The lead U.S. foreign aid agency has proposed a new policy on gender and women’s empowerment that eliminates any mention of transgender people or contraceptives, running counter to its own long-standing practices in deciding what programs to support.
The draft policy released by the U.S. Agency for International Development on Wednesday was billed as an update and replacement to the original 2012 policy, released under the Obama administration. Though written subtly, the agency’s gender policy is parsed closely by experts and grantees as a clue to the kind of initiatives the agency will prioritize, and it guides USAID’s grant-making and development work worldwide.
The updated policy has been in the works for months and has been the subject of much scrutiny and internal controversy. It states its goal as “a prosperous and peaceful world in which women, girls, men, and boys enjoy equal economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights and are equally empowered to secure better lives for themselves, their families, their communities, and their countries.”
USAID did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Perhaps the starkest difference is how the old and new policies refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — indeed, whether those populations are mentioned at all. The 2012 policy mentions LGBT people twice — once in a footnote and once in a reference to partnering with LGBT advocates to advance gender equity. It also used the phrase “gender identity” eight times, in recognition of the transgender experience, in which a person’s assigned sex does not accord with their own gender identiity.
The new policy doesn’t use the acronym LGBT or its more inclusive variants or the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender” or “identity” at all.
“It sends a message when an overarching umbrella policy that is supposed to inform all of USAID’s practices and initiatives is missing those factors,” said Gayatri Patel, director of gender advocacy at CARE, a humanitarian organization, though she added it is difficult to know yet how the new policy will impact future USAID programming.
That omission sparked an internal email exchange among USAID officials this week, which was seen by ProPublica. A USAID official passed along a comment from a colleague, noting the exclusion of those words. In a response sent around an hour later, Timothy Meisburger, USAID’s director of the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, wrote that while staff should feel free to comment on the policy, they should “keep in mind that the policies of the current Administration may differ from those of previous Administrations, and that it is our duty as civil servants to faithfully execute the policy of the current Administration.”
Meisburger, a political appointee who joined the agency in 2017, did not respond to a text message and email requesting comment.
In a section on inclusivity, the 2012 policy is specific, saying it applies to people “regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic area, migratory status, forced displacement or HIV/AIDS status.”
The new policy is far more vague, saying in its inclusivity section that the agency wants to ensure “all people, including those who face discrimination and thus may have limited access to a country’s benefits, legal protections, or social participation, are fully included and can actively participate in and benefit from development processes and activities.”
In a section on maternal health, the new draft policy mentions only “fertility awareness” and “healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies” as family planning methods, even though USAID has funded the provision of contraceptives in developing countries for decades. The 2012 policy discussed the global lack of access to contraceptives.
That change is in line with the Trump administration’s yearslong effort to advance its socially conservative views on family planning in the global arena.
“For the gender policy to be silent on that is another glaring omission,” Patel said.
Gender experts and advocates said the new policy falls far short of providing the up-to-date technical expertise that the agency needs to grapple with gender issues in development.
“The field has progressed in the eight years since 2012,” said Susan Markham, USAID’s former senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment. “But this document does not do that. It is not based on technical advances or knowledge. It’s clearly a political document about the word gender.”
The proposed USAID policy also adopts the phrase “unalienable rights,” which did not appear in the 2012 version. That phrase mirrors the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, a panel launched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019.
When he unveiled the commission’s draft report in July, Pompeo derided the “proliferation of rights.” Critics say establishing such a hierarchy of rights endangers the lives and safety of vulnerable groups like LGBT people and women around the world. The commission’s draft report asserted that the two foremost unalienable rights, in the view of America’s founders, were the right to property and religious liberty, and describes same-sex marriage as a “divisive social and political” controversy.
The new policy is in tension with another set of USAID rules, the Automated Directives System, which lays out the agency’s organization and functions. A section of that rulebook dealing with gender, updated in 2017, addresses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and emphasizes the importance of gender identity when conducting analysis.
Officials at USAID have repeatedly pushed back release of the revised gender policy. It was originally slated for release in late 2019, said three people familiar with the process, and was delayed in part by the coronavirus pandemic. The policy rewrite has also been shrouded in secrecy, with outside advocates and even gender experts within the agency getting little chance to offer input until the very final stages.
Members of the public have until early next week to submit comments on the draft.
One official involved in the policy update process was Bethany Kozma, the USAID deputy chief of staff. Before joining the Trump administration in 2017, Kozma advocated against Obama-era guidelines that schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. During her time in the administration, she has played a key role in advancing conservative causes globally, such as opposing references to sexual and reproductive health in United Nations documents.
In the last few months, USAID’s leadership has been seeded with several right-wing political appointees, including Mark Kevin Lloyd, a Tea Party activist with a history of making and sharing anti-Islamic comments, who was named the agency’s new religious freedom adviser; Kozma, who was elevated to a higher position as the agency’s deputy chief of staff; and Merritt Corrigan, the agency’s former deputy White House liaison, who had made repeated anti-LGBT statements on social media. Corrigan left USAID this month after she unleashed a tirade against the agency on Twitter, though she later claimed she did not send those tweets.
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