Women Still Are
Second-class Citizens In Much Of The World
By Dian Harrison
08 March, 2005 by
Tuesday is International Women's Day,
a worldwide celebration of women's fight for equality and human rights.
In light of this commemoration, it is especially disappointing that
the Bush administration is working so hard to restrict women's rights.
Ten years ago, a
landmark U.N. conference in Beijing adopted a platform seeking to establish
global equality for women. Along with recommendations on issues such
as domestic violence and education, the platform states women should
be able to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to
their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
It also asserts that abortion should be safe in places where it is legal
and criminal charges should not be filed against women who undergo illegal
On Feb. 28, more
than 100 countries and 6,000 advocates for women came together for a
follow-up meeting to that conference. At the meeting, participants had
planned to review progress made on women's rights. They had hoped to
focus on pressing issues like political participation, sex trafficking
and HIV/AIDS. Instead, they have been focused on the Bush administration's
attempts to derail progress toward gender equality.
A week before the
conference, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women asked participating
countries to reaffirm their commitment to the original conference platform.
In a nod to their conservative base, representatives from the Bush administration
in the U.S. delegation said the United States would not sign on because
they don't believe women should be guaranteed the right to abortion.
This is despite the fact that the platform does not guarantee abortion
The U.S. delegation
was also concerned that the ability to "decide freely and responsibly
on matters related to their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination
and violence" constitutes "sexual rights" for women,
which according to the chief of the delegation, "not all member
states accept." Additionally, Bush administration representatives
demanded an amendment stating that a commitment to "reproductive
health services" does not guarantee abortion rights. Egypt and
Qatar were the only countries that have indicated support for the amendment.
Only after intense pressure from other member countries did the United
States withdraw the demand for an amendment.
Now, member states
wish to move forward to address the fact that 10 years after the original
conference, women are still second-class citizens in much of the world.
Ethiopia is a perfect
example. Women have few rights. Laws and traditions prevent them from
owning property, so they remain dependent on husbands and sons. In some
instances, girls as young as 9 are married off to older men. According
to the United Nations' WomenWatch, most Ethiopian women have their first
child by 17 and are prevented from pursuing an education. Seventy-five
percent are illiterate.
Only 8 percent of
women in Ethiopia have access to contraception, according to Population
Action International. They have little or no control over when or whether
they will have sex and repeatedly face unplanned pregnancies. They bear,
on average, seven children. The maternal mortality rate is among the
worst in the world. Rates of sexually transmitted infections are extremely
high. The World Bank reports that more than 2 million Ethiopian women
Those rates are
worsening because of the Bush administration's position on women. In
2001, President Bush reinstated the global gag rule restricting funding
for family planning. Under the gag rule, family planning agencies that
receive U.S. money may not offer abortion counsel or refer women to
abortion providers, or lobby to make or keep abortion legal in their
own country, even if they use separate funds not provided by the United
States. Providers are forced to make a cruel choice: Give up vital assistance
and try to afford to continue to counsel women on all pregnancy options,
or withhold critically important information.
The gag rule restricts
the simplest ways to improve the status of women: funding birth-control
supplies so they can avoid unintended pregnancies and care for children
they already have. In Ethiopia, abortion is illegal. Because most nongovernmental
organizations that provide family planning have refused to abide by
the gag rule, the resulting lack of U.S. funds has restricted the contraceptive
supply, which means that abortion is also very common. Women take their
lives into their own hands when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. If
they cannot adequately care for another child, they try to end pregnancies
with herbs, poisons or wire. Complications from unsafe abortions are
the second leading cause of death for women, after tuberculosis, in
As long as the Bush
administration restricts women's rights by blocking access to contraception
with the gag rule, unintended pregnancies will occur. So will abortion.
The Bush administration's global gag rule and political posturing last
week only exacerbate the situation. Women in all countries should have
the right to make responsible decisions without coercion, discrimination
or violence. They should have access to comprehensive information and
health care. They should be able to own property, pursue an education,
decide who and when to marry, and whether and when to have children.
The situation in
Ethiopia, however, is endemic around the world. Traditions and laws
inextricably link sexual rights to education, employment, property rights
and political participation. The rights the U.S. delegation was lobbying
against last week are the very rights that would improve the status
of women and their children. Rather than taking into account the harsh
realities of women's lives and working to provide real solutions for
women and girls, the Bush administration is playing politics with women's
is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Golden Gate (www.ppgg.org),
which has a family-planning partnership with the Ethiopian Evangelical
Church Mekane Yesus. Together, the organizations provide health education,
birth control and safe-pregnancy care to 3.5 million in the South-Central
region of Ethiopia.
© 2005 San