What the Omnibus Spending Bill Means for Women’s Rights Worldwide

After several months of delay, the House and Senate approved a one trillion-dollar omnibus bill to fund the federal government through September 2014. Together with the budget compromise reached in December 2013, the bipartisan omnibus legislation replaces the across-the-board sequestration cuts –around 5% for many foreign assistance programs—that were in place throughout much of 2013. The international affairs budget survived largely intact.

The global health budget fared particularly well. Even in a difficult budgetary environment, the Global Health Programs account was prioritized and funded to the tune of $8.4 billion, bringing this account, which includes both Department of State and USAID health activities, to its highest-ever funding level. 

Despite earlier threats by House Republican appropriators, family planning and reproductive health spending will continue at roughly the same level as the past year.  For FY 2014, the omnibus provides at least $575 million for bilateral international family planning and reproductive health spending.  It also includes an additional $35 million for a U.S. contribution to UNFPA–funding which an earlier House Appropriations proposal would have zeroed out completely.

Beyond family planning and reproductive health, the bill increases maternal and child health funding by $78 million, bilateral HIV funding by $146 million, and funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria by $81 million. It provides $150 million in bilateral and security assistance specifically earmarked to fight gender-based violence, and it tasks the State Department and USAID to “incorporate coordinated efforts to combat a variety of forms of gender-based violence,” including child marriage. 

In policy terms, the omnibus spending bill largely holds the current line, neither advancing nor further undermining women’s health and rights around the world. Unlike the earlier House Appropriations proposal, it does not impose the harmful Global Gag Rule/Mexico City policy, but neither does it include language blocking its reinstatement in the future. The bill leaves in place numerous longstanding restrictions on foreign aid funding, including the Helms Amendment (prohibition on use of funds to promote or provide abortion). It perpetuates restrictions on U.S. contributions to UNFPA, requiring a dollar-for-dollar reduction of U.S. funding equivalent to the amount of money that UNFPA spends in China. And disappointingly, language added in the Senate to allow funding for abortion for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest—making it consistent with other areas of federal law—was removed from the final bill.

While holding the line on family planning and reproductive health funding is extremely important and a significant victory in the current political climate, it is not enough. Given that an estimated 14 million girls are married before they turn 18, a brief mention of child marriage as a form of gender-based violence is also insufficient. And with 222 million women around the world with an unmet need for modern contraceptives and some 20 million unsafe abortions performed each year, stronger U.S. leadership and further coordinated investment between U.S. government entities is critical.   

The Obama Administration has the opportunity to advance the rights of women around the world by including strong funding for family planning and reproductive health, as well as robust funding in support of ending child marriage and gender-based violence, in the FY 2015 budget request, expected to be released on March 4. As House and Senate appropriators turn their attention to next year’s funding, the Administration needs to send a strong signal that the status quo is not good enough–the United States must be a leader to promote the health rights of women and girls throughout the world.

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