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.
Ceremonies have indisputable value. Placing compelling human faces on the courage with which ordinary women around the world fight the many indignities they endure as a daily matter “isn’t just the right thing to do,” as Secretary Clinton often says and repeated yesterday in her brief remarks, “it’s also the smart thing to do.” Clinton has long stood firmly behind the fundamental principle of the global women’s movement, to which she memorably staked a claim in Beijing in 1995: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are the right of every woman.
But in the years since, she has also repositioned the issue not just as a moral imperative, but as a strategic condition of success in U.S foreign policy if our aim is to meet the world’s most critical security and development challenges. She rarely misses an opportunity to remind her audiences that investments in women’s rights and opportunities have immediate pay offs — that when women gain equality of opportunity and when their labor is formalized, it’s not just the women who benefit. Poverty declines, economies expand, public health improves, more children are educated, the conditions for democratic practice are secured, and conflict subsides. The evidence is no longer anecdotal. Hundreds of empirically driven studies demonstrate a direct correlation between the improved status of women and the stability and well-being first of their immediate communities and eventually of entire countries and regions on which U.S. national security depends.
But honoring the work of individuals, however worthy, can also make complex matters seem deceptively simple, as though we can change a very messy world one woman at a time. The vulnerability of women around the world, as we are seeing all too well in our own country today, is deeply embedded in the very real assaults of globalization on economies and cultures. As academic feminists like to remind us, we cannot ignore the deep “intersections” of gender, race, class, and power. Women’s rights must be placed within a comprehensive human development framework that promotes social justice and well-being for all, along with women’s full citizenship. And this is a tall order.
Yesterday, this exact point was made by Laymah Gbowee, the feisty and outspoken Liberian who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for organizing market women to help bring peace to her war-torn country. “These women are working very hard. And yes, we can give them all the verbal support, we can give them all the honors,” she said, “but until we continue to make it possible for them to work through resources, their issues will continue to be issues for politicians to use to make themselves look good when it’s elections time.” She concluded, “It’s time for us to support our sisters, not just leave them with honor.”
Secretary Clinton spoke directly to that challenge, promising that next week, at a gathering in Washington of all U.S. ambassadors, she will issue the “first ever” secretarial policy directive on gender in an effort to institutionalize a permanent concern that U.S. resources be allocated in new ways. Complementing a recently released USAID gender policy, this directive will mandate specific steps toward promoting gender equality and advancing the status of women and girls in all aspects of U.S. national security and foreign policy and will require that budgets and expenditures be analyzed from an explicit gender perspective. Together with the creation of permanent high-level staff positions, including a Global Ambassador for Women’s Rights, the aim has been no less than to transform a diplomatic bureaucracy and culture long either indifferent or outright hostile to recognizing women as potential agents of change.
Just how this new way of thinking can work, however, was beautifully illustrated in a speech earlier this week at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York by the Obama/Clinton appointee at USAID, Administrator Rajiv Shah. He beckoned his audience to observe a common pattern in the age of the populations of the fastest growing and most stable countries in Latin America and East Asia today, where the percentage of workers between the ages of 15 and 64 is much larger than the percentage of the very young or very old. This phenomenon is a consequence of the demographic dividend that has resulted from decisions made collaboratively with the United States during the 1960s and 1970s in places like Thailand to expand access to voluntary family planning, to improve child survival, and to offer education and formal work opportunities to women and girls. Falling birthrates left behind just enough working-age men and women to grow economies in an orderly fashion, without placing them under too much strain. And the promising news is that at least several countries in Africa today are poised to follow.
Which leaves us with what may be our greatest challenge today: how to explain this phenomenon to a crop of Republican presidential contenders and members of Congress who are poised to take away the very benefits of U.S. support for reproductive health at home and abroad that made these gains possible. A tall order, indeed.
Ellen Chesler, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has a chapter in a new book published this week by Seven Stories Press in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.