U.S. Foreign Assistance: An Issue for Women and Girls

By Betsy Dunklin, Dining for Women Advocacy Committee Chair

Did you see that ecstatic dance of joy at the end of the video on Mali Health, our May grantee? It epitomizes what Dining for Women members often note, that despite extreme poverty and oppression, these women find happiness from their new-found skills, their support of one another, and, perhaps most of all, a sense of power and control over their own lives. And they use this to change the power dynamics within their families, their communities, and their nations.

This parallels what happens in Dining for Women chapters. While we gather to help desperately poor women by sharing our dollars, we also experience joy from the personal growth and opportunity we find within our groups. We are not only helping others, we are helping ourselves. We are growing intellectually and spiritually every time we learn about a new culture or problem, offer hospitality for a meeting, present a program, or lead a chapter.

Just as we use our dollars, we can use our global citizenship on behalf of poor women to create systemic, long-lasting change (and, in the process, experience the joy from our own new-found skills and having our voices heard in new ways.)

The United States has tremendous international impact on issues that are critical to DFW’s mission through its budget and policy. For example, the U.S. international affairs budget is crucial to providing humanitarian aid and programs that target women and girls. While our small DFW grants support innovative projects, U.S. government funds, in partnership with other nations and non-government organizations, can apply that innovation on a much larger scale.

That is why the DFW Advocacy Committee has determined that the government policy area that would most help us achieve our mission and unite our membership is supporting foreign assistance programs focusing on women and girls.

Our Congressional Representatives and Senators want the votes of their constituents and, therefore if for no other reason, care what we think about the issues before them. Yet, unless highly controversial and partisan issues are involved, they seldom hear from their constituents. How often do you think your Congressional Representative or Senator has heard from her or his constituent — a voter rather than a paid lobbyist — about foreign aid for women and girls? Knowing that their constituent — YOU — cares can make a difference.

As DFW members and global citizens, we already know a great deal! Every month, we learn how investing in girls’ education or women’s earning power is one of the most efficient ways to have a positive impact on families and communities. We learn the importance of letting the communities themselves decide what problems to address rather than applying the old top-down, we-know-best model.

The challenge facing the DFW Advocacy Committee is how to implement this new advocacy program while protecting our precious primary purpose of funding our featured grantees in a casual social environment.  The committee will be engaged in dialogue with volunteer leaders and members to hear your concerns, hopes and ideas. We will move carefully, thoughtfully, to give you the tools, support and environment you need to be an effective advocate if and when you and your chapter choose to participate.

In the meantime, our first step to empower you is education.

Starting in the fall, the DFW Advocacy Committee will share information to help you better understand U.S. foreign aid, the international affairs budget, and how it impacts women and girls. We hope to do this in an integrated and complementary manner that is engaging and ties into the work of our featured grantees.

For example, do you know that foreign aid is a broad term that covers many types of assistance that the U.S. gives to other countries? It is used to fight terrorism and the illicit drug trade; provide disaster relief, vaccines, education and clean water; stimulate economic development; and much more.

Obviously, competition for budget dollars is fierce. The more voices speaking for women and girls —the more we can demonstrate how supporting their empowerment benefits us all— the better the outcome. Then maybe we can have our own ecstatic dance of joy like those women in Mali.