While the new strategy is a refreshing about-face from the previous administration–and signals a commitment to gender equity and equality never seen before in the US–it remains to be seen if it can be more than words on paper. We have hopes, based on its breadth and ambition.
On October 22, the White House released its highly anticipated and first-of-its-kind National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality. Mandated by President Biden (in conjunction with the creation of the White House Gender Policy Council (GPC) on International Women's Day this year), the strategy comes as a welcome whole-of-government commitment to addressing the myriad issues that prevent women, girls, and gender-diverse people from living their full lives in the US and around the world.
At first read, this new strategy doesn't disappoint. It’s a striking transformation from the rhetoric of the previous administration (which isn't difficult given Trump’s abysmal record on gender equity and equality). The language throughout is comprehensive and intersectional, and demonstrates that the authors are well aware of the policy gaps and failures to address the challenges facing women, girls, and gender-diverse people.
Importantly, in a complete about-face from the previous administration, it explicitly states that the US will protect, improve, and expand access to sexual and reproductive health care. The strategy calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and Global Gag Rule; promises to return the US to former levels of support in bilateral and multilateral fora (such as the UN); and targets the widespread state-level attack on abortion rights, offering to "protect the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion established in Roe v. Wade in the United States, while promoting access to sexual and reproductive health and rights both at home and abroad."
In addition, the strategy takes a dramatically different approach to the idea of gender equity and equality: previously, gender equity was often instrumentalized in official government documents for other ends (e.g., to boost the economy or ensure greater national security). This strategy explicitly acknowledges that gender equity and equality is a goal in and of itself. Further, it acknowledges that the US government has a moral obligation to those most marginalized.
Moreover, along with supporting policy change, the strategy calls for "a shift in the social and cultural norms that undermine gender equity and equality, undervalue work traditionally and disproportionately carried out by women, and prevent rights on paper from being fully implemented in practice." These are grand commitments that are easily written into a strategy, but can they be realized?
More than words on paper?
The framing language is sound, and refreshingly transformational. But, like other whole-of-government policy strategies, it is in danger of saying a lot without doing much. The White House Fact Sheet promises boldly that the strategy, “is not just words on paper; it is a roadmap to deliver results for the American people and our partners around the world.” But is it?
Most of the language throughout indicates the Administration's "support for" or "commitment to" transforming current lackluster policy or structures that do not support gender equity or equality—but it does so without concrete proposals, clear staffing, or funding models for ways to do so.
While the section on implementation proposes a way forward that is replicable across all the agencies of the government, the guidance is still vague at best. It broadly suggests that agencies identify "at least three goals that will serve to advance the objectives identified in this strategy," and offers unspecified GPC staff to help shepherd the design of the implementation plans. For a strategy as all-encompassing as this to be successful, roles and issues need to be clearly delineated and given the power and respect they deserve.
Urgent challenges on gender policies around immigration and asylum
The strategy also exposes a major contradiction in the priorities of this administration around immigration and asylum.
On paper, it calls for supporting "a fair and humane immigration system in the United States that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together, and allows people—both newly arrived and those who have lived here for generations—to more fully participate in our country" that responds to "migration resulting directly or indirectly from climate change—including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation" --with particular attention paid to the unique experiences of women, girls, and gender-diverse people.
But on the ground, the reality is starkly different: the administration is currently implementing policies that directly contradict these commitments.
Take Title 42, an illegal policy that President Trump put into place as part of his xenophobic, anti-refugee agenda to prevent people from seeking asylum at the border under the false pretext of public health concerns. When President Trump announced this policy, then-Senator Kamala Harris joined dozens of lawmakers in criticizing it, and sent a letter to the administration accusing it of acting “contrary to existing law.”
But since taking office, President Biden has conducted more expulsions of asylum seekers–including women, girls, and gender-diverse people fleeing gender-based violence (GBV) and persecution–than his predecessor. Not only does this policy stop survivors of GBV from finding safe haven, it actively contributes to further violence: at least 7,647 people have been forced back into harm’s way by the Biden administration, suffering kidnapping, assault, and sexual violence. Not only is President Biden actively implementing this policy–despite criticism from the UN Refugee Agency, public health experts (including Dr. Fauci himself), and some of his own advisors–but he is actively defending it in court.
If the gender strategy is indeed important and to be realized in action, how do we square this contradiction? Herein lies the fundamental question about the White House Gender Policy Council itself: Does it have any power?
If it does, it requires swift actions from across the administration to end Title 42 and rid the US government of other policies that directly undermine gender equality. If not, then the most accurate description of this strategy is just words on paper.
We hope not. The optimistic take is that we finally have a genuine commitment to gender equity and equality like never before in the US. Its breadth of coverage, and scope of ambition, is commendable; what remains to be seen is how deep and real that commitment turns out to be.
Take action: End Title 42 and ensure rights to asylum in the US.