Newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh complements a bench that is already considered to comprise the most elite, affluent, and homogenous group of justices since the Court’s inception, continuing a long-term trend that undermines the fundamental pillars of our democracy and our society at large. The fact that the law of the land is shaped by a group of individuals who have attended law school at Yale or Harvard speaks to a more fundamental point of political participation and representation that has long been dependent on economic class and social background, exacerbating a cycle that prevents transformational leadership from paving a more inclusive and equitable future for all.
Recent primary cycles have shown the refreshing effect on our democracy when women and those traditionally excluded from office start running and winning political campaigns. A record number of 256 women have won House and Senate primaries, often doing so without the wealthy backgrounds and financial networks that most incumbents enjoy, and with platforms centered on overlooked local issues. As Ayanna Pressley, running in Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District, puts it: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” However, while we invest in and celebrate women’s political campaigns, we need to ensure this is not solely a temporary, reactionary movement by cultivating our leadership pipeline and challenging the issues which hinder girls’ leadership potential most.
While media representation, civic education, and socioeconomic status are rightfully acknowledged as critical elements to public leadership, a girl’s long-term political potential and the socio-economic reality for her, her family, and crucially, her community as a whole, are contingent on two things: her health and reproductive rights.
In the coming year, the Supreme Court is likely to be presented with an estimate of 13 cases that relate to reproductive health rights and, as many headlines have already pointed out, landmark abortion-rights law Roe vs. Wade (and its potential repeal) is a likely point of heated discussion. An attack on the reproductive health rights of young women diminishes their educational opportunities and social security, perpetuating the cycle of violent exclusion of girls and women from community leadership. Reproductive health rights of disadvantaged communities are disproportionately challenged, as four out of five Planned Parenthood health care patients are reported to earn incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
This is not exclusively a domestic issue; it translates into the realm of foreign policy as well. The sudden deterioration of women’s rights is observed as one of the most reliable precursors of internal conflict. If the objective is to create a more safe and peaceful world, while also decreasing security threats for US citizens at home and abroad, the US and global leaders must cease to neglect the potential of women as agents for peace and guarantors of security.
Statistically, the protection and delivery of girls’ sexual reproductive rights are directly linked to her chances of completing education and having economic freedom. An educated girl is likely to marry later, have fewer kids, vaccinate and provide education to her children, and will reinvest nearly 90 percent of her income into her community (her male counterparts will reinvest 30 percent). Compare this to the estimated $15 trillion to $30 trillion economic loss of not investing in the cycle of girls’ education and healthcare. In fact, family planning and girls’ education are listed as one of the single most cost-effective and practical solutions towards climate action globally in the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to mitigate global warming.
The implications of women’s leadership are crucial for the long-term success of our democracy: research shows that a greater percentage of women working on legislation leads to a higher sense of government legitimacy among both women and men. This is coupled with higher corporate profits when more women are serving on corporate boards, and when women participate in peace processes and conflict resolution, they are more likely to ensure long-term security by raising fundamental issues such as human rights, employment, health, education, and justice.
Defending reproductive rights nationally and internationally consequently creates a cycle of education, security, and prosperity, be it in resolving food security challenges, countering increasing polarization, or resolving domestic and cross-border conflicts peacefully. Decades of research show that when women are empowered, countries are more secure and more prosperous. None of this happens if a girl’s reproductive rights and educational opportunities remain unprotected.
Breaking the cycle of violent exclusion of girls and women from leadership is the pathway towards more peaceful and healthier communities. The rise in diverse candidates is encouraging and a good indicator, but equally important is ensuring that future generations see themselves as leaders and have the foundation to do so. In order to achieve this vision of more inclusive societies, it is imperative to ensure reproductive rights and to center the rights of women in our domestic and foreign policy; regardless of who is sitting on the Supreme Court or who is in the White House. The returns for this investment are impossible to overestimate.
Dr. Alaa Murabit is UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth, and the CEO of The Omnis Institute. She spoke at HUBweek on Monday at the Change Maker Conference on reframing inclusivity.