The request from Donald Trump's transition team set off alarm bells within the small world of groups that promote global women's rights.
Trump’s team wanted details about the US State Department’s spending on gender equality, and names of people whose primary function was to promote gender issues.
“It wasn’t a benign request,” said Ambassador Cathy Russell, head of the Office of Global Women's Issues in Barack Obama's State Department, whose office fielded the request. "They were looking for the family planning money and the LGBT programming and spending."
She didn’t give them the information. Weeks later, President Trump signed an executive order cutting off US funding to global women’s health organizations worldwide if they counseled, referred or advocated for access to abortion.
Trump has also threatened to end funding for the UN and specifically the UN Population Fund, which provides contraceptives to tens of thousands of women in Africa and in some of the poorest regions of the globe. Some of his advisers have described US gender programs as “dangerous” and part of a “radical feminist agenda” that promotes prostitution, sexual promiscuity and breaks up families around the world.
All of this has rattled the tightly knit, yet influential world of women’s rights advocates in Washington, DC, many of whom worked closely with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state and considered her a champion of global women’s issues. Some among these groups accuse the current administration of showing little interest in advancing women’s rights — others fear something worse: a conspiracy-laden, anti-abortion-driven agenda to dismantle decades of work promoting women’s inclusion in national security, access to family planning and economic empowerment.
“Whoever the administration is talking to has a hobby horse and age-old commitments to oppose things like the rights of women,” says Melanne Verveer, former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and a former head of the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues. “It’s where that crowd comes from and they’ll flex their muscle now, but the degree to which, and the specifics of, I don’t know.”
On listservs and in planning meetings, women’s advocacy groups — most of whom have close ties to Clinton, are watching for any signs of who has the president's ear. Internally, they’re strategizing over whether they should quietly work behind the scenes, or campaign openly in opposition to any threats to funding for women’s issues.
In the two decades since the UN’s 1995 Beijing conference for women, billions of public and private dollars have gone toward advocating for and advancing issues that affect women globally, as well as the inclusion of women in typically male-dominated sectors, like defense and national security.
Supporters say this effort is bipartisan, research-backed and that promoting women rights internationally has demonstrated effectiveness in increasing global stability, reducing poverty in developing nations and fueling economic growth. Many nations now recognize including women and advancing women’s rights as integral parts of their foreign policy, including Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia and the Scandinavian countries.
However, some of Trump’s advisers include representatives of right-wing, religious organizations with a deeply suspicious view of the ascension of global women’s issues.
These include Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon, whose website Breitbart News has pushed out sexist, misogynistic content, and conservative Catholic groups like C-Fam, which is deeply critical of the current UN and the State Department's agenda on women, accusing it of forcing risky, untested birth control drugs onto women; ignoring child marriage and female genital mutilation in a single-minded focus on abortion and lesbian and gay rights.
“We are faithful Catholics,” explains Austin Ruse, C-Fam president. “We believe contraception is an inherent problem. And also leads to an increase in sexual promiscuity and also abortion. ... We also see inherent health problems with a lot of the contraception pushed by the United Nations, like Depo-Provera. We don’t give a blanket A-OK to contraception.”
Russell and others from the Obama/Clinton State Department call C-Fam’s claims ridiculous and unproven.
While Trump’s Cabinet has the fewest women since any administration in 40 years, Trump's own treatment of women raises serious questions. His derogatory comments about women’s bodies set off alarm bells during the campaign, and yet he has boasted of promoting women leaders inside his business. And there's his daughter, Ivanka, who inevitably comes up in any conversation about women’s issues. His daughter is considered progressive on women’s issues, and an outspoken advocate — yet it’s not clear how much influence she wields.
While many dismiss Vice President Mike Pence — who calls himself an "evangelical Catholic" and supports a total ban on abortion — as anti-woman, it’s not clear what position he takes on a host of other issues affecting women, whether he has a position at all.
President Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote and a record-high number of Catholic votes. Many of them celebrated Trump’s quick action against abortion — and say that they, in fact, are the true advocates for women’s issues.
“This is a vital step in the journey to make America great again,” Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said, using Trump's campaign slogan. “Recognizing and affirming the universal ideal that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, regardless of their age or nationality.”
