these goals.  The position of U.S. Ambassador of the Office of Global Women’s Issues remains vacant, though WPS is, surprisingly, still listed as a priority on the Administration’s website and the Obama-era National Action Plan on WPS has not yet been erased (an oversight, perhaps?).  

Also threatened is the entire Office of Global Crimes, which is a key actor in accountability and prevention regarding rights violations against women and girls.  

In addition, there is a salient absence of the mention of women’s rights and WPS in the Administration’s rhetoric.  For example, in the compilation of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks online, not a single statement directly touches on women, girls, gender, or reproductive rights. Rather than attend himself, Tillerson sent an Undersecretary to join the First Lady, Melania Trump, to deliver the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards in March 2017. While actions speak louder than words, the absence of words in this case speaks volumes about the weight this Administration is giving to women’s issues, including WPS.

What rhetoric does exist involves areas where women and girls are categorized as vulnerable creatures, objects in need of protection, rather than as important actors in generating shifts in policy or culture. Human trafficking, for instance, remains in the list of diplomatic priorities.  As for women in the military, in addition to his ban on transgender service members, Trump stated that rape was a natural result of putting men and women together.  This new policy rhetoric threatens to undermine advances made in gender and military service and gender and human rights.

A Force to be Reckoned with, or a Fire Deprived of Oxygen?

It is, of course, important to remember that international policy does not rise and fall with just one man— or woman – and that some logical constituents of a stronger military do not support Trump’s policy directions.  For example, 121 retired generals wrote a letter to Congress in February 2017 voicing their concern about aid cuts as they directly relate to security concerns.  Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s proposal to cut the diplomacy and aid budget by one-third would “gut soft power” and “put a lot of people at risk.”

Indeed, many have commented on the consolidating power Trump’s election has had, particularly around women’s rights.  The Women’s Marches were the largest in the US since the Civil Rights movement, and there were more than 673 sister marches worldwide.  Not necessarily because of Trump, but perhaps more indicative of the rising force of the women’s movement in this era, feminist activism in Poland, across Latin America, and in Ireland and South Korea, are bringing women’s issues to the fore.  Thus, the era that brought about the WPS Agenda may have laid a strong foundation from which the rights movement can thrive, even in the face of a misogynistic Administration.  That said, a movement and agenda deprived of oxygen— in this case, political will and funding— will face a more challenging path forward.

Barbara Frey is the Director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Lindsey Greising is an independent immigration lawyer

Photo by UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Ambassador Nikki Haley: Walking the Tightrope on Human Rights

By Barbara A. Frey | May 15, 2017

One of our key inquiries on the subject of human rights in the Gender Policy Report is how the face of U.S. diplomacy will be transformed by the Trump Administration. Of particular interest are key changes in U.S. institutions and personnel, which signal a shift on international protections for human rights and gender equality around the world. This inquiry leads us to the most prominent female presence in foreign policy, Nikki Haley, confirmed by the Senate on January 24, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Many were surprised when President-elect Trump offered Governor Haley the U.N. position, since she had been a vocal critic of his during the campaign, and had no discernible foreign policy experience to bring to the position.

Prior to her appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley was the Republican Governor of South Carolina, the first person of color to be elected to that position and – in her words – the “first girl governor” as well. She gained widespread recognition for her independent leadership in removing the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol and her refusal to support a proposed “bathroom bill” aimed at the rights of transgendered persons.

In her first several months representing the U.S. at the U.N., Ambassador Haley has walked a tightrope, her steps designed to demonstrate skill and gravitas on foreign policy issues, to maintain meaningful alliances, project strength and independence, while not straying too far from the party line set by her D.C. bosses. This tightrope includes a balancing act with regard to human rights. So far, she has not fallen off.

Haley’s work at the United Nations

As U.N. Ambassador, Haley must work the halls every day, pushing for the priorities of the Trump Administration with the 192 other governments whose national interests sometimes coincide and sometimes conflict with the U.S.’s current priorities. She is the face of a nation that was instrumental to the U.N.’s founding and has shown support for its priorities in the areas of security and human rights. Yet Haley is also the emissary of an administration that is frequently hostile in its tone as well as its proposed financial decreases for the international organization. Haley has on occasion mimicked Trump’s approach, warning U.N. diplomats in her first U.N. statement, “For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names.” She has not hesitated to commodify the United Nations a la Trump, insisting the institution must become more “valuable” for its member governments — a justification (or threat) for the United States to cut support if its interests are not serviced satisfactorily.

