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Archives for Women

Inclusive Development: USAID’s New Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy

As posted on the White House Blog

There are moments that make you proud. Proud to work in an Administration led by President Obama and Secretary Clinton who have made gender equality a top priority.  Last week was one of those times.

Last year USAID Administrator Shah and I established a task team to craft a new policy on gender quality and female empowerment, the Agency’s first in 30 years. I am proud to say that USAID released that policy, achieving great strides and reaffirming our commitment to close the gender gap in international development.

The goal of this policy is to improve the lives of citizens around the world by advancing equality between females and males, and empowering women and girls to participate fully in and benefit from the development of their societies.

USAID has long recognized that drawing on the full contributions of women is key achieving better, inclusive, and more sustainable results.  That’s why we’re integrating gender equality and female empowerment into the very DNA of everything we do.   From Presidential initiatives like Feed the Future (FtF), the Global Health Initiative (GHI), and Global Climate Change to the full range of the Agency’s programs, we are ensuring that gender is not just being included, but fully incorporated.  Eliminating gender bias and empowering women isn’t just a question of fairness or equity: it’s simply good business practice.   

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Translating Words into Action – USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy

Girl breaks through red ribbon at the finish of a race.

Photo credit: The Hunger Project

In 2002 while working at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), I oversaw the completion of a report for the USAID-funded WIDTech project, a five-year $10 million dollar initiative to provide technical assistance on gender integration in USAID bureaus and missions. The report outlined how successful gender integration must start with sector-specific goals and developing real gender expertise throughout the Agency. It also maintained that global impacts are exponentially increased through partnerships with host country governments and NGOs. I was excited to see those recommendations in print.

Yesterday, at a launch event at the White House, USAID released a new policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment (PDF), the Agency’s first in 30 years. I’m thrilled to share that the policy not only adopts many of those earlier recommendations but pushes the frontier of knowledge and practice to integrate gender equality and female empowerment successfully through all of our programming.

First, the policy cites a large body of quantitative and qualitative evidence showing that reducing gender gaps – whether in political participation, labor markets and the economy, health, education, or peace and security – leads to more effective and sustainable development results.

Second, it is outcome-focused, with three overarching outcomes that are to be translated into specific results with associated targets and indicators in all country strategies and project designs: 1) reduce gender disparities in access to, control over and benefit from resources, wealth, opportunities and services – economic, social, political, and cultural; 2) reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects on individuals; and 3) increase the capability of women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes, and influence decision-making in households, communities, and societies.

Third, it incorporates lessons learned about the importance of accountability mechanisms, performance measures, and technical capacity – not just for our gender experts but for program and technical staff, as well. We will all be accountable for implementing this important policy.

All of this is hugely positive. Still, as we all know, policies must be translated into action and then practice. As Geeta Rao Gupta, Executive Deputy Director of UNICEF, said at the White House launch event, the institutional architecture is animated by people. The people of USAID are committed to implementing this policy, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it will make life better for the women, men, girls, boys, families and communities in the countries where we work. And, we will become a more effective development agency in the process.

USAID in the News

Weekly Briefing (2/27/2012 – 3/2/2012)

February 27: Over the weekend, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah visited the campus of Bethel University, in Arden Hills, Minnesota. Administrator Shah praised Bethel for their commitment to international engagement and discussed USAID’s work in the areas of global health and food security. While in Minnesota, Administrator Shah also visited General Mills headquarters and recognized employee volunteers for their global citizenship.

February 27: Bloomberg highlighted the release of the “Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index,” the first ever report to measure the impact women play in food growth in developing countries. USAID was a key partner in the development of the report and the index will be applied to all programs in President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative.

February 29: The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed written by Senator John Kerry, discussing his support for foreign aid and the work being performed by USAID and the State Department. Citing former President Ronald Reagan, Kerry writes that Reagan “knew that diplomacy and development policy neutralize threats before they become crises; manage crises if threats escalate; and assure security and stability after conflicts are resolved, all at a fraction of the cost of military deployment.”

Understanding the Wants and Needs of Women Living Under $2 a Day

As development practitioners, do we adequately understand our target beneficiaries before programs are implemented?  Are we doing our ‘market research’ before investing resources, to best comprehend the wants and needs of those we intend to assist?  Yes, but only to some extent.  The development community has a variety of tools at its disposal, developed and tweaked over decades, to give us insight and analysis into the lives of our target audiences.  But rarely do they offer a deep, deep dive.

