The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Gender equality is the US aid reform focus we’re missing

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Clotilde Nsengujunva, 27, is an animator for SOPROP (Solidarite pour la Promotion Sociale el la Paix) in Kibabi, Democratic Republic of Congo. The women's forum did a risk assessment of all of the problems in their area and prioritized three issues to work on: 1. Arbitrary arrest; 2. Sexual violence and 3. Early marriage. "My job is to work with all the committees in the area. We teach the women's forum how to address problems they face and how to solve them. We can't solve all the problems but we can certainly help them cope better." (Photo: Eleanor Farmer / Oxfam)

If foreign aid was designed from its core to elevate women in society to a position of equality, it would more effectively achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and make the world a safer and more prosperous place for all.

In all the recent talk of proposed cuts and reform to US aid; one component has been (maybe not-so-surprisingly) missing: the critical need for aid to address gender inequality. In the year of the Women’s March and Wonder Woman, the thought of foreign aid policy and practice that truly fights for gender equality as a top priority should be more than a dream.  Unfortunately even in a year where we’ve rallied around iconic women who have nevertheless persisted, gender equality in aid is still largely about checking a box.  If we want to be serious about more effective aid, reform efforts have to include changes so that gender equity is at its core.

In the US context this would mean that all US foreign assistance programs  would promote gender equality even in non-gender specific interventions, would be gender-sensitive, would work to change power dynamics between men and women, would increase women’s leadership in decision-making, and  would encourage organized activities in support of women’s rights and interests.  Simply targeting women and girls as the recipients of aid or having a gender policy is not good enough.

This isn’t just about the fact that women deserve equal rights. They do. And women’s equality alone is reason enough to push for these changes to foreign aid. But this is also about doing aid better. A focus on women is not only right, it’s smart. It’s better at achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) including eliminating extreme poverty. And it could have dramatic positive impacts on global education, health, peace and security, the economy, and more. This is not a new idea, of course. For many years, development professionals have pushed for women and gender to be a primary focus of development efforts at the donor, NGO, and community levels. The problem is these efforts have not gone far enough.

So far, we’ve made some global progress worth celebrating: maternal mortality is down, the number of women who are national government representatives has doubled in the last 20 years, more girls are receiving an education, and more. But our potential is so much greater.

If women around the world had the same opportunities as men in the job market, the world’s economy would grow by 28 trillion dollars, which would do a lot to help eliminate extreme poverty. If women had equal access to agricultural resources the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100 to 150 million. Every dollar invested in universal access to quality reproductive health services, an estimated return of $120 is produced – which pays dividends for both women and their families. By improving mothers’ education, you greatly improve their children’s likelihood of having better health and educational outcomes. When women are an integral part of peace processes, peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last over 15 years. And those are just a few examples. The difference we could see in the world from fully including women and girls would be remarkable.

Unfortunately, despite the many efforts donors and others are making to advance gender equality, we still have a long way to go. Women are still subject to laws that restrict their economic opportunities in over 90 percent of countries. This includes gender-based job restrictions in 100 countries, and 18 countries in which husbands are legally allowed to restrict their wives from working. While women make up 23 percent of representatives in legislatures around the world, they are 50 percent of the population, so there’s still a long way to go. In addition, only three percent of mediators and eight percent of negotiators in major peace processes are women, so unless more is done, it will be difficult to see the 35 percent increase in long-lasting peace agreements around the world. So until significant efforts are made to address these barriers we will not see the kind of progress possible with equality.

Recent reforms have brought a more explicit gender focus to US development programs, but the US is still far from being a leader in this area. In 2015, only 6 percent of US aid was spent on programs with a primary mission of addressing gender inequality, making the US 11th among other top donors. If you expand the scope to include projects that consider gender issues but not as the project’s primary mission, it’s still just 20 percent of US aid – putting the US in 21st place in 2015. And this data simply counts spending; it tells us nothing about whether those programs addressed gender power imbalances, if they involved women in all phases of the project, or if they supported women’s rights.

If the United States is serious about making its aid more effective and better suited to create a safer and more prosperous world, a radical shift is required. An aid strategy that takes a feminist point of view should be part of the conversation.  As a first step, the US should take real strides to ensure its aid programs are designed to address gender barriers in accessing, receiving, and benefiting from foreign assistance. We owe that much to the millions of girls that dream of being in school, the millions of women working to be able to determine their own futures, as well as the American tax payer.

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