On my first day at the State Department, nearly six years ago, I cried. Standing in a bare-bones conference room under an American flag, I choked up with pride as I repeated the oath of office:
“I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Six years later, I cried again when I walked out the State Department door one last time. Only this time, those tears were for the loss of American leadership, and the needless, tragic deaths of far too many women and children under the heartless policies of the Trump administration.
I joined federal service to work on something I not only felt passionately about, but know to be one of the best ways to achieve global prosperity, justice, and security: advancing women’s and girls’ rights.
Over the last six years, my colleagues and I partnered with others in government, civil society and the private sector to maximize our office’s tiny budget. We’ve invested in countless women entrepreneurs, helping to grow small businesses and create jobs all over the world. Women reinvest up to 90 percent of their earnings back into their families, leading to better educated children, healthier mothers, and growing economies: the foundations for a more stable, less violent world.
We built up local capacity to collect and document forensic evidence for the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s least secure countries. A leadership development program for women in Sierra Leone led to these same women becoming the country’s frontline fighters against the Ebola epidemic. Ebola, which caused a global panic and killed 11,000 people, could have easily killed tens of thousands more. We catalyzed the public abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting in 200+ villages, ensuring that a new generation of girls is not submitted to a practice that can cause acute and chronic infection, increased risk of HIV transmission, and even death.
As civil servants, my colleagues and I entered government to serve the American public and American interests, not a particular administration. Making evidenced-based policy decisions, advancing democracy, and defending human rights are American values – not the purview of either political party.
While there have been many painful and embarrassing mistakes since January 20, 2017, there has been nothing more shocking for me personally than this new administration’s callous disregard for women and for human life.
This past March, the new administration sent an actual hate group to the UN Commission on the Status of Women to represent American civil society. And in May, this administration rolled out the most draconian, anti-life policy of any administration ever, Republican or Democratic. The so-called Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance will do exactly the opposite: kill women and their children by denying them access to family planning, maternal and child health care, and malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
Let’s be clear. This is not about restricting access to abortion, for which the U.S. has not allowed foreign aid to pay since 1973. This is about defunding and dehumanizing women and children globally, with no discernible public policy reason. It will increase costs, as HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria incidences go up globally. It will make us less secure, as health care clinics close and diseases are less likely to be contained.
And in the ultimate irony, this policy will drive up abortions and abortion-related deaths, as women lose access to contraceptives and health care, instead seeking out unsafe abortions.
As a policymaker, I am ashamed of the total disregard for decades of evidence in this decision. And as a mother, one who came close to death in childbirth, the idea of leaving one tiny, precious infant motherless… is simply unconscionable. This new policy’s name is the ultimate “alternative fact.”
Secretary Tillerson, three months into your tenure, you told us that America would carry our values “on our shoulders, everywhere we go.” I believe our values are not some sort of burden to be slung across our backs. Our values form our very core: they are the reason we stand tall, and they are the reason America has been the greatest country on earth since we first declared independence.
They are also the reason there was truly no higher honor or privilege than to work on behalf of my country, on behalf of the American people, for the past six years. I will miss this Department, my colleagues, and the work of advancing prosperity, security, and justice for all every single day.
Varina Winder is a former Senior Policy Advisor on Women’s and Girls’ Rights at the U.S. State Department.