Category Archives: Gender Equality

Avoiding Infection: International Development and the Trump Administration

It’s not a surprise that those of us in international development organizations, like most everyone who cares about the survival of the planet, are profoundly concerned about the next four years (translation: sobbing hysterically into our morning cereal). Yes, we griped plenty about the slow pace of change in the Obama administration – for example, it took AGES to get a USAID administrator, and to change some particularly egregious Bush administration policies, such as the abstinence preferences in HIV programs. And activists critiqued and condemned the Obama administration’s policies on a variety of international humanitarian and development issues – that was our job.

At the same time, there was undeniably immense progress on “doing development right.” Here we are eight years later, and USAID has implemented a strong gender equality policy, integration of family planning and HIV services is a reality, groups that discriminate against LGBT persons are no longer given a free pass, climate change is seriously considered in a range of development programs, and local partners are increasingly consulted and included.

It’s not perfect, but we have learned a tremendous amount about how to do development well in the last eight years. Our challenge now is making sure this understanding is not jettisoned in our quest to adapt to the incoming administration.

How do we as development professionals and advocates, who are motivated by doing good in the world but also motivated by retaining our jobs, staying in business and (in some cases) making a profit – not get infected by an administration whose most powerful members reject evidence and/or hold repellent beliefs about much of the world? How do we inoculate ourselves against an America-First, “anti-globalist” ideology that replaces compassion and respect for human rights with a shortsighted and crass centering of U.S. profit and security?

These are not theoretical questions. There are going to be real decisions about cooperation versus resistance in the next four years – and frankly, the U.S. development community does not have the strongest of records in speaking truth to power. There are justifiable reasons for collaboration when the good we do in other countries outweighs the sacrifices of going along with bad policy. But we need to decide where the lines are – when no investment (or an investment in another contractor) is better than one that distorts our principles and betrays the people we are supposed to serve.

We will establish our complicity or our resistance through specific decisions. Do we integrate attention to gender in our work, even when it’s not required? Do we continue to talk to and work with organizations that provide abortion care, or do we turn our backs out of fear and an over-interpretation of the Global Gag Rule? Do we tell our HIV providers to stop offering family planning? What about serving LGBT groups, and protecting LGBT employees? Do we stop talking about and planning for climate change when it’s no longer a priority? Will we continue to see structures and systems as barriers to health, education, and economic success, or will we lapse back to thinking individual behavior alone determines success or failure? Will we help human rights groups raise the alarm by providing the evidence of poor policy and cruelty that we will have in spades, or do we stay silent?

The Trump administration will leave deep, deep wounds on the world. As development professionals and human rights advocates, we can be the connective tissue that helps knit the world back together – or we can be the scarring that takes on the exact shape of the wounds that he creates. The Trump administration will not be all-powerful without acquiescence. The people around the world we work with will either see us as a reflection of him, or his antithesis. Will we let his leadership define who the American people are?

In my optimistic (not crying in my cereal) moments, I see this as an opportunity. Our democracy is on life support, our rule of law is questionable, our domestic commitment to gender equality is laughable, our respect for human rights is intermittent. Perhaps this – our greatest moment of weakness — is precisely the moment in which we can transform our approach to international development. Maybe this is an opportunity to make a shift – tonal and structural – that tells people around the world that we don’t know better. We are just trying to figure this all out too. Maybe out of this profound lack of normalcy, we can be WITH the world instead of pretending that we’re the experts. Perhaps – even in the face of personal and professional risks — resistance and solidarity within the international development community will become our best legacy for the world.



Overtime and Social Justice

Edit: The Trump Justice Department announced on September 5, 2017, that it will not appeal a judge’s ruling against the overtime pay rule, leaving the workers I describe below unprotected and without what would have been a welcome salary boost.

The news about the Obama’s Administration’s overtime pay change took a few days to sink in for me. I didn’t immediately see it for what it was – a policy shift that would bring into sharp relief an issue that has been a constant thread in my career: how social justice nonprofits treat the people who work for them, what it reveals about their double standards, and what the implications are for gender equality.

The new policy mandates that employers must pay overtime to anyone making less than $47,500 per year and working over 40 hours per week. This has put some social justice nonprofits in an uncomfortable position. Nonprofits like U.S. PIRG have spoken out against the new rule, saying it should only apply to for-profit entities, and claiming that it would lead to nonprofit staff cuts. The director of PIRG said that those doing “mission-driven” work do not need the same protections as people at, say, McDonalds (the vast majority of whom I believe were already eligible for overtime pay).

