Six months into her job as the United States ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Kelley Currie has done little to demonstrate that she can restore American leadership on women’s rights while reporting to an ideologically driven administration known for its regressive stance on gender equality.
While the ambassador’s office is charged with promoting women’s rights globally, the administration is better known for curtailing them. Currie reports directly to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who shows little interest in furthering the rights of women and shares President Trump’s opposition to reproductive and sexual health rights.
Citing studies showing that cuts in sexual and reproductive health care services during the Covid-19 pandemic will be “catastrophic,” Avril Benoît, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, recently accused the Trump administration of “throwing its weight around on the global stage to obstruct lifesaving aid efforts” — by blocking references to sexual and reproductive health in aid packages and “using its tremendous power as the largest funder of global health and humanitarian assistance to slash international support for these essential services.”
Currie, who is based in Washington, D.C., declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Trump administration actually tried to eliminate the post in its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, a move that was blocked when Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, successfully amended the budget to restore it. Senator Shaheen, along with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) later introduced the Women’s Global Empowerment, Development and Prosperity Act to permanently establish the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department. Currie stepped into the position in January after it had been left empty for three years.
“Advancing the rights of women and girls around the world has historically been and should continue to be a US foreign policy priority,” Senator Shaheen told PassBlue in an email. “The ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues leads our government’s response to the barriers impeding women and girls around the world. These barriers include restricting and limiting access to comprehensive health care services, omitting women from leadership positions and economic opportunities, enabling violence against women and blocking access to education.”
Fifteen years ago, the United Nations Security Council called on each member country to write national plans detailing how they would fulfill the requirements of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (known as WPS). The WPS agenda, unanimously adopted by the Council in 2000, comprises four pillars: participation, conflict prevention, protection and relief and recovery. The Obama administration created the global ambassadorship in 2009, appointing Melanne Verveer, who led development of the US plan.
Reporting directly to the secretary of state is “an incredibly important aspect of the position” and is designed to ensure that global women’s issues are prioritized and not siloed, Verveer told PassBlue. Verveer, who served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Clinton regarded global women’s issues as “integral to our foreign policy.”
Jessica Neuwirth, director of Donor Direct Action, a nonprofit organization that finances women’s groups in the global South, told PassBlue that when Verveer ran the office it was very active and used its cross-agency role to good effect, adding, “It got high-level cooperation, and other agencies took them seriously.”
The job simultaneously includes serving as the US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose yearly international gathering of rights advocates in March was postponed because of the pandemic.
Before this appointment, Currie served under UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as the US representative to the UN Economic and Social Council and alternative representative to the UN General Assembly.
Verveer, now the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, said that Currie’s experience as a government appointee at the UN “can bring a dose of reality” about the importance of constructive US engagement with the world body.
“I would hope that the US could make a positive contribution, given that we claim we want to be fully supportive of the Women’s Peace and Security Act, and that we want to be supportive of other elements of women’s progress.”
Laurie Phipps, a former international affairs adviser with the US mission to the UN who worked with Currie there, said: “The position of ambassador for global women’s issues has the potential to help to improve and change women’s lives around the world. But as well-meaning and well-intentioned as the current ambassador might be, her scope of being able to deliver results for disadvantaged women is probably severely constrained by the general outlook of the current administration.”
Who is Currie?
Interviews with people who have worked with Currie or followed her career paint a picture of a realist committed to human rights. More than one person who agreed to speak on background mentioned Currie’s professionalism and sincere concern for Myanmar’s human-rights and refugee crises. Currie also led the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice and served as an Asia policy adviser to the under secretary of state and as senior adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“Throughout her career she has aligned herself with mainstream Republican policy issue and positions,” Phipps said. “But she approaches them in a pragmatic and professional way.”
PassBlue reported in January that when Currie took office, advocates of women’s rights warned that she could become the mouthpiece for a more extreme agenda, citing the global gag rule — introduced by President Reagan and reinstated and expanded by President Trump — preventing foreign organizations receiving US global health assistance from providing information, referrals or services for legal abortion or advocating access to abortion services in their country — even with their own money.
The Guttmacher Institute, a global reproductive health and rights research organization, says the Trump administration’s “unprecedented” application of the gag rule to all US global health assistance — including projects unrelated to family planning— affected about $12 billion in estimated planned funding in 2018, up from roughly $600 million.
With Currie as a leading Trump appointee at the UN in her previous role there, the US successfully pressured the Security Council to remove references to sexual and reproductive health from a resolution related to combating sexual violence during war.
The US stance on the resolution was “outrageous,” Neuwirth said. “I found that to be such a complete betrayal. It was so painful to watch them scuttle a resolution that would normally be so uncontroversial.”