Given her potential for higher public office, Ambassador Haley is eager to exhibit her leadership both globally and domestically.

She attracted significant attention, for example, by inviting other Security Council ambassadors to the White House, where she sat prominently next to the President as he addressed the group at a 90-minute lunch. In early April, Haley delivered a powerful condemnation in the Security Council of Syria’s chemical attack, personally displaying gruesome photos of children who died from the attack. During this speech, Haley heaped blame on the Russian Government as well, accusing them of “closing their eyes to the barbarity,” by blocking every diplomatic effort to sanction Syria for its war crimes.

These boundary-pushing actions by Ambassador Haley have produced a notable degree of friction with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the other face of U.S. foreign policy, causing Tillerson to flex his supervisory muscles by requiring Haley to seek approval from the State Department for all non-official policy statements she intended to make. This move by Tillerson may also point to underlying gender power dynamics.

A fatal embrace of human rights?

Further distinguishing herself from Foggy Bottom, Ambassador Haley has landed upon human rights to frame her approach to her work at the U.N. At the onset of her term as chair of the Security Council during the month of April, Haley announced “for me, human rights are at the heart of the mission of the United Nations,” and sponsored a special session for the Council on the topic.

Haley’s emphasis on human rights invited skepticism, especially given the Trump administration’s short but dangerous track record on human rights (see our previous post). Still, human rights concerns – focused narrowly on civil and political rights ­– have since the Carter era been an area for bipartisan cooperation, and may still have legs with American voters as well. Human rights advocates are indeed wary of Haley’s embrace of the human rights agenda at the Security Council, fearing it serves as cover for an effort to abolish the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body which the U.S. cannot control and which the Ambassador has described as “so corrupt.”

Thus far, Haley’s human rights agenda has worked largely in unison with the Administration’s security interests.

At the Security Council debate on human rights, for instance, Haley highlighted North Korea’s political prisoners and use of forced labor, as well as respect for Israel and protection of religious freedom. All of these issues fit neatly within well-trodden bipartisan human rights concerns. Syria was also a target of shame in her remarks, but Haley went further, robustly criticizing Russia’s role in the atrocities in Syria — way beyond the criticism offered by other Trump officials.

Haley’s agenda for women’s human rights

Women, unfortunately, do not seem to exist in Haley’s human rights landscape, except as victims of trafficking. Reproductive rights certainly have no place on her agenda. Haley did not push back against reinstatement of the global gag rule, but instead expressed full support for it in front of the U.S. Senate, where she testified, “I am strongly pro-life, so anything we can do to keep from having abortions, or to keep them from not knowing what is available, I will support.”  The “them” in this remark refers to millions of poor women with little access to reproductive health care.

Haley’s most visible role regarding global rights for women was when she chaired the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which included groups that oppose reproductive rights for women and support the criminalization of homosexuality.

Ultimately, Ambassador Nikki Haley is being viewed for her work at the U.N. through a predictably partisan lens. For some, she is a no-nonsense champion of U.S. human rights interests. For others, she represents the demise of the U.S.’s leadership on human rights. This seems to be the tightrope walk she enjoys.

Barbara A. Frey, Director, Human Rights Program, University of Minnesota

Henry Ziemer provided research assistance for this article. Photo by the United Nations

A Retreat from International Human Rights is not Gender-neutral

By Robin Skrebes, Amanda Lyons, Karen Brown, Barb Frey | May 8, 2017

In its first 100 days, the Trump administration’s “America First” rhetoric and actions have led to an increased focus on national security and a retreat from international institutions. In particular, these early days have been marked by disengagement from or attacks on international human rights systems that play a key role in the protection of women’s rights.

For all their shortcomings—including their own historic gender biases—international human rights norms and institutions provide an advocacy space for groups whose dignity, worth, agency, or security have been systematically undermined by state policy and practice. This has been especially true for the rights of women. We have observed retreats from human rights at home, from human rights in foreign policy, and from the spaces and practices designed to uphold women’s rights globally. Here, we highlight some of the human rights effects of the fledgling administration’s actions—and inactions.

Retreat from human rights at home

Trump administration policies have eroded human rights within the United States. For instance, just days after his inauguration, President Trump authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline to pass beneath Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, ignoring the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux regarding the threat to clean water for their indigenous community. Indigenous women are not backing down from this fight. They continue to lead their communities in struggles for land rights, cultural restoration, and environmental justice.