A woman on a phone in India. Photo Credit: GSMA

New research released today at GSMA’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona offers a refreshing approach to understanding women who live at the base of the pyramid, often under $2/day.  The GSMA mWomen Program, whose overall goal is to reduce the mobile phone gender gap in the developing world by 50%, has spent much of the past twelve months carrying out quantitative and qualitative research of more than 2,500 women in Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.

The findings illustrate the lives, struggles and aspirations of women who often represent the backbone of their families and communities, yet rarely are afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams.  The research, funded by USAID and AusAID, identifies the unique socio-economic and cultural factors that influence and shape women’s lives, framed in part by their attitudes towards mobile ownership. 

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Three Questions about the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index

The new Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) will be officially launched today during the United Nations’ 56thsession of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York City. The WEAI is the first-ever measure to directly capture women’s empowerment and inclusion levels in the agricultural sector.

Chairwoman Rose Peter of the Upendo Women Growers Association in Mlandize, Kibaha, Tanzania, shows off the first batch of sweet peppers the women have grown in their new greenhouse. Photo credit: USAID/Tanzania.

The index is the product of a partnership between USAID, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) of Oxford University, in support of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative to combat global hunger and poverty.

Paul Weisenfeld, Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau for Food Security at USAID, Dr. Sabina Alkire who leads OPHI, and Dr. Agnes Quisumbing, Senior Research Fellow for the Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division at IFPRI answer questions about this innovative measurement tool.

Q: What is the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index and what will it mean for the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative?

Paul: The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index measures the empowerment, agency, and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector to identify ways to overcome obstacles and constraints that hinder women’s engagement and equality. The Index is a significant innovation in its field and aims to increase understanding of the connections between women’s empowerment, food security, and agricultural growth. It measures the roles and extent of women’s engagement in the agriculture sector in five domains: (1) decisions about agricultural production, (2) access to and decision-making power over productive resources, (3) control over use of income, (4) leadership in the community, and (5) time use. It also measures women’s empowerment relative to the men within their households.

The WEAI was developed to track the change in women’s empowerment levels that occurs as a direct or indirect result of interventions under Feed the Future.  The U.S. Government sees the inclusion of women in agricultural sector growth as a key component of the Feed the Future strategy.  We are paying close attention to gender integration at the country-, program-, and project-level, and trying to get it right at every stage of the initiative.  This is where the Index plays a critical role; we want to continue to study, assess, and monitor how our approaches impact women, men, and their engagement in overall agricultural sector growth.

Q: What makes the WEAI so innovative?

Sabina: The WEAI is the first index to directly capture women’s empowerment in agriculture and provides invaluable tools for empowering women and improving gender equality.

The WEAI reveals the areas such as time burdens, community leadership, and control over income and resources, where women are most disempowered. It also shows whether an ‘empowerment gap’ exists between women and men from the same household.

And because it gets closer in, it also transforms our understanding of who is empowered. Until now, wealth and education have been taken as signs of how empowered women are. The WEAI gives a more precise picture. Pilot results from Guatemala, for example, show that 76% of the sample region’s wealthiest women are disempowered in agricultural empowerment. The index is constructed using an adaptation of the Alkire Foster method for measuring multidimensional poverty.

Q: If we’re seeing that wealth and education don’t necessarily mean “empowerment” for women, then what does empowerment mean in the context of agricultural development?

Agnes: It means a woman is able to make decisions, access the tools she needs, obtain a loan if she needs to buy inputs to expand production, join a women’s group, and take on leadership roles to advance agricultural production and tackle shared problems in the community. It means that she can control her income, better manage her time, and make sure she remains healthy and productive in her multiple roles. These factors enable a woman to do things such as produce food for her family; identify and help raise awareness to address problems affecting output – like crop disease or drought –helping communities cope with unexpected shocks; bring her products to market; and have the opportunity to both advance and benefit from economic growth opportunities. 

All of this increases women’s bargaining power within her household and her ability to decide how she’ll spend her income. Our work at IFPRI has shown that women are more likely to spend additional income on their children’s health, nutrition, and education, as well as on other investments that ultimately result in dividends that advance the broader community. We know that empowering women is not only the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do. It helps advance families, communities, and the broader global good.

