This International Women’s Day, to counter the chilly March weather and the icy relations between parties, I bear some warming news – all is not lost on global women’s issues.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no Pollyanna. But to wait around for a more progressive president to push forward on women’s advancement around the world would be foolhardy. Too many lives are at stake, and too many U.S. dollars are being spent on less noble goals to waste a moment on “could-have-beens.”
There are issues affecting the poorest women and girls around the world that we CAN WIN. And, more importantly, there are issues that the conservatives are gearing up to conquer, that we need to frame before we lose them to the radical right. Losing these issues will cost progressives – and women of the world – dearly.
The global women’s issues we have on the table fall into three categories – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s take them in reverse order.
First, there is the UGLY. These are issues on which progressives are in direct conflict with the Bush administration and the congressional majority. We are playing defense only, working to minimize our losses regarding access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion, and abstinence-only education restrictions on U.S. international programs. In the months ahead, we can also expect continuing “ugly” efforts to prohibit funding for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and to extend the “Global Gag Rule” (the provision that cuts funding for organizations that simply exercise free speech by talking to their governments and/or their patients about abortion) to many other international programs. And just this week, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations attempted to stop the global consensus to reaffirm the Beijing Platform for Action by insisting on a formal clarification that the declaration “does not create any new human rights” – specifically, the right to abortion. Eventually, the U.S. gave way, but not before delaying proceedings and frustrating governments and women’s organizations from around the world.
Second, the BAD. Here’s where we agree on the basic elements, but where the radical right has co-opted the agenda, controlled the programs, and framed the issues as protection of women, rather than empowerment and equality for women. These issues include the trafficking of women in all parts of the world and the status of women in war zones, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Although focus on these topics is undeniably important, these issues are now understood as America “liberating women from oppression” (i.e., women are dependent and cannot free themselves); “protecting women from harm” (women are weak and need protection from men); and “respect for women” (i.e. men should respect women, but by no means are they equal to men).
It’s not just a matter of semantics. In U.S. anti-trafficking programs, for example, a protectionist philosophy has led to a myopic focus on sex trafficking, “victim rescue,” and law enforcement. An empowerment approach would tackle the root causes of trafficking – poverty, lack of jobs, and discrimination. If families have economic stability, they are less likely to sell their daughters into servitude; if women have other economic options, they will be less vulnerable to the promises or threats of traffickers.
Likewise, the right wing is now gearing up to take on violence against women internationally. Again, they are framing this in terms of the need to protect the vulnerable rather than in terms of an obligation to promote the rights and expand the opportunities of half the world’s population. We must seize the moment and frame the violence issue as an obstacle to women’s advancement, good health, economic opportunity, and participation in society – all of which are necessary to assure a stable global community.
Finally, the GOOD. Believe it or not, there are areas where we can develop bipartisan consensus and achieve some constructive movement forward during the next four years. These issues include: girls’ education, maternal and child health, and economic opportunity – all basic building blocks toward women’s freedom and self-sufficiency everywhere in the world. We may be able to work with allies on the right to find new money for critical programs in these areas. For example, last year bipartisan action yielded $50 million in U.S. assistance for programs that directly address the needs of Afghan women and girls, and $7.5 million of this amount targets local organizations run by Afghan women. This year, the Women’s Edge Coalition will work with Congress to develop the Global Opportunity for Women Act, which seeks to expand existing U.S. economic development programs and provide economic opportunities for women in the developing world.
The global women’s movement around the world, together with its assembly of U.S.-based organizations like those in the Women’s Edge Coalition, is more powerful, media wise, politically savvy, networked, and ready than ever before. I expect that despite the chilly climate in Washington, D.c=, we’ll have victories to celebrate on International Women’s Day in the next year, the next decade, and beyond.
Ritu Sharma is the co-founder and president of the Women’s Edge Coalition, an organization that advocates for international economic policies and human rights that support women worldwide in ending poverty in their lives, communities, and nations.
Read Edge’s newly-released policy paper, “Strengthening Afghan Women’s Civil Society to Secure Afghanistan’s Future,” offering policy recommendations on new U.S. international assistance programs to build Afghan women’s civil society.