On March 8, 2021, President Biden signed , establishing the first-ever Gender Policy Council (GPC) and calling on the whole-of-U.S. government to pursue a comprehensive approach to advance gender equity and equality. Charged with the mandate of integrating and advancing gender equality throughout U.S. foreign policy and as the Department’s representative to the GPC, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI)—working with Department, interagency, and civil society partners—secured major wins over the past year across our policy, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, and programming efforts. Just a few highlights from the first year of the Biden Administration include:
Public and Multilateral Diplomacy
We kicked off 2021 with the first-ever virtual and 15th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) ceremony Secretary Blinken hosted along with Special Guest First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden. The ceremony honored fifteen courageous women from around the world, and extended a posthumous group IWOC award to seven Afghan women who paid the ultimate price for their valorous work as activists and human rights defenders. This ceremony marked more than 170 women honored from 80 countries over the past 15 years—an honor that can change not only the individual’s life, but impact entire generations of women and girls.
Nepal’s 16-year-old Muskan Khatun’s world changed in 2021 as she came into prominence on the global stage as an IWOC awardee. The award had a lasting impact on women and girls in Nepal and across the wider South and Central Asia region. Her IWOC award, and the international recognition it provides, helped Khatun fast-track the passage of legislation criminalizing acid attacks, changing the regulations for acid attack survivors, and imposing strong penalties for perpetrators. She was also recognized at the highest levels of the Government of Nepal, with the President applauding Khatun for bringing about lasting change for victims of acid attacks and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Khatun’s advocacy and activities are truly an inspiration for women and girls everywhere.
We also capitalized on global moments to galvanize attention and commitments to advancing gender equality. During last year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), we held a . Additionally, Vice President Harris’ participation made history as the most senior-level U.S. participation in a CSW to date, using her first UN speech as VPOTUS to boldly state “The status of women is the status of democracy.” We helped drive the United States prioritization of gender on the global stage at the Generation Equality Forum, across three Action Coalitions: GBV, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and Economic Rights and Justice. The United States also signed the Women, Peace, and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPS-HA) Compact. During the United Nations General Assembly, We ensured the inclusion and elevation of gender in both resolutions as well as in a on “Securing Women’s Leadership in ‘Post-Pandemic’ Life.” Our office led efforts to integrate attention to gender across the President’s Summit for Democracy, working with interagency partners and partner governments to secure a focusing on the role of women in democracy promotion at home and abroad, resulting in from both the State Department and USAID for the Advancing Women’s and Girls’ Civic and Political Leadership Initiative.
As part of its efforts on the gender-climate nexus, we launched the “The Innovation Station” initiative in July 2021 to developing innovative solutions to climate-related challenges and help them connect with new domestic and international communities that could benefit from their work. Over the past year, the initiative convened five virtual events that engaged audiences in 60 countries and 37 U.S. states. These events spotlighted 35 women innovators who developed over 130 new collaborative relationships—including more than 30 with U.S. Missions—as a result of their participation. Since its launch, The Innovation Station initiative has expanded to include a weekly podcast and quarterly newsletter, with more virtual events planned for the months to come.
Bilateral and Regional Diplomacy
Across all our regional efforts, we focused on strengthening bilateral ties and recognizing the centrality of gender equality. We convened the first-ever meeting of the Nordic+ Working Group, to share information more effectively and collaborate with like-minded countries. The U.S-Korea Senior Economic Dialogue resulted in the adoption of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Second Action Plan focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) person-to-person exchanges, expanding work with private sector on STEM, and collaboration in multilateral fora. the U.S.-India Alliance for Women’s Economic Empowerment which will work across the federal government, including with the Department of State, to support women entrepreneurs’ job access, career building, and mentorship. Our office also worked with the White House to convene indigenous leaders from Mexico, Canada, and the United States to discuss violence against indigenous women and girls, during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in the lead up to the next meeting of the Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls.
In addition to partner governments, the office is also focused on working with new champions: we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in April 2021 with The Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum, a sub-organization of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation focused on empowering youth. This partnership will serve as a powerful new mechanism to work on issues including countering violent extremism and GBV; promoting WPS initiatives; and women’s economic empowerment.
Driving Policy Development and Evidence-based Decision Making
Our office, in coordination with USAID, leads gender-related policy development, drafting, and coordination on three major initiatives, including the update of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. In 2021, we facilitated 11 civil society and expert consultations to inform the Strategy update, receiving feedback from nearly 200 individuals representing a diverse range of civil society organizations on thematic areas including GBV and girls, LGBTQI+ persons, health, economic security, and conflict and fragility. In coordination with USAID, we are leading a whole-of government effort in developing the first-ever interagency U.S. Strategy for Women’s Economic Security Globally, with participation from 12 Departments and Agencies. State and interagency members are continuing consultations with representatives from civil society, the private sector, and international organizations through this year; to date, the interagency has held more than 40 consultations, benefiting from feedback from more than 200 organizations and entities, and thousands of individuals from more than 30 countries around the world. As the Senior Designee to the GPC, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues is also leading development of the Department’s action plan to implement the U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, changes—such as training and resourcing—as well as foreign policy goals. S/GWI worked with civil society, the White House, and the interagency to have GBV recognized as one of the five pillars of the .
