After the Gag Rule: Foreign Assistance and Support for Women


The conversations at the blogging salon on RH Reality Check continue, and thoughts have turned toward ideas about how women’s rights and health can best be actualized through funding and other support.

Alanna Shaikh makes the point that funding is essential to make progress and says that, “It’s hard to ramp up funding in the face of economic crisis. It’s also essential.” Sheryl WuDunn followed up with comments about the possibility of promoting volunteerism through a Peace Corps-inspired group, like a social change corps. Alanna plays with this idea a little bit more:

    Maybe we could build on existing structures, and channel additional human energy through them; they are already set up to select skilled people and match them to need. We could expand Peace Corps, for example, and gear it more toward woman. Peace Corps volunteers already tend to be women; maybe a woman-to-woman program could be designed?

These ideas are good-natured for sure, but there’s some more digging to be done about what women’s volunteer work (aka unpaid labor) means, plus the uneasy relationship of assistance given to the global south from the global north. Here’s my response to this, cross-posted from the salon:

    I think that creating a sense of civic responsibility on the local and global level is an extremely important value to instill in people. Especially in times of economic hardship, it is important that people feel useful and engaged with their communities and the world at large. As an activist who has volunteered much of my time over the years to causes I believe in, I know that creating change and working with others to do so is a really powerful thing. However, I also think that the especially in a situation like Alanna suggests, with a woman-to-woman kind of exchange, it’s important to think about the impact volunteering has on the value of women’s labor.

    The theme of the 53rd Commission on the Status of Women, which took place at the beginning of March at the United Nations, was, “the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS.” It’s important to think about this when considering infrastructure and volunteer opportunities, especially for women. Part of equal sharing of responsibilities means establishing standards for compensation and other forms of support and recognition for women’s work, especially in the caretaking context.

Kelly Castagnaro, IWHC’s Director of Communications, had a bit to say along these lines as well:

    I agree with the need to foster civic responsibility, especially when it comes to global issues. But to go back to Alanna’s point, our first priority should be ensuring that the United States spends scarce resources in the most effective and efficient manner. Efforts underway to overhaul the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act present an opportunity to advance human rights and strengthen U.S. leadership as a global collaborator. A critical step needed is prioritizing the wellbeing, rights, and empowerment of women and young people who remain at risk of poverty, illness and violence, by moving away from siloed, thematic approaches to health (i.e. HIV/AIDS, family planning, maternal health, gender equality), to a comprehensive, and more cost effective, sexual and reproductive health and rights approach that addresses individual lives holistically and according to local realities.

    Every individual needs a range of services and information to protect him/herself and live healthy and happy lives. Local NGOs and public health experts on the ground must be able to determine the best programming for their own communities. For too long, local organizations were constricted by mandates from Washington. U.S. foreign assistance can be restructured to better empower local communities and save many lives in the process.



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