How Trump's latest budget impacts women and girls, from classrooms to cops

The World
President Donald Trump speaks at a Women's Empowerment Panel at the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 29, 2017.

President Donald Trump speaks at a Women's Empowerment Panel at the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 29, 2017.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

When news surfaced earlier this week indicating that the Trump administration plans to completely eliminate the small $8 million budget for the Office for Global Women’s Issues — while doubling the military's budget — reaction was immediate.

"An insult to women and girls everywhere," said Bustle. "What does Ivanka have to say about this?" asked Teen Vogue. Neither the Republican Congress nor the military think it's smart policy, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

“We have strong allies on the hill with the military and religious groups who get this issue,” Carla Koppell told us. She was USAID’s first senior coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. 

The office at the State Department is an advocacy and research office that advances an idea: that the widespread oppression of women and girls economically, politically and socially undermines national stability and security — and leads to problems the US spends a lot to combat. That includes things like terrorism, migration, conflict and poverty. The office is staffed by about 20.

Erasing that voice inside the Beltway would be devastating. But there's an even bigger concern looming — the real money spent by the government to empower women and girls is the more than $1 billion in spending dedicated to programming for women and girls in USAID’s budget each year. That money could hit the chopping block this summer during budget negotiations.  Trump has threatened to slash State and USAID budgets by 40 percent. The budget should to be finalized in September.

During the election last October, Across Women’s Lives analyzed the $1 billion the US spent in 2015 for women and girls. Here’s a few of the highlights of what we found:

One single country typically receives almost 20 percent of all global aid for women and girls. That’s Afghanistan. In 2017, it received $253 million to empower women and girls — an amount higher than the aid allocated for all countries in Europe, Central and South America combined.  

What’s important to note is that the funds have a dual goal of also shoring up US military efforts, the costs of which are tens of billions of dollars each year. 

“It’s a tool in the toolbox of strategies ensuring that we advance security and prosperity globally,” says Susan Markham, former head of gender programs at USAID. “If it’s disassembled, it misunderstands the point of the investment.”

This argument that women’s empowerment has strategic value has won Pentagon converts. In 2016, the Military Journal PRISM dedicated an entire issue to the research and data connecting women’s status with security. This month, Military Review did the same.  

“Compare those societies that respect women and those which don’t," suggests Donald Steinberg, formerly of International Crisis Group and now heading World Learning. "Who’s trafficking in weapons, drugs? Who’s harboring terrorists and starting pandemics? Whose problems require US troops on the ground? There’s a one-to-one correspondence. Don’t tell me there’s no relationship between national security and the empowerment of women.”

In Afghanistan, the majority of spending went to literacy programs for girls, but many efforts are cross-sectional — for example, one program in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh trained 450 imams to extol the importance of girls’ education in their Friday sermons and, when officiating at marriages, to ask for the bride’s age and proof of her consent. There's been plenty spent on health and economic empowerment, as well. 

Measuring the outcome of those programs is beyond the scope of this column, and the programs certainly aren't without critics. By some estimates, the US has spent $1.5 billion to empower women and girls since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and while literacy rates are way up for girls, some argue that patriarchal norms still oppress women to the point of rendering all efforts futile. But other observers suggest that change over the long term is indeed possible.

“If we can buy Afghan women another decade, progress probably is sustainable on its own momentum,” said former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. “It could go either way, and it’s really up to us."

After Afghanistan, countries in Africa received nearly half (43 percent) of all US aid for girls and women in 2015, mostly for impoverished countries where protections for women are weakest. In recent years, US spending there has shifted to adolescent girls, with research indicating that keeping a girl in school longer has tremendous benefits down the line in terms of lowered fertility, lower rates of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality, lower rates of STD spread, lower rates of domestic violence, and higher rates of education for the subsequent generation.

For example, one USAID funded program, the Ambassadors' Girls’ Scholarship Program, has given out 550,000 scholarships since 2010. It helps girls purchase books and pay fees so they can finish grade school. Advocates argue that this kind of work is important not just for the women and girls who directly benefit from them, but also for the security of their countries.

Another area of spending is in trying to prevent HIV infection among adolescent girls. It’s the only group in the world in which infection rates are growing. Other health issues dominated spending in Africa, where in some countries more women die in childbirth annually than died at the height of the Ebola epidemic.    

Thematically, the majority of the funds goes to anti-violence efforts — which is still considered one of the most endemic and widespread issues impacting all women. The physical insecurity of half the world’s population is one of humanity’s greatest tragedies, trapping whole societies in an inter-generational continuum of violence from the household to the state level. 2016 saw a watershed moment in this field when the Colombia peace process advanced with women seated at the leadership table. A growing body of research indicates that peace deals are more likely and last longer when women are part of the process.  

And lastly, existing aid programs have supported women’s economic empowerment. Often this is implemented through public-private partnerships, such as the US-Afghan Women’s Council, which supports female-owned businesses in Afghanistan.

It is hugely ironic that Ivanka Trump has committed $100 million on behalf of the Trump Administration toward a new World Bank program to promote women’s entrepreneurship when there are a plethora of existing programs in State and USAID with the very same goal — and that will be zeroed out according to the proposed budget.  

No good carpenter throws away half the tools in their toolbox. While the US military is an awesome tool, it can only be used to deter or react to threats. There’s a crying need for tools that build peace, in addition to those that respond once conflict is on the horizon. The tools the US has crafted over the last 25 years to empower women are some of the most effective this nation has in building the conditions of national stability and security worldwide. It is time for the Trump Administration to learn about the tools they already have, and learn how to use them. The first step would be to fill the position of Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues.

We nominate Ivanka Trump for that position.

Christina Asquith is founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting and director of Across Women's Lives at PRI's The World. 

Dr. Valerie Hudson is professor and George H. W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service and principal investigator at WomanStats.