While the administration’s anti-abortion stance is clear, the US government has little to do with access to abortion, and no US funding has ever gone directly to providing abortion services.
Since 2011, the State Department has earmarked between $1 and $2 billion annually for development issues specifically aimed at women, which represents less than 1 percent of the department’s development budget.
Under Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, efforts to promote women’s empowerment were increasingly streamlined through the department in an effort to have the status of women considered in all development programs. It may be difficult to undo that effort, proponents say.
Most of the US work on women’s issues focuses on topics like economic empowerment, literacy programs and increasing women’s presence in peace and security. Women make up fewer than 5 percent of police officers, soldiers and military leadership worldwide, and typically less than 5 percent of those present at reconciliation efforts to end conflict. Over the last decade, a growing body of research has sought to connect the empowerment of women to political stability and the reduction of conflict.
The increasing acceptance of this viewpoint has taken hold even inside male-dominated domains like the Pentagon.
Trump has said he intends to refocus the State Department on terrorism and away from development, which could mean a sharp shift away from funding of women’s issues — even though there is mounting research demonstrating a connection between improved women’s status and a decline in terrorism.
Ambassador Russell and others, however, see relatively positive signs in the appointment of Rex Tillerson, who has donated millions to support women's economic empowerment through Exxon Mobil’s charitable programs and others, as secretary of state. At his confirmation hearing, he voiced support “personally” for work on women and girls.
“When you empower women in these developing parts of the world, you change the future of the country because you change the cycle within that family,” he said.
In response to a series of statements and op-eds highlighting the need to continue funding and support for causes relating to women and girls, the Trump transition team declared “President-elect Trump will ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected.”
While that may generally be true, it would seem a line will be drawn at access to contraception.
Many are bracing for big cuts to US funding for the UN Population Fund and other organizations that fund and support family planning. The US is one of the largest donors to family planning and reproductive health services in the world, providing roughly $76 million annually to UNFPA, about 7 percent of its budget.
It’s also the largest purchaser of contraceptives in the world, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
UNFPA declined to speak to us, but agency head Babatunde Osotimehin told The Guardian he was “worried” about the Trump administration’s plans. Millions of women’s lives will be lost or impacted negatively by any funding cuts, he said.
Indeed, advocates for family planning have long pointed to research indicating that access to and use of effective contraception reduces unintended pregnancies and the incidence of abortion. They say approximately one-third of the annual 300,000 maternal deaths could be avoided if women who did not wish to become pregnant had access to and used effective contraception.
Research from the Guttmacher Insitute estimates that more than 225 million women do not wish to get pregnant but are using either no contraceptive method or a traditional method.
However, C-Fam challenges those figures, calling them “phony.” C-Fam also wants UNFPA “shut down,” and for any US funds for women to be shifted toward maternal and child health, clean water, safe sanitation and child care.
“We believe that family sizes are generally determined in this world not by the prevalence of contraception, but by the desire of the woman for a particular family size,” Ruse says. “Women around the world pretty much know about contraception and have access to it. So spending yet another $9 billion a year on UN-style family planning is a waste of money.”
Exactly how prevalent these views are inside the Trump White House remains an open question.
“We’re trying to figure out what is coming,” said one high-ranking UN official knowledgeable about women’s issues.
The US is not a top funder of UN Women, she pointed out. However, stripping the organization of the funding it does provide would have an impact on programming and send a negative message to other — mostly male — world leaders that prioritizing women’s inclusion in political leadership is not important.
“If they defund women’s programming, it’s going to have an impact. But it’s happened before and the UN is a very flexible operation," the official said. "[We're] hopeful that other nations and sources will step forward. We’re an international organization of 193 countries, so it all adds up.”
Russell also said there seems to be common ground, even with right-wing groups, on stopping female genital mutilation, early child marriage and improving maternal health. “It relies on them elevating the status of women and girls in these societies,” she said. And focusing funds on development and not anti-terrorism or defense.
In the end, insiders fear not so much an anti-woman agenda inside the White House, but rather a lack of interest or recognition that women’s issues are important. And that the religious right will fill that vacuum and push forward policies that play to its base.
“It could be devastating,” says Russell. “It’s hard to figure out where their head is on all this.”
Reporting for this article was done in partnership with The Fuller Project for International Reporting