As deeply as liberal women may have hoped, back in the darkest hours of 2016, for Ivanka to be the feminist counterbalance to her father’s deep misogyny, we are sadly destined to remain disappointed. The latest evidence comes in the form not only of Ivanka’s disingenuous comments about the Green New Deal, but also her newly launched “Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP)” with the bold pledge to “empower women to foster freedom,” with the worthwhile goal of enabling 50 million women in developing countries to fulfill their economic potential by 2025.
On the face of it, W-GDP is encouraging. The initiative signals an acknowledgement on the part of the US administration that the empowerment of women and girls is a key driver of global prosperity and stability. Indeed, all evidence shows that the inequalities women and girls face are serious, and the dividend from their empowerment significant. But W-GDP will fall short of its ambitions unless it addresses the power imbalances that limit women’s economic freedom, especially in crisis zones.
Amongst the paradoxes of W-GDP is not just that its funding will be pulled from other areas of USAID’s already-waning budget; Trump has after all tried for the past two years, and will try again, to slash the agency’s budget by a third. It is also that the Initiative comes in the midst of otherwise unrelenting attacks on the rights and resources dedicated to women and girls at home and abroad, from the Global Gag Rule to the removal of domestic violence as a rationale for asylum. Most of all, it is an attempt at inclusive economic development that omits the multidimensional challenges undermining women’s empowerment around the world – and nowhere is this more stark than in fragile and conflict settings.
We know that the most disadvantaged women in the world live in countries emerging from, or affected by, conflict. Four in five fragile states – which also unsurprisingly hold the highest maternal mortality and early marriage rates in the world – are off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty. By 2030, roughly the same timeline as W-GDP, these fragile states will be home to 85% of the world’s extreme poor – and the majority will be women.
Here’s the truth: in these settings women face grave threats to life and livelihood, oppressed by visible and invisible patterns of control, power and violence. The violence as well as poverty faced by women reflect not only deep imbalances of power, but also local and global policies which have at best neglected, and at worst actively disempowered us. If current approaches to women’s economic empowerment continue to neglect intersecting forms of discrimination, magnified in crisis contexts, growing numbers of women will be confined to a life of extreme poverty. With just under 6% of the US foreign aid budget dedicated to the needs of women and girls, and if Ivanka is serious about empowering women, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Giving women a seat at the negotiating table in conflict settings and beyond is the first step. Studies have demonstrated that involving women in peace processes increased the probability of ending violence by a quarter. Yet 95% of global peace agreements signed over the past 20 years did not include mention of sexual violence. If we continue to silence women’s voices, durable and inclusive peace will continue to evade us.
Second, the daily violence we see against women and girls, the permanent threat which keeps women “in their place,” needs dedicated action and funds. But despite the fact that violence against women occurs in every crisis, initiatives to address it currently receive 0.5% of all humanitarian funding. This is a moral and strategic failure because gender inequality, violence against women, and state fragility are all mutually reinforcing. This is evinced by the fact that the physical security of women and overall peacefulness of states have a strong statistical correlation, with the latter providing a perverse but pervasive model for violence across all levels of society and beyond. It is not a coincidence that the death toll of Indian women, due to the devaluation of our gender over the past 40 years, dwarfs by almost fortyfold the death toll from all of India’s wars, including independence.
All parts of humanitarian and development policy must meet the needs of women and girls. This is not optional, it’s life-saving. One example is that only 1% of aid to economic sectors has had gender equality at its heart, hence working on the power dynamics that exacerbate violence and inequality. The most glaring omission is the UN SDGs themselves, which lack targets and indicators concerning refugee women and girls. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, which is how some aid programs end up unintentionally reinforcing gender inequality instead of combating it.
These are the basic hallmarks of a feminist approach to humanitarian aid, championed by global leaders Canada and Sweden, which recognizes that tackling the systematic and structural origins of gender inequality is the only way to advance the rights and potential of half of the world’s population. If the Trump administration truly seeks to empower women, it would do well to catch up.