Capital Critique: What's Coming in Washington?

Many women’s health and rights advocates in the United States and around the world are still feeling a post-election buzz. While we have much to celebrate, advocates will need to stay alert for opportunities to make some real progress for women and girls.

The re-election of President Obama and others down the ticket occurred in part due to the 54% of U.S. women that shaped the electorate overall—55% of whom supported President Obama (44% of women voters supported Romney). Much of the energy behind the turnout and support of women came as a backlash against wildly unpopular positions of some conservative candidates on limiting access to contraception and banning abortion in cases of rape.

The halls of Washington will look a little different in January: for the first time ever, 20 of the 100 Senators and 81 of the 435 Members of Congress will be women.  This growth is positive—though clearly we still have far to go in terms of achieving proportional representation. The Republican leadership of each of the 19 committees in the House of Representatives will have a similar look to last year—all white men.

But what will it all mean?  The first hurdle is what the lame-duck Congress, in session now, does in terms of addressing the so-called “fiscal cliff” and coming to some agreement on increasing revenues as well as budget cuts.  Though less than 1% of the federal budget overall, international development assistance may very well see a cut—including to maternal and child health, the prevention, care, and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, access to contraception, and other direct health services that are critical for women and girls’ lives. Preventing cuts to development will be challenging—both because many still feel the need to invest in domestic programs first and help the country get back on its feet, and the longstanding fact that there is not a strong constituency in the United States in support of these global programs. How things shake out in this overall budget agreement will shape investments for years to come. We will continue to make the case that investing in the health and rights of women and girls is not only the right thing to do, but it is one of the smartest investments the United States can make.

Given all that is at stake, there’s a good chance that an agreement will be made by President Obama and the current Congress to prevent the negative consequences to the U.S. economy that going over the “fiscal cliff” will create.

Fortunately for women’s health and rights advocates, times of financial constraint can open the door for good policies. When money is tight, it becomes all the more important to enact policies that ensure effective programming rather than ones that cause more red tape or prevent investments in programs that work. This is a critical opportunity to advance integrated and multisectoral health programming, ensuring qualified providers are delivering services, and resources are getting to those most in need.

The 2012 election means we will have more members in the 113th Congress who share these views. Moreover, the campaign season helped shape an electorate that is increasingly aware—and offended by—politically motivated and ill-informed policy positions that hurt women and girls.

Progress is possible, and we should take a moment to revel in this fact. But we all need to remain engaged and make our voices heard as our elected officials begin to debate issues affecting the health and rights of women worldwide.

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