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U.S. Intervenes on Ethiopian Abortion Law

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.
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Devil in the details?

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.
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A Better Defender of Women’s Rights

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.
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Questions for the group

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?
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No connection between legality and incidence

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.
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Strategies at home and abroad

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. AT HOME 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.
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Regarding Michelle’s question…

Michelle, this a great question and I think complicated. I am hoping for a new administration that does not inappropriately use humanitarian or health, food aid, etc. as a means of accomplishing political goals. Within that context, there needs to be room for not funding agencies including governments that are egregious violators of human rights. These issues around family, gender, violence, etc. should be monitored by the State department in its annual human rights report which, in part, informs funding decisions. And of course my new Secretary of Women will work on these issues. :) Preaching from the US about sexual and reproductive rights is not productive. Our own house is not quite clean enough. So we really need to link our domestic policies and their enforcement with our moral voice abroad. Another and I think very effective mechanism for the kind of in-country changes we would all like to see is to increase funding to civil society groups in that country that have the democratic right and responsibility to seek to influence their own country's polices. I'd much rather see the US empower women's groups and men's groups to work against sexist, anti-woman laws than use our stick. Where ever possible our approach should be the carrot. This is not to say that the US should not work with government to change policies that are human rights violations. The question is method. I am anxious about denying funds but enthusiastic about government-to-government education as well as south-south collaborations where we work with multilateral agencies and with other southern countries with better records on these issues to influence violators in their regions.
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Two questions for the group

I suspect many of us will agree that Adrienne's solid, common-sense paper (pdf) articulates pretty much exactly what we'd like to see the next president do. I'm curious, though, what others think about the political tactics he or she should employ (assuming, that is, that he or she is a Democrat, and thus not actively hostile to everything we're talking about). There are two particular questions I've been mulling over quite a bit lately. First, how much should the administration pressure foreign governments to reform anti-woman laws? Here's an example: I spent quite a bit of time in Uganda last year, where feminists were quite devastated over the failure of the Domestic Relations Bill, which would have, among other radical provisions, criminalized spousal rape. Many men considered this an outrageous curtailment of their freedom. The Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, reported that "[l]aw enforcers, legal and health experts, however ... think the law prescribing the offence of marital rape is discriminatory as it seems to target men alone." A member of the Parliament's legal affairs committee said the bill should address women's denial of sex, arguing, "Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do." Uganda gets a lot of aid from the US, and has shown itself willing to change its policies to make the US government happy (witness abstinence-only, for example). Should the US government be pressuring other countries to pass domestic laws protecting women, even if those laws don't have a popular base of support? I tend to think yes, even though it inevitably leads to howls about cultural imperialism. A similar questions come up with FGM, where in the past US pressure seems to have played quite an important role in getting bans passed, even in the face of cultural nationalist sentiment to the contrary. Here's the second question. We all know that the original, crudely Malthusian justification for global family planning programs has been disgraced and discredited, in no small part through Adrienne's own pioneering work. The whole population explosion thesis came to see risible as the predicted food shortages and resource wars never manifested, at least on the scale that people like Paul Erlich predicted. Now, though, decades after the doomsayers envisioned, we are starting to see really serious effects of a rapidly growing (and developing) population -- huge spikes in food prices, mushrooming megacities, disputes over diminishing agricultural land, etc. There is enormous international concern over the state of the environment. My question is this: should US policymakers, and the women's movement, try and leverage that to garner more support for reproductive health and women's empowerment programs? Is it time to break the taboo against making demographic arguments? I don't mean this as a rhetorical question -- I'm asking because I really don't know and am curious to hear what others think. Steve Sinding, former head of IPPF (among lots of other things), has argued that when the dominant paradigm of population control, with its environmental and national security rationale, gave way to women's rights, donors and the public lost interest. I've heard arguments for and against this position and am not sure who is right. I do wonder, though, whether a new administration might be better able to effect a massive increase in aid for reproductive health as part of a wide-ranging environmental initiative, because elite opinion evinces an urgency about the environment that's unfortunately unmatched by its concern over women's rights.
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Is this a “bold” plan?

Adrienne Germain's "New Agenda for Women" is a solid and fairly comprehensive plan for a US administration committed to partnering with governments north and south that are already on board and working to achieving many of these goals. As the discussion progresses, I am sure we can all tweak these objectives and indeed add to them. But is it a "bold" plan? Only in the sense that the US is so far behind the curve on modern thought about gender, sexuality and reproduction that getting there with our current mindset is unthinkable. In this sense, it is a good plan for the 20th century, but I say let's be really bold and move to the 21st. A few thoughts:
  1. On the "first day," a symbolic moment for sure, of course all prior presidential initiatives that hurt women can and should be shifted. The Global Gag Rules as related to both family planning and HIV and AIDS can be lifted and funding for UNFPA can be restored. I would like to see another first day action. The administration should take a page from the bold book of Dennis Kucinich who said he would create a Department of Peace. We must have a new cabinet level department on women, appropriately funded and with a broad portfolio for women domestically and internationally on the full range of economic, social and political issues that affect women. Let's get some of that money that is in the State department, US AID and HHS, Labor and Education into the hands of people whose only job is to ensure that women's rights and well being are addressed. No waffling, no inter agency council, a real cabinet level department.
  2. Let's expect the administration to usher in 21st Century thinking about values. Adolescent sexuality is not just "going to happen"; it has its place in adolescent life. Birth control and sex education for adolescents should not just be there as an antidote to the disease of adolescent sexuality but as an aid to healthy and responsible adolescent sexual expression. Ditto on abortion. I note the word appears once in Germain's agenda while we all know anti-abortion moralizing is one of the key problems in including abortion services and information in sexual and reproductive health programs. The policies of the US government on abortion, both at home and abroad have been a disgrace from Eisenhower forward and include both Democratic and Republican administrations. Every effort must be made to restore public funding for abortions for low-income women in the US and to allow reproductive health and maternal mortality reduction funds to be used to fund abortions overseas.
  3. As a first "post," let me close with a thought on the role of US non-governmental organizations. We must learn from the mistakes we made during the Clinton administration. We were so glad to have ended the Reagan Bush years that we became apologists for, rather than advocates before, the administration. We were not bold; we asked for very little and that is what we got. On day 1 of the new administration, whether they are friendlier or not to our agenda; we must press for everything we should get and for everything women deserve. Let us not be deterred by administration claims that we must go slowly. Of course we shall be mature and strategic but from day 1 forward we will not be deterred from our goals.