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What's Missing in Bush Policy on Women
24 March 2002
This is one of those rare moments of harmonic convergence, when a month dedicated to celebrating women's history coincides with making women's history. So before the stars are out of alignment, could we pause for a moment to set the (historic) record straight?
Ever since the Taliban government fell, the war in Afghanistan has been lauded proudly and properly as a victory for the freedom of women. It's the first time in my memory that any government has justified a call to arms in such large measure as a call for, well, women's liberation.
On International Women's Day at the United Nations, the first lady said, "We affirm out mission to protect human rights for women in Afghanistan and around the world." To which I add fanfare worthy of John Philip Sousa.
But have you noticed something missing in our government's role as defender of international women's rights? It has talked about the right to work, the right to education, the right to walk freely on streets. But not a word has been said about the whole galaxy of rights that have to do with sex and childbearing.
It's as if women's freedom didn't include the freedom to decide when and how to have children. As if these were not inseparably linked throughout the entire history of women's lives.
It's not a coincidence that the powerless women living under the Taliban's house arrest also had the second-highest rate of maternal death in the world. It's not a coincidence that when only 5 percent of women were literate, they bore an average of eight children and one of every 15 women died from complications of pregnancy.
Still, a White House that has said so much about burkas has said virtually nothing about birth control. Indeed,the flag this administration is waving over international women's rights looks a bit tattered when you read the footnotes on how they've undermined reproductive rights.
Footnote One: Remember the gag rule reinstituted when Bush first got into the White House? Our government still refuses to fund international family planning agencies if these groups utter a peep about where a woman might get a legal abortion.
Footnote Two: In the run-up to the UN's Children Summit in May, the Bush administration is actually working to change the deal for adolescents. The earlier agreement on comprehensive sex education, for example, would have promoted teaching the ABCs from abstinence to contraception. Now the Bush folks want to change the language so that teenagers would be taught what's known here as "abstinence only."
Footnote Three: Bush has withheld the $34 million for family planning that Congress approved for the UN Population Fund. The check's been on his desk ever since Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey went into a rant about how the money was supporting China's coercive one-child policies.
Anyone involved - including, I suspect, Smith himself - knows better. The UNFPA only works in areas where the programs are voluntary and has been pushing China to change. But the bucks stop at the Oval Office - including $600,000 slated for Afghanistan.
Despite these footnotes, women who have the freedom and power to make decisions, who have access to contraceptives and health care, are changing their lives and the life of the planet. This same historic month, demographers at the United Nations mulled new evidence coming in from villages and towns that shows a stunning, unexpected decline in population rates in developing countries. They are now lowering the estimate of the world's teeming population by as much as a billion people in this century.
The women of the world fully understand that freedom includes the chance to make decisions about their bodies and families. The question is whether we'll support their new and sometimes shaky freedom.
But Adrienne Germain of the International Women's Health Coalition describes a wider concept of women's rights this way: "If women can't control their own bodies, make their own decisions about when to have children and how many to have, they have difficulty getting an education or employment. If they are forced to have sex, denied information and protection about sexual diseases, it limits how they can be and act in the world."
That's the historical connection. The historic disconnection is this: Our government claims to lead the parade of democracy and freedom for women. But when it comes to our policies toward reproduction, we are marching with repressive regimes like Sudan, Algeria, and Libya.
Which side of history are we on?