This kind of ethical contortion (MY workers don’t need protection, only YOURS do) is unfortunately not surprising to me. Over the past 25 years, I have experienced the good and bad of working at social justice nonprofits. It has taught me some important yet devastating lessons about the ability of many nonprofit leaders to promote equality and human rights outside their organizations, while turning a blind eye, or worse, to the treatment of their own employees.

Like so many young progressives, I spent a summer canvassing in college. The group was working to end nuclear proliferation and testing (yes this was a long time ago), and daily sent me and my peacenik colleagues from Ann Arbor to the Detroit suburbs to raise money and awareness. But mostly money. The organization made it clear what it valued – you didn’t earn an hourly wage, or even compensation based on how many petition signatures you got. You got a percentage of your nightly fundraising. Even if you were doing great educational work going door-to-door, building name recognition for a pretty obscure organization, the organization only placed value on that work if you also brought in money.

There was also the human rights organization that I spent two years volunteering for in college – a position that was unpaid, for which I received no college credit. I was hopeful about getting a job there when I graduated – during my junior year abroad I had worked on human rights and served as a research associate for the organization’s founder. Coincidently, they had a job opening timed just when I was graduating – for a barely-survival-income, entry-level position, which I figured I was perfect for. So I was pretty disappointed when the director called me into his office to tell me that they had decided that instead of hiring me, they were opting for a religious volunteer – saving them about $6,000 in annual salary. There was some comfort – I had seen the crazy hours their entry-level staff worked, and knew that it would have been challenging if not impossible to pay DC rent on the salary they offered.

I could go on at great length – with things I’ve experienced or heard from others. The place I worked that promoted volunteering – yet didn’t have a comp time policy and required weekend work, so program staff couldn’t volunteer themselves. The child welfare organization that didn’t let employees go part time or have flex-time to be home with kids. The leaders of social justice organizations who regularly yell at and disrespect their employees. And so many (SO many) feminist organizations that, in different ways, show contempt for the young and fabulous feminists who work for them, or pay less-experienced men more than the women they replace.

But there have also been people who have shown real leadership on these issues. I remember one of the members on the board from my full-time job out of college, who was horrified by our miniscule salaries, saying the organization simply needed to just write higher salaries into our budget proposals (I still think many organizations just don’t think to do that). Working for the League of Women Voters out of grad school taught me the value of a union – I worked for the 501c3 side of things, but the 501c4 union had negotiated a 35-hour week and comp time, which we also benefited from. There are organizations that cap executive salaries in relation to those at the lowest rungs. These experiences reminded me that I could expect more – that not all nonprofits depend on heavy demands made of young professionals for poor compensation. That some nonprofits see organizational values as something they must embody internally, as well seek externally.

Of course, I was never in it for the money – as the PIRG director says, this was mission-driven work, and I felt (feel) a calling to contribute to human rights and gender equality. But too often, I have seen the passion for social change turned into a weapon against the very people who do much – if not most – of the hard work, and put in most of the hours. Because they are highly motivated by passion, the reasoning goes, they don’t need to be motivated by decent salaries or sustainable work hours or overtime pay. (This type of argument tends to go out the window when you reach the CEO level, strangely enough.) And how do you suppose that feels to young professionals with a college or graduate degree, living in a group house and barely affording student loan payments?

That nonprofit leaders – especially those working for social justice – don’t see the fundamental absurdity of this argument is very hard to swallow. What these leaders are showing is a blatant double standard, and what they are saying is a huge “screw you” to their employees – and in particular to young women.

As of 2011, women were three of every four employees in the nonprofit sector. At the levels applicable under this new rule (earning below $47,500) the proportion of women is likely even higher, because we know that women are underrepresented at top levels in the sector. (For example, a 2014 report found that men are 90 percent of the presidents of the largest conservation organizations.) So when any nonprofit leader says that his lower-paid workers shouldn’t get overtime, what he’s really saying is that female employees should not be paid overtime.

When you zoom out, this is what you see: a nonprofit sector fueled by the time and talents of young women, who have likely passed up opportunities to work for higher salaries elsewhere so they can pursue a passion for social change. Far too often, nonprofit leaders have been telling them their commitment to social justice will not be rewarded beyond the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good. We can do better, and it appears that thanks to the Obama Administration we finally will.

