Faculty Journal Posted on Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Trump Must Have a Global Women’s Agenda

Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Donald Trump’s election to become the 45th president of the United States has laid bare a nation deeply divided along race, class and gender lines. From personal attacks on a female TV news host to lewd audio recordings made off a “hot” microphone to charges of unwanted sexual advances made by several women, Donald Trump has been a polarizing figure on multiple levels, especially as they relate to gender issues. Some have even gone so far as to say that Trump’s combative style represents a “war on women.”

However, as President-elect, Trump now has an opportunity to distance himself from his campaign and instead chart a new course with women – both in the U.S. and globally. To demonstrate his willingness to change his image from “sexist, misogynist, chauvinist,” as an opinion piece described him, President-elect Trump must immediately appoint a high-level bipartisan woman as a White House Adviser on Violence against Women, in addition to creating a State Department position dedicated to national and global women’s issues (much like the role that Ambassador Melanne Verveer played under President Obama). He must also ensure a prompt and timely appointment of the Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women under the next Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It would be a mistake for Trump not to take the opportunity, in a polarized political environment, to elevate the importance of global women’s issues to his entire administration.

Trump needs to acknowledge the crucial need for leadership on these issues, as gender-based violence cuts across national boundaries, race, and class. Data show that 35 percent of women globally have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. A recent survey found that more than one-third of European women — 62 million women — have been the target of physical or sexual violence from the age of 15 onwards. In India, where rape is a notoriously under-reported crime due to social stigma and a general mistrust of the police, the National Crime Records Bureau reports that a woman is raped every 22 minutes. The conviction rate for rape cases in India is only 26 percent, although in 94 percent of the cases the perpetrator is known to the victim.

The incidence of violence against women in the United States is also troubling: 1 in 6 American women have experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime and 1 in 4 women have been the target of domestic violence. Like elsewhere in the world, reporting tends to be low, with 60 percent of assaults not reported to the police. A recent federal campus safety report found that there are nearly 100 American college campuses with more than 10 reports of rape with some as high as 42 reports. Findings of sexual assaults on women in the U.S. military also show similar trends. Research conducted by the Department of Defense, as well as a survey by the Rand Corporation, shows nearly 5 percent of all active-duty women have experienced unwanted sexual contact. These incidents against American women share a common thread with those across the world: violence against women and girls is rooted in a fundamental structure of gender inequality, where wider social norms and prevailing attitudes perpetuate such behavior with profound costs to their societies.

A broad coalition of grassroots groups together with the leadership of then-Senator Joe Biden helped in the passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed into law by Congress in 1994. This important piece of legislation provides federal aid towards the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, allows for civil redress, requires police departments to provide training, and provides temporary housing for those fleeing domestic violence, among other features. The operational text of the law is gender-neutral, meaning that the funds can be directed to male victims as well. It was reauthorized by bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2000 and again in 2005. The 2013 reauthorization, however, took place after a bruising battle over expanding definitions to include “intimate partners,” as well as broadening the law to include coverage of LGBT groups, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans. The act was eventually reauthorized, but women’s groups are wary that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s pick for Attorney General, as well as Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, were both opposed to the most recent reauthorization of VAWA.

While the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA eventually passed, the U.S. has yet to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), an important piece of legislation that would allow issues related to gender-based violence to be included in the country’s foreign policy dealings across the world. The bill appropriates foreign aid funds and includes provisions for best practices to prevent violence, protect victims, and prosecute offenders. It was most recently brought to Congress in 2015, where it failed to gain much traction. It has most recently been referred by the House Foreign Affairs to the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. Future support for this bill in the incoming administration remains unclear given the opposition to important gender issues from Cabinet nominees like Price, Sessions and Andrew Puzder, the selected Labor Secretary.

Trump’s position on preserving reproductive rights is also an issue of grave concern for women’s health advocates. He has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives about forty percent of its money in government grants and contracts, in addition to promising to appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court to help overturn the 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, as Governor of Indiana, signed a measure into law in March 2016 that would have made abortion regulations some of the strictest in the nation; a federal judge later ruled that was unconstitutional after an injunction was filed by Planned Parenthood. Restrictive legislation on abortion has been on the rise throughout the country. Most recently, in Ohio the state legislature passed the ‘heartbeat’ law which makes abortion illegal as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy. While Republican Governor John Kasich ended up vetoing that bill, he did sign a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks without any exceptions for rape and incest. Ohio represents the 18th state in the United States to pass a 20-week abortion ban. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has struck most of these laws down on constitutional grounds, including one of the most widely-watched cases in Texas. Additionally, the Court of Appeals ruled against restrictive laws in Idaho, and in other cases, federal judges overturned bans in Arizona, Georgia, Arkansas and North Dakota.

The politically-charged environment on the abortion issue, coupled with statements from conservative opponents like Vice President-elect Pence, who has promised to send Roe v. Wade “to the ash heap of history,” leave women fearful that current laws protecting women’s legal rights might be attacked at the very highest level of the next administration. The appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a history of vigorously opposing abortion rights, together with the possibility of 2-3 pro-life appointments in the Supreme Court over the next few years could hasten the chipping away of legal abortion in the United States.

From violence to poverty to limited access to healthcare, women across the world face many significant challenges, and women in the United States are no exception. In order to help combat the variety of challenges and discrimination that women still face, President-elect Trump needs to support a progressive women’s agenda – one that ensures gender equality and the upholding of rights, rather than one that whittles away the advances and gains that women have made over the last several decades.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.


Shyama Venkateswar is Director of the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House and Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College. In this capacity, she leads the Public Policy Program’s undergraduate curriculum, teaches the senior Capstone Seminar, co-manages faculty initiatives, works closely with city & state agencies for student internships, manages adjuncts, and directs a scholars program funded by the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women. She is a regular columnist for Roosevelt House’s website on a variety of national and global policy issues on conflict resolution, food security, women’s leadership, criminal justice reform, among others. She has almost twenty years of experience in research, policy and advocacy focusing on social justice issues, both in the U.S. and globally. Before coming to Hunter College, she worked at the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW), where she served as Director of Research & Programs, and helped provide the vision and strategic direction for the Council’s policy agenda on economic security for low-income women, diversity in higher education and the corporate arena, women’s leadership, and ending global violence against women. She is co-author of two NCRW reports, Caring for Our Nation’s Future; and The Challenge and the Charge: Strategies for Retaining and Advancing Women of Color in addition to numerous commentary and opinion pieces on poverty, job creation, peace-building, and immigrant rights published in The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Asia Times, The Indian Express, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She has given Congressional briefings, and presented her research findings to academic, policy, advocacy and corporate audiences. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University and is a graduate of Smith College.