Early April saw another threat to existing human rights protections when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees adopted to decrease the discriminatory practices of U.S. police departments. When U.S. District Judge James Bredar upheld the consent decree between the Baltimore PD and the Justice Department, Sessions blasted the ruling, suggesting that the decree would “reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” But the Baltimore consent decree had resulted from a year-long DOJ investigation that found widespread racial bias, use of excessive force, repeated patterns of unconstitutional arrests, and hostility toward women and LGBT civilians. Rescinding the consent decree would be more likely to result in “a less safe city” for people of color, including women of color.

And the Trump travel ban drew widespread condemnation as a violation of human rights. Four UN Special Rapporteurs (along with other UN bodies) found that the Jan. 27, 2017 Executive Order “breaches the country’s international human rights obligations, which protect the principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination based on race, nationality or religion.”

The push to roll back health guarantees also runs contrary to established international human rights standards related to the right to health and the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and non-regression. We learned through a document leaked to Dana Milbink of the Washington Post that the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health sent a confidential urgent appeal to the Trump administration on the human rights implications of its various proposals to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, especially highlighting the disparate impact on people living in situations of poverty and social exclusion.

Disregard for human rights in foreign policy

An emerging foreign policy conveys a disregard for human rights standards in favor of “national security”. First, the Trump team has embraced Heads of States known for serious human rights violations while ignoring those issues, including those of Egypt, Pakistan, China, Russia, and most recently, the Philippines. In explaining his “very friendly conversation” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom he welcomed to the White House despite UN, EU, and U.S. condemnations of his brutality toward his own people, Trump suggested that the strategic and military importance of the Philippines in relation to North Korean aggressions outweighed other considerations. Incongruously, Trump also welcomed a meeting with “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s despotic leader. The strategic security interest of these moves remains questionable.

Bombing is another favored “security” tactic. An increase U.S.-led airstrikes has led to civilian casualties in Mosul, Syria, and Yemen. A January 30th airstrike in rural Yemen, for instance, killed approximately thirty, including ten women and children. The Trump administration has lowered the threshold for the CIA and the U.S. military to target identified terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.

Disengaging from international women’s human rights

Disengagement from international institutions that uphold human rights and a withdrawal from its leadership role on international women’s rights characterize the new face of U.S. human rights policy under President Trump. The Trump administration even threatened withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, before ultimately attending and promoting its particular priorities at the 34th session in Geneva in March. Another notable indication of a retreat from leadership on women’s rights (as we feared in our opening post for Gender Policy Report) came from a leaked budget suggesting that the administration plans to cut all funding for State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

While Ambassador Nikki Haley has asserted herself as the highest profile woman in the Administration—outside the Trump family circle—she apparently had too high a profile for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He recently reined her in, asking her to vet her public remarks.

The Administration also put some problematic new faces on the U.S. delegation to the 61st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, held in March at U.N. Headquarters in New York. Joining Ambassador Haley on the delegation were Lisa Correnti, Executive VP of C-Fam (the Center for Family & Human Rights), a group that opposes reproductive rights for women and supports the criminalization of homosexuality, and Grace Melton of the Heritage Foundation. According to Graeme Reid at Human Rights Watch, C-Fam is an “ardent supporter” of Russia’s propaganda law against LGBT persons. In fact, following the Commission, C-Fam went on to celebrate that the UN meeting was frustrated, that no final agreement was reached, and that the delegation from the Russian Federation shared their stance on sexual and LGBT rights.

On March 30, the Trump Administration cut all funding to the U.N. Population Fund for Women (UNFPA), a dramatic reduction that, according to U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin, “threatens the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those in crisis situations.” Women around the world rely on the UNFPA for reproductive health care, including contraceptives, support for the prevention of child marriage, and ending the practice of female genital mutilation.

Secretary of State Tillerson’s failure to show up for the public release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, mandated annually by Congress, underlined his disregard for human rights. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio was taken aback by this breach of precedent, remarking that he was “disappointed that the Secretary of State did not personally present the latest report.” When the U.S. failed to appear for its hearings before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reviewing the situation of the Dakota Access pipeline and the administration’s immigration restrictions, that, too, was unprecedented.


These examples demonstrate the Administration’s broad trend to disengage from or actively undermine international human rights standards—with women’s rights particularly hard-hit. In just 100 days, human rights have been tossed aside in favor of the appearance of military might. And with its retreat from international institutions and human rights norms both at home and abroad, the new Administration’s actions and omissions are dramatically diminishing protections for the human rights of women and LGBTI persons in favor of big talk, big guns, and big money.

