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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on the Four Biggest Global Challenges for Women and Girls

March 8, 2017

ELLE: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on the Four Biggest Global Challenges for Women and Girls

By Mattie Kahn

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tasked with recommending international policy interventions and overseeing U.S. involvement in global affairs, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH) is the outlier. She's not less experienced than her peers or ideologically outside the norm. She's not much younger or much older than the rest of them. But she is the only woman.

"We know that over a billion people live in poverty around the world, and most of them are women and girls," Shaheen tells me when we have a chance to speak earlier this week. "If we can improve their lives, that has a positive effect on their communities, on their families, on their countries. And it has a positive impact for us; it makes us safer."

In honor of International Women's Day, Shaheen details four policy areas that, if pushed forward, could make the biggest difference in the lives of women worldwide. Read it top to bottom, so that you know just what you're fighting for every day.

Family Planning

In one of his first official acts, President Donald Trump reinstated what's known as the "global gag rule." The rule insists that no U.S. aid be awarded to any organization that either provides abortion services or even refers women to clinics that do. And it means that women around the world now have fewer and fewer places to turn to receive critical and safe abortion care. "We're telling countries they can't use their own funds, if they expect to get American dollars, to provide any kind of counseling or family planning services," Shaheen explains, adding that it's not only women who suffer when they're denied access to the resources they need, but their families and the children they may already have, too.

"According to the World Health Organization, 225 million women in developing countries want to avoid pregnancy but they don't have access or information on family planning services," Shaheen continues."And what we know is that when women do have access, they're more likely to have healthier families, more likely to have children who are healthier, more likely be able to contribute economically. So this is not just about [abortion]—this is about how do we improve the lives of women and children around the world."

Which is why just one day after Trump signed the gag rule into effect, Shaheen introduced the Global HER Act to permanently repeal the order. "We know that the way to decrease unplanned pregnancies and abortions is to make birth control and family planning services accessible and affordable, not micromanage the type of medical information and reproductive health counseling that women around the world receive," she said in a statement.

Education

In Shaheen's experience, few interventions make as serious an impact for women in developing countries as even a few extra months in school. "Just one more year of education increases a woman's income by 25 percent," Shaheen says. And children born to better educated mothers "are twice as likely to survive past the age of five." Shaheen has been a first-hand witness to what education can do for women, monitoring efforts to allow millions of young women to go to school in Afghanistan: "It's making a very big difference."

Still, she recognizes that there's plenty of work to be done. According to Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative that promotes quality education for young women and has harnessed $600 million in USAID for Let Girls Learn programs, 98 million adolescent women around the world are not in school.

Gender-Based Violence

A 2013 World Health Organization analysis found that "overall, 35 [percent] of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence."

Shaheen isn't surprised, though she agrees the statistics are horrific: "We know that women are disproportionately affected by violence and conflict." And in some countries, "we've seen rape used as an instrument of war," which is why she's committed to bringing more women to conflict-resolution and treaty summits worldwide.

But more immediately, Shaheen will soon introduce the International Violence Against Women Act, which would promote policies that emphasize women's rights and their physical and emotional safety worldwide. "We have a Violence Against Women Act here in the United States," Shaheen points out. "But ending violence based on gender and [ending] discrimination against women and girls needs to be a goal around the world." An example: Shaheen explains that husbands can legally prevent their wives from working in 18 countries. And only 67 countries have explicit policies against gender discrimination and hiring practices: "We have a long way to go."

Representation

According to Shaheen's research, state legislatures that have more women, whether those representatives are Democrats or Republicans, tend to have more family-friendly policies. "There is a direct correlation," Shaheen says, between women's involvement in government and legislation that takes women's lives and needs into account.

And while there's no "one magic silver bullet" to solve discrimination and the persistent inequities that hold women back on International Women's Day and every day after that, Shaheen believes better representation is a good place to begin pushing for change. "After the Rwandan Civil War, the government established quotas" that mandated that 30 percent of all representatives be women. "Rwanda now has one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of women in their parliament of any country in the world," Shaheen says. "And that makes a huge difference."

"If we really care about impacting countries around the world and their economic futures, then what we need to do is empower women," Shaheen continues. "And to do that, we need women across the United States to speak up—to President Trump, to their elected officials, to their governors, to their legislatures, to their members of congress, and say, 'We think this is important, and you need to pay attention to it.'"

Like many women in the Senate, Shaheen marched in the Women's March in January. "What inspired me was to hear women say, 'We're not going back.' That's a message we want to share—not just here in the United States, but with women across the world."