The presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has released his “Agenda for Women.” It’s a tour de force of dozens of key policy priorities, both domestic and international, focused on advancing women’s rights at home and abroad. Some key takeaways in the national security and human rights space are outlined below along with some areas where additional attention would be welcome:
One Biden’s his core pledges is to advocate for Congress to recognize that the necessary ¾ of the states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA). First introduced in 1923, approved by Congress in 1972, and then sent out to the states for ratification with a deadline of 1979 (later extended to 1982), the ERA received its 38th ratification in January 2020 when Virginia finalized its ratification. Litigation over whether the time limits placed on ratification by Congress are constitutional has been proceeding in several courts (with one suit filed by Equal Means Equal being dismissed earlier this month for lack of standing). The House passed a resolution that eliminates the putative deadline; so far, there has been no comparable action in the Senate. The Alice Paul Institute—named for the Quaker suffragist who authored the ERA after being instrumental in gaining passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote—offers a history of the amendment here. Prof. Julie Suk’s take on why it failed before and how it can succeed is here. Biden co-sponsored the ERA nine times while in Congress. President Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has opposed the lawsuits, including one brought by three states attorneys general (Virginia, Nevada, and Illinois) to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.
On the multilateral plane, Biden will seek ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty dedicated to global women’s rights. Nearly all U.N members have ratified this treaty (in holding out, the United States enjoys the company of Iran, Somalia, and Sudan and a couple of small island nations—see map below). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has debated the treaty several times, but so far the full Senate has refused to give its advice and consent to ratification, in part due to unfounded fears the treaty will be cited to promote abortions and prostitution and will undermine U.S. sovereignty. Several U.S. cities and municipalities, including San Francisco, have adopted ordinances and policies in keeping with the treaty and the “human rights cities” movement.
When it comes to reproductive rights, Biden calls for the repeal of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bans U.S. federal funds (mainly Medicaid) from paying for abortions (except in cases in which the pregnancy results from rape or incest or if the woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy). The Amendment disproportionately impacts low-income women and women of color. This marks a welcome reversal from Biden’s stance at an early Democratic debate during the primary race. A bill to repeal the Amendment, known as the EACH Woman Act, is working its way through Congress.
Biden would also rescind the so-called “Mexico City Policy” (a.k.a. the global gag rule) that President Trump reinstated but in a more far-reaching form. Withdrawing this rule would enable the federal government to support civil society organizations engaged in global health efforts around the world, even if recipients provide information on safe and legal abortion services as part of their public health work. Remarkably, as one of his first moves as President, Trump, flanked by a phalanx of beaming white men, dramatically expanded the policy. Heralding the vindictiveness that has so characterized this administration, this move followed on the heels of hundreds of Women’s Marches that drew millions around the world into the streets (my dispatch is here) and a campaign that repeatedly revealed his deep-seated misogyny. Reversing the global gag rule should be an urgent priority: research has shown that the policy dramatically undermines women’s health and, paradoxically, leads to increased abortion rates in developing countries. Although this move can be accomplished by executive action, the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act (currently in the Committees on Foreign Relations and Affairs) would prevent future Republican presidents from reinstating it again.
Furthermore, as part of his broader immigration platform, Biden promises to dedicate himself to immigration reform and undo the Trump administration’s harshly punitive policies. This includes: reopening the United States to refugee resettlement (raising the admissions cap to 125,000), re-establishing a humane and expeditious asylum process for people fleeing persecution, and reinstating asylum protections for people who are escaping domestic and sexual violence. The latter requires the reversal of a decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to invoke a rarely used power and overturn a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that had allowed such survivors to demonstrate persecution on the basis of their membership in a “particular social group”—one basis for receiving refugee status. Biden will also increase the number of visas for survivors of domestic violence under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) and for victims of crime (so-called U-visas), and expedite the process for granting these and related immigration benefits, including T visas for victims of human trafficking. It will not be enough, however, to simply dismantle these cruel Trump policies; rather, Biden should develop ways to repair the harm done, including through providing psycho-social rehabilitation to children and families traumatically torn asunder and placed in inhumane detention conditions. Biden should also explore the implementation of restitutionary immigration benefits, such as expedited pathways to asylum and family reunification.
In addition to issuing a whole plan devoted to ending violence against women, Biden has endorsed passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which would make ending the epidemic of violence against women worldwide a key foreign policy priority. The proposed legislation recognizes that
“Rape and sexual assault against women and girls are used to torture, intimidate, and terrorize communities. Rape and sexual assault are used as tools of war in conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and South Sudan.”
If enacted, the IVAWA would commit the United States to helping women and girls who are victims of violence to gain access to justice. The timing of this will be crucial; women everywhere are experiencing higher levels of domestic violence while suffering from reduced access to protective services due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These commitments reflect the fact that Biden co-authored the U.S. Violence Against Women Act in 1994 (one of the legislative achievements of which he is most proud) and helped pass the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which strengthened the United States’ anti-trafficking framework. Biden released a statement on the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, July 30th, setting forth his anti-trafficking priorities.
This focus on ending VAW globally is part of Biden’s larger Women, Peace & Security (WPS) plank that will focus on supporting women’s leadership globally. This includes full implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Act, passed by Congress in 2017, which is premised on research that including women in conflict prevention efforts, peace building processes, and post-conflict governance helps to reduce conflict and instantiate stability. The Act mandates a government-wide strategy to increase the participation of women in peace and security operations and to support transitional justice and accountability mechanisms that reflect the experiences of women and girls. The Act responds to a suite of resolutions emanating from the U.N. Security Council to the same end (starting with Resolution 1325) and builds on the United States’ National Action Plan on WPS, which was released in 2011 and then strengthened in 2016. Both plans call for effective measures to investigate sexual and gender-based violence and to bring those responsible to justice. The Trump Administration has only haltingly implemented the WPS Act, while taking a number of concrete steps in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by Ambassador Don Steinberg, who once led USAID.
Biden’s Agenda for Woman contains a whole slate of economic pledges, underscoring a recognition that economic security is a women’s issue just as much as reproductive rights or the imperative to end gender discrimination. These include support for a number of pieces of draft legislation, including:
Biden has also drawn attention to the need to better support caregivers, particularly in the Covid-19 era. The Agenda announces a whole array of measures in the health, education, and economic sectors for LGBTQI+ individuals (indeed, the list of policies to be reversed vis-à-vis this community is regrettably a long one), as well as disabled, incarcerated, native, immigrant, and veteran women and women of color.
Finally, consistent with an Obama-era Executive Order, Biden has also pledged to ensure his political appointees, and the entire federal workforce, reflect the diversity that is America. Besides his intention to choose a woman Vice President and an African American women for the Supreme Court, he also committed to work for gender parity as he builds his foreign policy and national security teams, a campaign launched by the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) at the start of the election season. The commitment—which other Democratic candidates also adopted—is based not only on legitimate concerns for gender equity but also on consistent research that diverse teams are stronger, more effective, and more creative. This imperative is echoed by organizations such as Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security & Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), the Athena Leadership Project, and Women in Defense (WID).
All this may explain why polls have VP Biden up 25 points over Donald Trump with women as a whole—an historic margin. This is notwithstanding Trump’s pandering to “The Suburban Housewives of America,” perhaps because Biden’s numbers are also higher in suburban polls. To be sure, gender has always been—and likely will be—an issue on the campaign trail, but the disparity between the two candidates could not be more stark.