Abortion Left Off U.S. Gender and Development Agenda

It was a room filled with feminists. Or at least one could have assumed as much by the meeting’s theme of gender and international development. Panelists and presenters tackled pressing and difficult global issues that undermine women’s wellbeing: genital cutting, rape as a weapon of war, child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV, and family planning. It seemed we had all our gender and development bases covered. But as the event closed, it struck me: there had not been one mention of abortion.

Gender equality has become a major focus in international development circles, with the Obama administration responsible for a number of positive policies that mandate improved attention to the needs and rights of women and girls. These policies in turn have spawned massive investments in gender expertise within the global development set. Yet there is a peculiar, but predominantly unremarked, feature of the international development industry around gender that defies logic on its face: silence on one of the biggest threats to women’s health and human rights – unsafe abortion.

It’s not like unsafe abortion is an easily overlooked issue when you work in development. You would have to deliberately blind yourself to something that 21.6 million women experience every year, causing 13% of maternal deaths and 1.5 million years of healthy life lost to injury. Addressing the consequences of botched abortions is a major drain on developing countries’ health systems and economies. The impact of illegal abortion crosses sectors – keeping girls out of school and women away from work, or forcing girls and women to bear and support children they would have chosen not to have.

You can’t ignore it from a gender equality and human rights angle either. Many of the same countries that deny women and girls access to reliable and affordable contraception, comprehensive sex education, and communities or households safe from sexual assault also punish women if they have an abortion, denying their right to decide the number and timing of their children. Some countries, like South Africa, have liberalized their abortion laws, yet still do not provide access to what is a very safe procedure when conducted by trained professionals in sanitary conditions. As a result, even women seeking legal abortion are often forced to seek care from untrained providers.

Under normal circumstances, such a glaring and universal issue with clear roots in gender inequality and government control of women’s reproductive lives would be a priority for those concerned with gender and international development. But “normal” has been severely warped out of shape by U.S. laws and their very eager watchdogs in Congress. These laws prohibit U.S. foreign assistance funding for abortion when used “as a method of family planning” (the Helms Amendment, 1973) and for advocacy efforts around abortion rights The Siljander Amendment, 1981).

We have a pro-choice administration, but still these laws are interpreted far more stringently than their original intent. Even in cases when abortion falls well outside a family planning purpose, such as for girls and women raped in conflict zones, the U.S. offers no funding. But it is the self-censorship I find most startling, with administration officials hesitant to speak publicly about the global epidemic of unsafe abortion. Outside of organizations working on and committed to reproductive rights, there is almost complete silence among international development groups.

This is the insidious way longstanding U.S. policy works. You can sit in a room filled with people who unanimously and ardently believe that gender inequality is one of the most significant barriers to international development and never – not once – hear the word “abortion” uttered.

At a recent meeting on women and global health, I had an opportunity to raise the issue, asking the panel (who had not mentioned abortion) how we could increase access to safe abortion over the next two decades. I could have asked about any other topic – about sex workers, drug users, or genital cutting – and received a response based on human rights and the latest public health evidence. But with this question, I immediately felt as though I had thrown a grenade into the room, and the discomfort among the panelists was palpable. They apparently had no expectation that the topic would come up, and had very little interest in giving more than a cursory response. When I left the meeting, even though on an intellectual level I knew that it was a perfectly legitimate question, part of me felt like I had just committed professional suicide, or at the least a very unfortunate faux pas.

We know how to prevent women from dying or being injured by unsafe abortion. But when we stop ourselves from discussing the subject in meetings of people who care about gender, human rights, or maternal health, we have accepted failure as the default and we show no interest in seriously grappling with the status quo.

The Helms Amendment hasn’t budged for forty years. If the wall of silence around unsafe abortion is not lifted by those who care deeply about women’s empowerment and equality, we are complicit in its permanence for another forty. And when the women we work with around the world ask us why, what will we tell them?

Global HIV Response Must Have a Woman’s Shape

This was originally posted in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog on December 5, 2012

Gender inequality is HIV’s best friend. Fortunately, the converse is also true – gender equality is HIV’s nemesis. And by fighting HIV through advancement of gender equality, we reap all kinds of additional benefits.

Women account for slightly more than half of all people living with HIV, and the majority contract it through sex with long-term partners. Young women account for nearly 75 percent of infections among people ages 15-24 in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls who bear the brunt of two classic symptoms of gender oppression — being married off young or kept out of school — are particularly vulnerable to HIV. Gender violence – whether it’s rape used as a weapon of war, physical violence in the home that takes away women’s power to suggest condom use, or emotional violence that keeps women silent and untreated if they are diagnosed with HIV – is like gasoline to the spread of HIV.

See more here.