As the Department seeks to modernize U.S. diplomacy and drive forward data generation and collection, our office led the collection, analysis, and compilation of the first-ever Congressional Report on the U.S. Department of State WPS Implementation Plan. Drawing from new monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) indicators developed by our team and refined through various consultations with civil society, local field based women leaders, and Department-wide input, this report marks the first time that the Department has led a data-driven MEL exercise on its WPS efforts at scale. The report reviewed the State Department’s progress in advancing the WPS Strategy in FY 2019 and FY 2020 and identified data gaps and challenges to implementation, highlighting the importance of continued refinement. We also funded a new research project with the OECD to improve, develop, and mainstream gender-disaggregated indicators, which Secretary Blinken announced at the September 2021 Ministerial Meeting. The research will support the development and mainstreaming of sex-disaggregated indicators in four areas: digital divide, teleworking, taxes and benefits, and parental leave. Through this effort, the United States and other OECD member countries will be able to develop evidence-based policy recommendations on women’s economic empowerment and women’s labor force participation, enabling critical responses to the needs of women in a labor market changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, crises, and climate change.
Responding to Crisis
This past year has also been marked by significant challenges. Our office vehemently advocated for the rights of Afghan women and girls, supported the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, continued discussions with, and amplified the voices of Afghan women political and civil society leaders on how the United States and international community can best support them. Internally, we actively advanced foreign assistance, relocation efforts for women leaders, and interagency policy discussions on Afghanistan – including a meeting of the interagency Atrocity Early Warning Task Force led by the National Security Council. Our office was proud to add the Secretary’s appointment of Rina Amiri as the first-ever Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights to our office, and to welcome the Senior Advisor for Women and Girls for the Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts (CARE), Stephenie Foster. Together we continue to work together to consistently elevate these issues throughout the U.S. government and with Afghan women leaders and civil society. We are actively monitoring the crisis in Ukraine and providing support to our implementing partners and to women leaders in the region. Throughout the year, we supported U.S. engagement on the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, resulting in public statements by Secretary Blinken, Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, and other senior officials that elevated reports of widespread conflict-related sexual violence and calls for accountability.
Maximizing the Impact of Foreign Assistance
We were proud to help secure new funding for women’s economic security, including by joining USAID in establishing a new Gender Equity and Equality Action (GEEA) Fund. The fund dedicates $100 million in FY 2021 and requests $200 million in the FY 2022 President’s Budget to advance economic security for women and girls globally, including from marginalized and underserved populations. Recognizing the need to advance economic security holistically, the GEEA Fund will help address the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and conflict and crisis on women and girls. We will continue to play a leadership role in the stewardship of this fund through a steering committee co-led by USAID and joined by the Executive Office of the President, in an observer role.
Additionally, today Secretary Blinken and Administrator Power previewed that the President’s FY 2023 Budget will request approximately $2.6 billion for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equity and equality worldwide, more than doubling the amount requested for gender programs in the FY 2022 Budget. This includes a request for $200 million for the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund. Our continued investment in women and girls, in all their diversity, is critical to advancing democracy and economic growth and to addressing the key challenges of our time, including addressing the climate crisis and recovering from COVID-19.
To advance these efforts, last year our office awarded more than $10 million in new programming. To support three new grants aimed at promoting women’s economic security, advance their leadership in peace building, and prevent and respond to GBV, we funded:
- An Equal Stake in the Soil, which will work with women-led civil society, including rural and indigenous women, in Bangladesh and Colombia to address barriers to women’s land rights, strengthen the adoption of sustainable land-use practices, and promote climate action through advocacy, legal literacy, and accountability efforts.
- Women’s Inclusion in New Security (WINS), announced at the Summit for Democracy, will support the leadership and sustainability of local, women-led civil society organizations in addressing peace and security challenges in their communities, including preventing and responded to gender-based violence. WINS also features a rapid-response component to support women civil society leaders’ responses to emergent WPS opportunities. WINS will launch in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
- A project that supports women entrepreneurs and civil society, including by supporting the enabling environment to improve the resilience of women’s businesses in the blue and green economies is forthcoming.
This programming has a direct impact on women’s and girls’ lives. Our assistance programs advanced women’s leadership in peace and security, women’s economic empowerment, and combatted GBV in 60 countries. Last year, our programs trained and supported 25 human rights organizations, and 50 civil society organizations were engaged in advocacy on gender equity and equality. More than 250 women from around the world participated in a substantive role or position in a peace building process supported with S/GWI’s assistance, and S/GWI programs helped implement more than 60 activities to strengthen the civic participation of women. More than 21,500 people – 98 percent women – participated in programs designed to increase access to productive economic resources. Finally, through targeted efforts to prevent and respond to GBV, our programs reached more than 10,800 people through interventions providing GBV services.
Through efforts like Supporting Her Empowerment – Girls’ Resilience, Enterprise, and Technology (SHE’s GREAT!) S/GWI The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues works with youth like Mariam in Georgia through holistic community-based, gender-responsive initiatives. SHE’s GREAT! also uses STEM + Arts education to build economic empowerment skills and reduce girls’ vulnerability to GBV. Mariam, a SHE’s GREAT! Participant from Georgia shared the impact of the program on her aspirations. “From childhood, I wanted to become a politician, but my family and relatives did not support me…Today these negative attitudes motivate me to show my family and society that I can become a woman politician who will make great and profound changes for Georgia’s development,” says Mariam.
The second year of the Biden Administration promises to be no less busy – we are grateful to partners throughout the U.S. government, as well as civil society, the private sector, youth leaders, philanthropies, and others for the ongoing partnership, commitment, and support.
About the author: Katrina Fotovat is the Senior Official for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.