Learn more about the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index


Recognizing and Tackling Disrespect and Abuse of Women in Childbirth

A young mother lies with her newborn child. Photo Credit: UNFPA

When I started midwifery training decades ago in the United States, in the hospital where I worked, I first saw evidence of disrespect and abuse of women in labor. Women were separated from families and visitors from admission to discharge four days later and, in the second and third stages of labor, their legs were secured by stirrups and their wrists put in leather restraints.  Soon after, I worked in West Africa in a government maternity and witnessed women being verbally abused — “if you don’t push and your baby is born dead, it will be your fault” – and physically abused by slapping and massive fundal pressure to force delivery. Women were ridiculed for making too much noise in labor — and then were chastised if they were silent and delivered alone.

Fast forward decades later.  As I visit maternity services in a number of countries, I don’t need to look far to see and hear evidence of disrespect and abuse of women in childbirth.  A convulsing woman in labor on the steps of an urban referral hospital turned away from because she cannot pay.  A doctor who derides poor women for not using family planning to control their fertility.  A nurse who tells me that postpartum mothers “sneak in” to see their hospitalized newborns at night, while the families seek to find funds to pay the bills in order to get their newborns discharged.  Unclothed women laboring and giving birth as visitors walk by. A researcher who tells of a postpartum mother being detained for months because she could not pay her bill. The human rights worker who tells me that refugee women are discriminated against in childbirth and that one refugee was forced to keep her stillborn in her bed with her for 24 hours against her will.

I do not cease to be saddened and angered by the number of ways women giving birth are being degraded, abused, and humiliated by healthcare workers, often women themselves.  Abuses continue to occur in all corners of the world, including my own. They are not behaviors that are easy to change.  Some are reinforced by financial incentives and subtle or overt discrimination. For many, the behaviors are learned and reinforced in home, school and society — wherever there are unequal power relationships.

Despite the problems, many of the frontline caregivers at birth – midwives, doctors, nurses and auxiliaries – work diligently, treat women with compassion, and even use their own resources to assist women in referrals in the case of life-threatening emergencies. Their selfless work needs to be recognized, even while the problems of abuse are uncovered.

I am now very encouraged that the issue of abuse is resonating with so many who care for and about childbearing women.  I see there is growing attention to this problem through documentation of the abuses; identification, dissemination and the implementation of the new Universal Rights of Childbearing Women; and implementation research to expand the evidence base on what it takes to tackle this problem effectively.  Many people and organizations are working on this and I am delighted that the United States Agency for International Development is supporting this work in country settings, in partnership with many others, to ensure that all women are treated with the respect and compassion during childbirth that they deserve.

Originally posted at the White Ribbon Alliance blog


Photo of the Week

The Empowerment through Literacy Education Access Project (E-LEAP) helps adult Maasai women learn basic Swahili literacy skills, which allows them to have greater access to essential skills. Currently funded through our Education Sector, this program partners with Mwedo (Maasai women development organization) and began in 2007 with 150 Maasai women. Currently, E-LEAP has empowered over 2000 Maasai women. The program extends beyond basic Swahili literacy skills and trains the women in business skills, HIV education, and land rights. Photo credit: Megan Johnson/USAID

Mobilizing the U.S. Government to Protect and Empower Women and Girls

In October 2010, I was honored to be at the UN Security Council meeting where Secretary of State Clinton announced that the United States would prepare its own National Action Plan to implement commitments on Women, Peace and Security.   Having served on the UN Civil Society Advisory Group on Resolution 1325 and as an adviser to UNIFEM’s executive director, I saw this as an historic step in mobilizing the U.S. government’s efforts to protect and empower women and girls in the context of armed conflict.

Over the past year, I’ve been pleased to work with colleagues at the White House, State, Defense and other agencies – along with our civil society friends in the U.S. and in conflict-affected countries – to identify the concrete and measurable actions incorporated in the National Action Plan announced by the President today.

From experience in Angola, South Africa, Haiti, Central African Republic and beyond, I know first-hand the importance of empowering women to be catalysts for positive change in armed conflict and displacement scenarios, and ensuring their participation in peace negotiations and post conflict reconstruction and governance.

In particular, the systematic exclusion of women from the negotiation of peace agreements and implementing bodies is a principal reason why so many of these agreements ultimately fail and countries return to conflict.  Unless women are present, issues like accountability for past abuses, psycho-social support for victims of violence, restoration of health and educational systems, reintegration of displaced persons and refugees, and trafficking in persons are often inadequately addressed.     When the momentum for political reconciliation or military disengagement starts to wane, women who have viewed such peace processes as only for the benefit of the armed combatants have little incentive to press the parties to see these processes through to the end.