Neuwirth said that international negotiations over issues of sexual health and reproductive rights often require compromise. “We’ve done a lot of work with administrations in the past that were opposed to expansion of abortion access, for example, but we managed to find language to make it work concerning promotion of women’s rights.”
Phipps told Foreign Policy magazine last year that the administration’s policies and approach drove her to retire after serving at the US mission to the UN for nearly 30 years. “I could not stomach the idea of negotiating in bad faith and losing the respect and trust of my colleagues, which I believe is essential to being a successful negotiating partner.”
Currie’s work at the UN presented other formidable challenges as the US aggressively criticized the UN and Haley threatened on her first appearance at the UN she was “taking names” of nations that didn’t agree with the US.
“Under this administration, the US has been such a problematic participant within the UN system and with UN deliberations,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, an international group. “It will be interesting to know how Ambassador Currie navigates the UN system in this post and how she can build bridges with the experts who deal with peace and security and women issues and 1325.”
Also up in the air is how or even whether the US will promote its national action plan for women, peace and security, which requires cooperation among federal agencies. It’s a question of “how the whole of government comes in,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, director of gender policy and strategy at the congressionally funded United States Institute for Peace, which convenes a civil society working group on WPS.
“What does the funding look like?” Kuehnast said. “Without funding, it’s window dressing.”
Ivanka Trump shows up
One new funding priority appears to be the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative created and led by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. President Trump requested $100 million for the W-GDP Fund in fiscal year 2020. It would go toward promotion of women’s economic development through the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), the Peace Corps, the congressionally funded Millennium Challenge Corporation and other foreign-aid organizations.
The administration claims that in its first year the initiative reached 12 million women worldwide, though it got mixed reviews at Devex, a media platform for development and aid workers.
A transcript of a February press conference on the W-GDP initiative, led by an unnamed “senior State Department official,” includes a question from an unidentified reporter who asked why such hallmarks of foreign aid as education, microloans and cultural exchanges are being cut while the W-GDP receives more funding.
“I’m wondering if you can explain to me, other than the presence of the president’s daughter, why these particular programs are so much more supported and are thought of as good investments in these things, [while] so many other Usaid programs that do similar things for women and nonwomen all around the world are deemed not to be?”
The official replied that W-GDP is a “worthwhile investment in American interests,” adding, “I used to work on [Capitol] Hill, I used to do appropriations work, and I used to fall into this fallacy idea that more money equals ‘we care more about this,’ or that by throwing money at problems we’re going to solve them, because that was the tool that we had when we did appropriations.” (Currie formerly served as foreign operations appropriations associate and staff director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus for Representative John Porter, a Republican of Illinois.)
Financing to help women worldwide during the pandemic is relatively modest. The State Department announced this spring that with Usaid, its overall Covid-19 assistance abroad includes $2 million for the Economic Support Fund at the Office of Global Women’s Issues for survivors of gender-based violence. The money also goes toward advocacy and awareness campaigns.
Members of the Senate and the US House of Representatives sent letters to Pompeo in May requesting that emergency global health funding by Congress for Covid-19 be exempted from the gag rule. The House letter had 109 signatures.
The Senate letter, led by Senator Shaheen and Senator Patricia Murray (D-WA), a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, says that “ideology is no excuse for hampering the international response to Covid-19, jeopardizing hard-won progress in the fight against HIV/AIDs, or failing to act as access to contraceptive care decreases and gender-based violence increases.” It was signed by 19 senators, all Democracts.
While experts interviewed for this article were quick to agree that women’s economic development initiatives are important, some said such programs should not cancel efforts to combat violence against women or trafficking of women.
“The stronger that women are, the less oppressed they are, the less that they are violated in terms of human rights, the stronger their countries are going to be,” Verveer said. “The problem as I see it is when you have a focus to the exclusion of other considerations.”
Neuwirth of Donor Direct Action is not optimistic that the Trump administration will prioritize issues critical to global women’s rights through Currie’s office.
“It’s very clear, even structurally, that they’re not interested in dedicating any resources to it,” she said. “Their policies are opposed to efforts to move the women’s movement forward.”
Bien-Aimé said she hoped that Currie can raise the profile of the ambassadorship, adding that “it’s just very, very difficult to have any kind of gravitas or credibility when the president of the United States has been accused of sexual violence, sexual predation. That is a significant dark cloud over the United States when it comes to working for women and girls.”
Promotion of women’s rights in the State Department post and by extension at the UN may not be an important priority for Trump as he seeks re-election. “This administration is playing to a certain constituency,” Neuwirth said. “And it doesn’t feel in many ways that it is representing the country — certainly not women in this country.”
“What is the country standing for?” Neuwirth added. “We’re letting down not only ourselves but so many women around the world.”
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