While Republicans continue to chip away at women’s rights at home, increasing rights for women around the world is having a huge impact.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and celebrations took place all over the world. Perhaps none were more prominent than the event at the U.S. Department of State where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave out “Women of Courage” awards for the fourth year in a row. They recognized 10 individuals selected by U.S. embassies around the world as examples of grit and bravery in the global struggle for basic human freedoms and women’s rights. The recipients’ stories are inspiring, if bone-chilling. They need to be heard by American women, whose status as full and equal citizens is being challenged just about every day by outspoken priests, pundits, and politicians who are questioning long-established rights to family planning and other women’s health programs.
Access to safe and reliable contraception has helped make possible the hard-won gains that women in the United States have achieved during the past 40 years in education, employment, and participation in public life. And no irony was lost in the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives marked International Women’s Day by holding another in what has been a constant drumbeat of hearings on some piece of legislation that would roll back fundamental reproductive rights and further politicize women’s health.
Meanwhile, largely unnoticed over in Foggy Bottom, Secretary Clinton handed awards to an Afghani woman persecuted under the Taliban who now runs the one radio station in the country that teaches women about their rights, and to a true heroine from Burma, recently freed by the military regime after 11 years in prison simply because she had campaigned for civilian government, who is now back advocating for women, ethnic minorities, and political prisoners. Recognition also went to a 27-year-old architect from Libya who has became a clarion voice of her country’s liberation movement, to two women’s rights activists protesting the state sanctioned oppression of women in Saudia Arabia and Sudan, and to a women’s affairs minister from the Maldives pressing for laws against domestic violence and female genital cutting. In conferring this prize, Clinton remarked in no uncertain terms to spontaneous applause, “[W]e thank you for improving lives and sending the message that domestic violence is not a cultural practice, it is a crime.”
Rounding out the group was a Turkish parliamentarian who has become an international voice on the rights of the disabled and a Pakistani NGO leader from the country’s most conservative provinces who has challenged a local ban on women seeking political office. And finally there were a Brazilian police official once kidnapped by Rio street gangs and a Columbian journalist once tortured by arms smugglers, both still determined to campaign openly against the endemic violence women still face even as their countries experience modernization and growth.