Senate Floor Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Women's Empowerment And Trafficking In Persons

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, the White House recently unveiled the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), an interagency plan to increase women’s global labor force participation and advancement in the workplace, improve access of women entrepreneurs to market opportunities, and remove barriers to economic growth for women.

I support the initiative, although not based on the erroneous claim of some in the White House that it is the first women’s initiative ever launched by the United States.  On the contrary, I and many other Members of Congress, and previous Administrations, have supported such efforts for many years.  However, there is still a lot of work to be done and I hope W-GDP builds on those efforts.   

Too many of this Administration’s actions have fallen far short of the President’s rhetoric, or have been the antithesis of what he promised.  So while I am ready to do what is necessary to support W-GDP, I worry that this initiative may be part of the same story.   From human trafficking at the southern border, to processing asylum applicants, to combating HIV/AIDS, this Administration purports to be serious about addressing global problems while implementing policies or proposing budgets that bear no resemblance to effective solutions and in many cases would make the situation worse.

For example, while the objectives of W-GDP are laudable, it is being implemented by the same White House that sought to cut the budget for the Department of State and foreign assistance programs by roughly 30 percent in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 – cuts that would have decimated funding for programs that address the needs of the world’s poorest people, for water and sanitation, maternal and child health, education and employment opportunities, to stave off poverty and disease that disproportionately afflict women and girls.  In fact, the President’s budget did not include a single dollar for W-GDP.

This Administration has also waged war on reproductive health, reportedly directing the omission of reporting on reproductive rights in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights, and one of President Trump’s first acts after his inauguration was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule.  In fact, egged on by extremists in his Administration, he expanded it to condition funding for every nongovernmental organization (NGO) implementing any health programs for the United States overseas, even if their programs have nothing to do with reproductive health.  In other words, if an NGO spends millions of dollars in India to combat HIV/AIDS, but spends $1 of its own private funds – not U.S. taxpayer funds – to provide counseling on abortion, it is ineligible for any U.S. government funding for either purpose.  Such a policy would be unlawful in our own country.    

So while I support W-GDP, I caution all those who defend women’s rights and support economic opportunities for women to not be distracted by one initiative this Administration launched on the backs of the Congress’ rejection of President Trump’s budget, and to call on the White House to adopt a more consistent, comprehensive approach to supporting women around the world.

With that in mind, I hope the White House will speak out forcefully and consistently about the institutionalized and systemic persecution and discrimination of women in Saudi Arabia and other countries whose autocratic and corrupt governments this White House has embraced.  If the White House expects to be taken seriously about women’s empowerment, it cannot remain silent about governments whose laws and policies treat women as property and that imprison women’s rights activists.

This is not the only area in which the Administration is purporting to support vulnerable populations while its short-sighted policies are having the opposite effect.

In a November 30, 2018, op-ed in the Washington Post, Ivanka Trump announced that the Administration had decided to limit the number of waivers for assistance for countries that are  identified in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report as failing to meet minimum standards for combating human trafficking.  She also touted the Administration’s pledge of $45 million to a fund to end modern slavery, funds that, as is true for W-GDP, the President did not include in his budget, and from an account the White House proposed to cut.

I agree with the goal of holding governments accountable for failing to meet minimum standards for preventing trafficking in persons.  But informed people know that cutting funding for health, education, environmental conservation, counter-terrorism, and governance programs does nothing to prevent human trafficking, while it undercuts our ability to make progress on other issues of national interest.

Yet that is exactly what the Administration has done.  By belatedly approaching human trafficking as if nothing else matters and limiting use of the waiver authority Congress provided, Administration officials have spent months tying themselves in knots over which programs to continue and which to suspend.  The result is that implementing partners are running out of money, services are not being delivered, and important programs are shutting down.

The Trump Administration needs to stop governing by sound bite.  If the White House is serious about addressing human trafficking and other complex challenges, it should work with Congress to secure the necessary funding and apply the law in a common sense manner that is consistent with our national interests.

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