Congresswomen Meng and Lee Spearhead Letter to Head of USAID Calling for Changes to Agency's New Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Policy

Aug 28, 2020
Press Release
Correspondence signed by 86 Members of Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, today led a total of 86 Members of Congress in a letter to Acting U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator John Barsa calling for changes to the agency’s new 2020 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, a proposal which threatens to replace a decade’s worth of U.S. government policies that have improved the lives of women and girls around the world.


The draft of the new policy, which was released last week, seeks to replace the original version implemented in 2012. It would weaken numerous provisions such as those dealing with reproductive health. It would also reduce the focus on girls and eliminate references to LGBTQ people, among many other things. In addition, this draft ignores important previously implemented U.S. policies relating to youth empowerment and women’s roles in peacekeeping.


“The draft of the new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy is a disaster, and if enacted will roll back years of progress made towards gender equality and empowering women,” said Congresswoman Meng. “Acting Administer Barsa must immediately reverse course. He must engage Congress and address the concerns of gender experts and stakeholders so that a better policy can be put into place. We will continue to do all we can to prevent the Trump administration from implementing these flawed changes; changes that undermine a policy which has been successful across the globe. I await the Acting Administrator’s reply to our letter.”


“America needs to be fighting to make sure that development includes everyone---particularly women and girls,” said Congresswoman Lee. “This draft USAID policy would move us decades backward in the effort to advance gender equity and globally recognized human rights. As Co-Chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus and Vice Chair of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, I urge Acting Administrator Barsa to slow down and craft a new policy that reflects the best of America’s values. It’s imperative we uphold our commitments to defend the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people around the world.”


“An update of the USAID Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy is a prime opportunity to bolster the existing policy with new data, update it with best practices, and align it with new strategies and pieces of legislation,” said the Big Ideas for Women and Girls Coalition. “Unfortunately, the current draft of the policy is out of touch with current global best practices, and contains inaccurate and problematic elements that may stall or even reverse progress towards gender equality globally. We urge USAID to build on its technical strength and, in consultation with Congress and civil society, develop a new draft that will truly advance gender equality and USAID’s mission.”


The text of the letter that Meng and Lee spearheaded is below and a copy of the correspondence can be viewed here.


USAID is an agency of the U.S. government that administers foreign aid and leads international development and humanitarian efforts around the world.




Acting Administrator John Barsa

United States Agency for International Development

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20004


Dear Acting Administrator Barsa,


We write to the express our concerns regarding the draft of the 2020 USAID Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy. USAID has spent the last decade strengthening its ability to improve life for women and girls around the world. We do ourselves and those who benefit from U.S. programs abroad a disservice by ignoring the previous commitments we have made and needlessly starting from scratch.


A central governing document overseeing gender equality and women’s empowerment should reflect evidence-based approaches and identify appropriate Agency roles and resources to effectively leverage U.S.-taxpayer supported foreign assistance. Such a policy should be written with a focus on technical expertise, with minimal political interference, reflecting the latest evidence and best practices to ensure that the United States lives up to its stated commitment to advance gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment. We are concerned that, breaking with precedent, this draft policy seems to have been developed as a political document and reflects priorities that may undermine gender equality. 


As Members who have traditionally worked hand-in-hand with USAID with the goal of improving the lives of women and girls, we express the following concerns with this proposal: 


1. This policy constitutes a full revision and reversal of existing policy that has been honed for over a decade. The new text narrowly recasts gender equality, reducing the focus on girls and minimizing the role of social norms, roles, structures, power imbalances, and institutions that perpetuate inequality.


2. Gender equality must be inclusive and intersectional, and USAID programs must recognize the existence and specific needs of LGBTI people.


3. The policy defines rights as basic, legal or “unalienable,” rather than writing a policy that reflects and conforms with the existing globally recognized human rights approach or the treaties that define and strengthen human rights frameworks around the world.


4. The draft policy fails to recognize the critical role that comprehensive reproductive health plays in ensuring gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment. For example, access to modern, evidence-based contraceptives is critical for gender equality, but this new policy excludes any mention of contraceptives from the health section, and only references “communication between spouses” as the recommended tool for family spacing. 


5. There are numerous structural omissions that would undermine the effectiveness and consistency of USAID’s gender equality and women's empowerment efforts. The updated policy makes no reference to several relevant and exigent USG policies pre-dating this Administration including: U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (2016 update); U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (2016); and USAID Youth in Development Policy (2012). It also fails to include key components from the USAID Congressional Notification on the DDI bureau like the Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, and the Youth and Inclusive Development Hub. The policy also fails to ensure that a gender analysis shapes the strategies, projects, and activities of USAID as mandated by the WEEE Act. 


These concerns represent just a few of the issues experts consider critical to advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. This draft policy falls well short of these expected benchmarks. With these concerns in mind, we request that the external comment period be extended, that further Congressional consultations be held, and that the policy not be considered finalized until these limitations have been addressed.


We look forward to your prompt reply. 




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