At USAID, we’ve already taken key steps to address these problems.  Every USAID project proposal must have a “gender impact statement”; we have a tough new anti-trafficking code for ourselves and our development partners; gender is incorporated as a cross–cutting priority for all our initiatives in food security, global health, climate change, democracy and governance, economic growth and humanitarian relief; and we have funded the participation of women in peace processes and reconstruction conferences around the world.  We also brought on a senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment – the remarkable Carla Koppell – who is working with Caren Grown, Sarah Mendelson and others to insist that gender is in our agency’s DNA.

I view these steps as the down payment on an “IOU” we owe to women faced with conflict around the world.  We look forward to working with host governments, civil society groups, partners, friends, and, most importantly, local women on the ground.  It is their wisdom and expertise we must rely on to succeed.  The guiding vision must be, “Nothing about them without them.”

Women Peace Builders – Conducting Foreign Policy Differently

It is with enormous pride that I witnessed the release of the first-ever United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Publication of the plan serves as valuable recognition and acknowledgement of a critical new step in U.S. foreign policy, one that strives to hear, honor and amplify the female voices for peace in societies around the world.

Earlier this month, the Nobel committee recognized three women leaders by awarding them the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize— Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman. It was a watershed moment and an important message signaling that women have earned the right to be heard. At the same time, we must appreciate that those three women represent thousands of women and girls worldwide working non-violently to end war.

Many of these women have been striving anonymously to prevent and resolve war, and to reweave and rebuild communities torn by conflict. Included among them are the women of Afghanistan and Iraq who have advocated, protested, pushed and rallied to preserve and advance their rights despite violence and personal threats. Also to be recognized are the women of Cote d’Ivoire, who gave their lives for the cause of peace. And we must remember the historic contributions of women in Bosnia, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Northern Ireland, Sudan and myriad other countries in every corner of the world who have all struggled to return peace and prosperity to their societies and communities.

As I reflect on these women leaders, I recall my recent travels to Afghanistan as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, where I had the opportunity to speak with many of these exceptional women. In Afghanistan, the incredibly brave female members of the High Peace Council I met were striking in their determination to give women a voice in negotiations with insurgents. In the DRC, women victims of heinous sexual violence emphasized the need to tell their stories so that others would not suffer. In Rwanda, members of the White Ribbon Alliance reflected on their continuing efforts to help that nation recover from genocide.

Today is dedicated to the incredible women peace builders I have had the honor to work with for the last decade. We celebrate your contributions and look forward to working with you in the years to come!

For Mi Abuelita: Reflections on Child Marriage as a Form of Gender-Based Violence

Unequal gender norms limit a girl’s ability to make decisions that affect her social, economic, and physical wellbeing.  As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence ends on International Human Rights Day, I’d like to reflect on a form of gender-based violence that is often overlooked: child marriage.  For more than 58 million women around the world, their disempowerment begins with this harmful cultural practice.

For the past 15 years, I’ve worked in the field of gender and international development. During that time, my work has focused on the relations between women’s empowerment, gender dynamics, and reproductive health.  My motivation for focusing on these links is not only professional; it is indeed very personal. My Peruvian grandmother was married when she was 16 years old. She was pregnant 14 times (10 children; 2 miscarriages; 1 stillbirth; and 1 infant death). My mother was her oldest child; I was her first grandchild.

I adored mi abuelita and greatly admired her strength; she became a widow at age 42 when her youngest child was 3 years old, took over the family photography business, and became the matriarch and axis of the family. But she suffered from poor health for many years, and passed away when I was 16.

Growing up, I heard many stories about her married life. Her husband was at least 15 years older; he had a daughter almost her age from an earlier relationship, which caused countless family conflicts over economic resources. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew that he drank a lot, was unfaithful, and often abusive—not physically, but in emotional and economic ways. When my grandmother tried to separate from him, he refused to give her any child support, which led to her infant’s death from malnutrition.

The sense of injustice I felt listening to these stories transferred over to my dedication to these issues; the more I learned about these intersections, the more I understood that my grandmother’s story is not a unique story. Gender-based violence, in all its forms, is a global phenomenon.

At USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health, we address the relations between gender and reproductive health, including child marriage, through programs that aim to empower girls/women, constructively engage boys/men as partners, and promote gender equality in a variety of cultural contexts. And I am proud to be part of these efforts.

November 29th was my grandmother’s birthday, and I honor her memory by continuing to work to change the gender realities that propel so many girls into child marriage.  I hope to continue to help raise global awareness about the ways in which child marriage is a violation of girls’ rights to social, economic, and reproductive empowerment, health, and well-being.

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