Beyond the Wall

By Michelle Téllez | March 16, 2017

Since November there’s been an upsurge in local, national and international marches where protestors carry signs that read: “Build Bridges, Not Walls.” They are responding, of course, to the Trump Administration’s long-promised Border Wall.

And they are reiterating something scholars already know: even where there are border walls, creative community building, so often spear-headed by women, easily blurs boundaries.

The U.S.-Mexico border we know today was formed out of two moments, the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico (which designated the Rio Grande river as the official border separating Texas and from its southern neighbors) and the Gadsen Purchase, which, in 1853, established the rest of the dividing line. Not only a geographic boundary, the border became associated with a set of practices of inclusion and exclusion affecting those on both its sides.

Still, Mexicans were not immediately or irrevocably “othered” by the U.S. government.

Mexican workers provided necessary labor for U.S. manufacturers, both within the U.S. (where they worked as conquered labor, migrant labor, and as “guest workers”) and in Mexico (in maquiladora assembly plants). It took a 1970s-era recession to spur a stronger stance against Mexican immigration to the U.S., with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as Homeland Security) specifically citing such migrants as national security threats. Explaining economic problems as a consequence of unauthorized migration and employing the language of “invasion,” even then CIA director William Colby would claim that population growth south of the border would mean “120 million Mexicans” by the end of the century and a Border Patrol without “enough bullets to stop them.”

Similar fears are employed today, as the administration looks for ways to slash budgets so as to fund President Trump’s wall. Of course, there is already a border wall that crosses 653 miles of the 2,000-mile stretch separating Mexico and the U.S. Economists peg its cost at $7 billion, and estimate that Trump’s proposal will cost another $25 billion (excluding labor costs). No one is truly able to account for how this wall will be handled on privately owned land or in Texas, where the Rio Grande flows, but these details are cast aside. Natural obstructions haven’t stopped the Border Patrol before, after all—in the stretch of border between San Diego and Tijuana, for instance, the Surf Fence project granted $4.3 million on behalf of the Patrol to erect a barrier stretching 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean.

Goods and capital are freely allowed to cross; the border is designed to obstruct, control, and regulate the movement of people, of labor.

In heated rhetoric, U.S. citizens are told that border security is about violence, crime, economics, and the drug war. Women and children are victims (though not blameless ones) and border dwellers are simply collateral caught in sometimes-literal crossfire. Where statistics show a doubling in migrant deaths in the last 20 years, government spokespeople and media report on the “unintended consequences” of border militarization. From a human rights perspective, the wall and its construction have already violated international norms, including the rights of indigenous peoples, the right to private property, and the right to non-discrimination. This is all, it would seem, the collective cost of U.S. safety.

The reality is that 82 million people call the borderlands home. They survive, even flourish. And women are central agents, not victims, in this setting.

In my ongoing research just across the U.S. border in Maclovio Rojas, I have met women, like Hortensia Hernandez, who assume leadership roles to fight for community well-being and lead their neighbors in building their own schools, sports fields, and public services in an area where neither the U.S. nor Mexican government seems willing to help.

And in Tijuana, a majority-female workforce toils long hours for low wages in the factories of multinational corporations.

Women there have created cross-border alliances with activists in the U.S. to try to improve their working conditions. Their American counterparts show their support by, for example, protesting in front of the homes of factory owners who live in the U.S. Such transfronteriz@ organizing transforms “us versus them” divisions into a movement recognizing that we are all workers with entwined destinies.

The borderlands include both U.S. and Mexican territory, U.S. and Mexican citizens and nations of Indigenous peoples. They represent a site of resistance, conviviality, agency, and creative community building. This is a space in which transformative politics not only can but already does take place.

The health of both countries’ economies, so reliant on the cross-border construction and sale of goods, and the health and viability of borderlands communities will be immeasurably impacted whether the Trump Administration’s wall comes to fruition.

Politicians, corporate leaders, and borderlands residents must come together—like so many autos built with U.S. parts in Mexican factories—to fashion not only steel walls but also humane policies if the people and economies of both countries are to flourish.

Michelle Téllez, Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.

New President, Old Anti-Abortion Policy

By Siri Suh | February 2, 2017

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.

  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.

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

Photo Credit: PBS News Hour

Defending Human Rights in an Era of Retrogression

By Amanda Lyons and Barbara A. Frey | January 26, 2017

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:

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