President Joe Biden has nominated Geeta Rao Gupta as the next ambassador at large for global women’s issues at the United States State Department. Gupta is a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that promotes the UN. The ambassador post leads the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which was founded in 1995 to advise the State Department on how to integrate women’s empowerment in US foreign policy, diplomacy, partnerships and programs.
If Gupta’s nomination is approved by the Senate, she faces the daunting task of revitalizing the ambassadorship after its decline to virtual nonexistence during the Trump administration. Gupta, born in 1956 in Mumbai, India, is a graduate of Bangalore University’s doctoral psychology program. She also has a master’s degree in philosophy and a master of arts from the University of Delhi. She is the founder of the 3D Program for Girls and Women, a nonprofit group aiming to provide economic opportunities for those constituents, though its Washington base closed last year. According to the White House, Gupta also works as a senior adviser to Co-Impact, a philanthropy that promotes gender equality.
In a blog interview with the UN Foundation about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on women and girls, she said, “What I will most remember is the way it so quickly exposed the inequities between women and men, the hidden pandemic of violence against women, and the role that women play in the care economy — juggling jobs while caring for and educating their children at home.”
Gupta has also held senior roles at Unicef and the International Center for Research on Women, among other organizations, and has co-chaired the Global Taskforce to Tackle Gender-Based Violence at the World Bank, a nine-month project. She refers to herself on her Twitter page as a “Gender Expert.”
Elizabeth Cousens, the president of the UN Foundation, said in a statement to PassBlue that Gupta “has made an indelible impact on our work, helping to shape the Foundation’s gender strategy as a Senior Fellow and as founder of the 3D Program for Girls and Women.” Gupta was not available for comment, the foundation added.
According to Melanne Verveer, who held the US global ambassador post when it was first established in 2009, under the Obama administration, and who now leads the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Gupta’s confirmation — starting with a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — is not a given because the committee’s work is seriously backlogged. Roughly 50 foreign policy nominations are stalled on the Senate floor. “You know what our political life is like today, it’s extremely polarized,” Verveer said in a phone interview with PassBlue on Nov. 27.
Verveer, who in the Clinton administration served as assistant to the president and chief of staff to the first lady, said that the State Department post focuses on viewing gender equality as a matter of national security and involves working closely with the US secretary of state on advising, managing and carrying out programs that promote gender equality throughout the world. Two of its “cross-cutting” priorities are combating violence against women and combating violent extremism.
The post has evolved a lot since Verveer held it, from 2009 to 2013, particularly during the Trump presidency, when the ambassadorship sat empty for several years. PassBlue reported last year on Kelley Currie, who held the position from January 2020 until the end of the year. Her work to promote vital women’s issues was stymied significantly by the administration’s goal to curtail the reproductive rights of women worldwide. Currie reported directly to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who showed no appetite in furthering the rights of women and shared President Trump’s opposition to women’s reproductive and sexual health rights.
Among other moves to hinder such rights globally, the Trump administration pressured the United Nations Security Council in 2019 to remove explicit references to sexual and reproductive health in a draft resolution on gendered issues in conflict. PassBlue broke the story, in an op-ed essay, detailing how the wording in the draft was changed to forestall a veto threat by the US as a permanent member, reverting to language in previous Council resolutions on the women, peace and security agenda to ensure the 2019 resolution’s approval.
The ambassador post under Currie, who had previously worked as a diplomat at the US mission to the UN, mostly focused on helping to coordinate the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, a “whole-of-government” effort to promote global women’s economic empowerment, led by Ivanka Trump, the president’s special adviser. The program was implemented by the US Agency for International Development, or Usaid.
In its most recent annual report, for 2020-21, the program said it was reaching more than 12 million women and “inspiring” 40 countries to join a call for women’s economic empowerment.
Critics have noted that the program was “siloed” from the start, concentrating exclusively on finances and neglecting issues like health and education and including language restricting abortion-related funding. Further defined by the Women’s Empowerment and Economic Empowerment Act, Ivanka Trump’s program was supposed to increase women’s economic power through businesses that support women, with roughly half of the funding going to women-owned businesses and half toward “activities that reach the very poor” globally.
A March 2021 audit done by the Government of Accountability Office over 14 months revealed, however, that Usaid did not have a working definition of women-owned businesses, did not collect data by business size and could not determine how much funding had reached the very poor.
In a move that has garnered opposition in the Senate, Biden is seeking to replace the program with a global initiative called the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund. With $200 million in financing, it “will prioritize responding to the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, conflict, and crisis (including root causes of migration) on women and girls,” according to a State Department budget document.
The same budget shows a request to allocate $10 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2021, for the ambassador at large role for which Gupta has been nominated. (The office has been led by an interim State Department official, Katrina Fotovat, since Currie left.)
The Biden White House has been advocating for women and girls in other ways as well, notably establishing the Gender Policy Council to integrate gender equity and equality in both domestic and foreign policies. It is the first freestanding policy council tasked on such matters in the Executive Office of the President.
Anna Bianca Roach is a Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow who focuses on climate reporting. She has worked in Canada, Armenia and the United States and is a native speaker of English, French and Italian. She has an M.S. in investigating reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in conflict studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She has written for OpenDemocracy, The Washington Post and Deutsche Welle.