I applaud recent posts by Frances and Michelle recognizing that, for much of the world, unsafe abortion remains a critical issue for women’s health and rights. I also agree with those who have said that U.S. leadership and support is crucial, and that addressing this problem should be high on the agenda for the next administration.
Here in Ethiopia, we have changed our law to expand the indications for legal abortion. The new law is a result of several years’ effort by a coalition of health and women’s rights advocates both in and out of government working together to revise Ethiopia’s laws in accordance with the 1992 constitution.
My concern really would be with how deeply will the cultural, regional sub-context be taken in to account while implementing the PEPFAR Bill. The way it looks to me with so many clauses and sub-clauses it appears already to have a target group in mind at the cost of keeping certain groups beyond its reach as a form of ‘disciplining’ for not adhering in the first place (in the last five years!). And what worries me is that such a huge amount of money will go in to sticking to the “dos and don’ts” of the Bill rather than reaching substantially larger groups of people. Haven’t we already seen this before? In conflict zones like Afghanistan … in Iraq … where so much money has gone yet women live lives not very different from the previous decade; and of course much too often also reflected in policies taken up by each of our own governments?
Countries in Asia and Africa already suffer from the burden of too many cultural practices and unfair, gender imbalanced value systems (the experience of development workers will show) which cannot be challenged but have to be worked around slowly and deliberately. When one invokes the prostitution pledge I wonder what happens to girls who have been unwittingly lured in to the sex trade in the first place and are unable to return back to their own communities (even when rescued) out of fear of ostracism or the ‘shame’ that they bring to the family. Thus, they are often compelled to return to the very life they fight to leave.
I don’t work on reproductive health and rights on the international level, but I have worked on the national level and think that there’s obviously much work to do that could definitely make us “a better defender” for women’s rights internationally. Just last week a UN committee called the U.S. out for failing to address severe racial disparities that exist in reproductive health care.
So yes, we need to improve our conditions at home, but first there needs to be just a general recognition that these real problems exist rather than continuing to hold ourselves up on a pedestal as this champion of women’s rights, coming to save “the oppressed women” from “uncivilized” countries, and as Kavita said, which has been happening in the midst of this guise of fighting terror.
I am interested in hearing from those of you who work primarily on women’s reproductive health and rights globally whether you think the “walk the talk” at home argument holds water?
Would the United States be able to be a better defender of women’s rights abroad if it set high standards for the same at home? How do do those realities affect this country’s actions overseas or the ability of women’s rights organizations that are US based to be successful in their work with partners in the rest of the world?
I want to respond to part of what Kavita said: “Finally, the women’s movement needs to show the political will and courage to refuse to cede the moral high ground by showing itself able and willing to speak to the moral ambiguities around the issue of abortion.” This is so important, but it has proved incredibly tricky, because if we paint abortion as a “tragedy,” a la Hillary Clinton several months ago, we buttress the anti-abortion movement in its creation of “post-abortion syndrome” as something women need to be protected from.
This is one of those areas where I really wish we could bring the international to bear more on the domestic debate. I want to scream every time some pundit, in contemplating her own ambivalence about choice, relegates back-alley abortion to the realm of ancient history. I wish politicians would say, loudly and repeatedly, that if you look around the world, there is no connection between abortion’s legality and its incidence. I wish the staggering toll of unsafe abortion in the developing world was part of the conversation. Outside the world of public health and the global women’s movement, very, very few people know that, for example, there are countries in East Africa where botched abortions are responsible for a third of maternal deaths. I don’t even know how many people realize that the lowest abortion rate in the world is in the Netherlands.
Ross Douthat, an up-and-coming young conservative thinker, has sketched an utterly fantastical vision of what he sees a post-Roe America looking like. It’s maddening for all kinds of reasons, but mostly for its utter ignorance of what’s happening in countries where abortion is illegal. (Hint: the truth doesn’t bear out his “assumption” that “a ban on abortion, by changing the incentives of sexual behavior and family formation, would actually end up reducing out-of-wedlock births, welfare spending, and all the rest of it.”) Obviously we’re never going to convince people like him, but I think if there was some kind of basic knowledge of how this issue plays out in other countries, it could possibly change some of the faulty assumptions underlying the abortion debate here, and help people understand the connection between pro-choice policies and fewer abortions.
I think it is terribly important for the new U.S. administration to advance gender equality as part of a more comprehensive strategy for peace and social justice both at home and in the rest of the world. It is also vital to show by deed as well as by word that the United States means to walk its talk on gender justice. This would go a long way in rebuilding the trust and goodwill that the past administration has squandered in the rest of the world.
The new administration needs to be willing to stand up and publicly recognize that the United States, despite being among the wealthiest nations, has a long way to go before it is close to meeting some of the most basic gender equality standards in terms of women’s representation in the political process and in terms of economic justice. Women represent over 51 percent of the US population, but only 14 percent of representatives in both the US House and Senate are women. There is enough research to show that increased representation by women in legislative bodies results in policies that invest in the long term human security of their citizens. Repeated studies by the AFLCIO, have shown that you can cut poverty rates in the United States (close to 70 percent of those who are poor in this country are women and their dependent children) simply by paying women equal pay for equal work. Not a single new Congressional appropriation would be needed for such a war on poverty. Yet, the fight for the ERA — or Equal Rights Amendment, which would be the most effective strategy to achieve “equal pay for equal work” has long since ceased to be a mobilizing banner for the US women’s movement. It is also arguably the most likely reason that the United States has simply failed to ratify the most universally recognized women’s human rights treaty worldwide, the Convention for Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW.
The SG: In Ethiopia over the weekend, the SG is now in the United Arab Emirates. Today he met with Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, where the two discussed developments in the region, including Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, and in the Middle East Peace Process.