Kathryn C. Kaufman is managing director for global women’s issues at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The fight for gender equality is the great global cause of our time, affecting every man, woman, boy and girl.
As a political appointee in the Trump administration, I spend my days supporting the president’s National Security Strategy, which calls on the United States to empower women as key drivers for global growth and stability. It is an honor to be able to fight for women around the world who have so much to contribute but are held back by the 155 countries that have laws restricting women’s employment, by the $300 billion credit gap, by female genital mutilation, by a lack of affordable health care, by physical or sexual violence — held back, systematically, by so many barriers in so many ways.
Thankfully, here in the United States, generations of women have fought for equal rights, and consequently our challenges are more modest. While it took us 72 years to get the right to own property, 144 years to vote, 197 years to secure reproductive health rights, and 198 years to obtain equal rights to credit, today we are just as likely as men to attend college (and more likely to earn a master’s degree or doctorate), are treated equally under U.S. law, are as likely as men to have a bank account, and have full sexual and reproductive health rights.
These gains were not easily won, nor are they sufficient. Women in the United States, just like women around the world, continue to be more affected by poverty. They continue to bear the burden of unpaid care work. They continue to face discrimination and gender-based violence. According to the World Economic Forum, we will not see relative gender parity for another 107 years. For women to achieve equality in a more reasonable timeline, we must ensure that every system is protecting our rights and pushing for equality.
Full sexual and reproductive health rights are a key factor in achieving women’s empowerment. We know that when women can choose whether to have children and how many children to have, their lives are improved. They are more likely to participate in the labor force and more likely to stay in school longer. They increase their earning potential.
But, suddenly, the United States is in danger of moving in the opposite direction.
Recent abortion legislation passed in Alabama and other states threatens to reverse generations of hard-fought gains in this country. If allowed to stand, these restrictive laws will take away a woman’s basic right to determine what is best for herself, her family and her body.
I am a Christian and a Republican who believes women in crisis should be met with compassion. I respect both sides of this complicated issue. But my own experiences and the overwhelming research data on the topic have convinced me that women must have full sexual and reproductive health rights to have full control over their lives.
The data is too compelling and life’s experiences too exacting for us not to have empathy and understanding on an issue that affects our very bodies.
I have seen friends go through the difficulty of having to make the decision to abort a pregnancy, some because they were not prepared to be a parent and some because of the health of the baby. Other friends have experienced the heartbreaking death of an unborn child at times far later than most Americans believe abortions should be an option. I have gone through in vitro fertilization only to go through the horrible experience of suffering a miscarriage late in the pregnancy. I have also gone through the family services program to become a foster parent here in Washington. I can attest that the United States does not have a viable system to care for its children in need of loving parents.
The issues here are complicated. What’s needed is not answers dictated by lawmakers but deep conversation, respect for differing opinions and strong voices. But for too long a critical perspective has been missing: Republican women who believe women should have full reproductive and sexual health rights have been silent.
Now is the time for us to courageously find our voices and bring them to the table.
The fight for global gender equality will require every man, woman, boy, girl — Republican and Democrat — to come together and ask leaders to be as brave as women and girls are around the world every single day.