Journalism

A Long Women’s March through Congress

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on December 21st, 2018, by Lyric Thompson and Fuller Project Editor-in-Chief Christina Asquith.

women-in-congress
Voters elected a record number of women to the U.S. Congress in November, including, from left, Kim Schrier, D-Wash., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Haley Stevens, D-Mich., seen during an incoming freshman class photo in Washington on Nov. 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It was a year of quiet, but major, progress for women’s issues in the U.S. government—and 2019 promises even more.

Plenty happened this year that affected global women’s issues, for better and worse. Conversation about sexual assault deepened in the United States due to the Kavanaugh hearings and the spread of the #MeToo movement; there was also an unprecedented number of women elected to political office. Elsewhere in the world, there was record-setting violence against women campaigning for political office, and there were assassinations of female journalists and human rights defenders. “The women we talked to are really in much more danger than before from right-wing misogynistic movements in their country and their own government,” said Yifat Susskind, executive director of Madre, an international women’s rights organization.

What’s gone overlooked, however, is that women’s issues also had a reasonably good year in terms of U.S. government legislation.

Those trends have all been clear to anyone paying attention. What’s gone overlooked, however, is that women’s issues also had a reasonably good year in terms of U.S. government legislation.  Nothing has yet been signed into law, but several measures seeking to promote the global rights of women and girls quietly moved forward with more energy and bipartisan support than in past years.

The headline was passage of legislation–starting in July with the House, and then in the Senate just days ago and only narrowly squeaking through before the 115th Congress adjourns this month—expanding the U.S. Agency for International Development’s work on women’s economic empowerment and recognizing gendered challenges women face such as constrained access to land and property rights, disproportionate care burdens and gender-based violence curtailing their economic participation and economic growth globally. U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation, given his daughter’s public support of it.

While the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 is the only legislation that passed this year, a number of other measures have gained traction. Since 2012, advocates have been trying to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, the foreign policy companion to the domestic version, which authorizes a number of global efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. It still didn’t pass in 2018, but it received its highest number of cosponsors in history. Similarly, the Global HER Act, which would end the Global Gag Rule, has 165 co-sponsors, a strong showing of support. In both cases, advocates are hopeful that the high number of cosponsors sets the stage for 2019; perhaps the record number of women in Congress will help push them over the finish line.

And the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Isssues similarly introduced bipartisan legislation to increase U.S. investment in girls’ education and in helping to end child marriage, female genital mutilation, and other challenges girls around the world face, building on legislation introduced earlier in Congress to expand girls’ access to school in conflict and crisis settings.

Skeptics might argue that, since most bills failed to become law or receive dedicated funding, it’s not much worth celebrating. But it’s normal for it to take years to pass legislation, and things like the number and bipartisanship of co-sponsors, or movement through committee, or—in the case of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Act of 2018—passage through the House, are important measures of success. By those measures, these bills saw more momentum than in past years. Taken with the results of 2017, which saw passage and signing of the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, the track record for global women’s issues in the 115th Congress is not bad.

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