This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!
In early May, it was reported that the Trump administration planned to cut Barack and Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn program, which launched in 2015 to increase access to education for girls around the world. The announcement was met with shock and disdain—and immediately denied by the Department of State.
The agency released a statement asserting that “The Administration supports policies and programs to empower adolescent girls, including efforts to educate them through the completion of secondary school.” Many in the development community breathed a sigh of relief: Girls’ education is one of the few issues that remains bipartisan, in no small part because of the abundance of evidence that countries with educated girls are more stable and prosperous than those without. Just a few weeks later, however, the White House released a budget that takes careful aim at projects created specifically to aid women and girls—clearly demonstrating the administration’s lack of concern for girls’ welfare.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget is also a reversal of America’s decades-long commitment to women’s rights as a key component of foreign policy—and a quiet threat to the international health and safety of girls. Unlike the reinstatement of the “global gag rule,” a partisan move that prevents overseas organizations that discuss abortion from receiving American aid, Trump’s budget guts women’s empowerment and health programs that have received acclaim from both sides of the aisle. Oxfam America found that “programs with an exclusive focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment are cut by 61 percent in the Trump Budget—much higher than the overall 32 percent cut to international affairs.”
Even global health programs with a gender component have been cut by more than 26 percent. The proposed budget terminates the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, a State Department–based position that is critical in coordinating women’s programming in every country where the United States has a diplomatic presence. The role was a means of emphasizing the U.S.’s commitment to raising the status of women’s issues. Lyric Thompson, the director of policy at the International Center for Research on Women, told the Chicago Tribune that eliminating the program—which costs the federal government a mere $8.25 million every year—“is essentially saying ‘off with her head’ to everything that we’ve built over these years.”
The Trump budget also eliminates the $607.5 million that the United States invests annually in providing women abroad with reproductive healthcare and birth control. The cuts were justified as a cost-saving measure, but to put this purported savings in perspective, Trump’s budget calls for a $54 billion increase in defense spending.
But these cuts are not just cruel—they’re also counterproductive to American interests abroad. Even Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, told Congress in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” Drawing down funding from the State Department and development programs to finance the Department of Defense will, ironically, create a situation in which a military response is necessary. This is not merely a matter of opinion, but an empirically backed observation from the most recent research on the drivers of global conflict.
A May 2017 report by the nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence pulled together the most recent research on the effects of women’s oppression and gender-based violence, and the conclusion was clear: Improving the political, economic, and social status of women and girls leads to more stable and prosperous countries. The link between economically empowered women and economic development is intuitive and well-documented: Studies have demonstrated that an extra year of schooling beyond the average can increase women’s wages by up to 20 percent, while the World Bank estimates that a one-percent increase in women with a secondary education can raise a country’s annual per-capita income growth by 0.3 percent. Keeping girls in school requires not only making schools and teachers accessible, but also ensuring that girls feel safe and able to control their fertility to pursue their education—both objectives that American foreign aid has supported for more than two decades. Slashing support to women’s reproductive health and empowerment programs will not only rob these women of bodily autonomy and education opportunities, it will hamstring their local and national economies.
In addition to the economic damage done, there is compelling evidence that cutting these sorts of programs endangers America’s national security. After surveying more than 175 countries and examining more than 300 metrics, Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University, concluded that “the very best predictor of how insecure and unstable a nation is not its level of democracy, it’s not its level of wealth, it’s not what ‘Huntington civilization’ it belongs to, but is in fact best predicted by the level of violence against women in the society.” And in a 2017 study on the “Hillary Doctrine,” which researchers Nilay Saiya, Tasneem Zaihra, and Joshua Fidler described as the idea that “Hillary Clinton has long maintained that the subjugation of women poses a national security threat to the United States,” it was found that improving women’s rights in a country actually decreased the likelihood of an anti-American terrorist attack emanating from said country. Those who write off women’s security and rights as a “soft” foreign-policy objective, or consider them to be marginal to American interests, are ignoring striking empirical evidence to the contrary.
Not only do these programs literally save women’s lives while building more economically resilient and secure communities, but they’re also among the most cost-effective development programs. The High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development identified reducing gender-based violence, promoting gender equality, and improving sexual and reproductive health rights as “key smart investments.” The Center for Global Development estimated that the total cost of a “Health, Sexuality, and Gender Education Package”—which includes educating girls about risks to their sexual health through media, essay contests, and debates, as well as training teachers on relevant topics—is just over $6 per girl per year for adolescent girls in low and low-middle income countries such as Nigeria and South Sudan. The report also estimated that it would cost less than $9 a year per girl to fund a program that includes everything from treatment for stis, youth outreach, testing and counseling for hiv, and the training of health workers. Just as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, funding programs that empower girls and women is significantly cheaper than the alternative of responding too late to chronically underdeveloped and unstable countries.
The emergent “Trump Doctrine,” in which the funding for programs benefiting women and girls is zeroed out to increase the military’s budget, will increase global insecurity. The burden of the doctrine will be borne not only by the millions of women worldwide who depend on American support for reproductive healthcare and education, but also by the international community, which will have to grapple with less prosperous, more unstable countries. Joe Biden famously quipped, quoting his father, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” This administration’s shortsighted, cruel budgetary proposal demonstrates more than a lack of concern for women’s issues—it amounts to a declaration of war on women and girls worldwide.
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