Friday, August 21, 2009

Secretary Clinton Puts Women’s Issues at the Core of American Foreign Policy

Photo by Ruven Afanador for The New York Times

Supporters of Hillary Clinton are bound to feel overwhelmed at times by the tsunami of sexism and misogyny triggered in the media every time she or her husband makes the headlines. Most recently, Bill Clinton’s rescue of the two women journalists from North Korea at the onset of Secretary Clinton’s 11-nation trip to Africa set both the old and the new media off.

What was more important in our media’s calculus – the rescue of two young women from years of hard labor in a North Korean prison or a chance to drive a wedge between Bill and Hillary? You already know the answer to that one.

As for Hillary’s trip to Africa, it was not without reason that Judith Warner titled her column in the NY Times, Hillary Fights a Tide of Trivialization. Warner wrote:

This was supposed to be the trip that would show exactly how Hillary Rodham Clinton would make good on her pledge, at her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, to make women’s issues “central” to U.S. foreign policy, not “adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser.”
There could have been no more dramatic setting: Overruling the security fears of her aides, she traveled to eastern Congo, where hundreds of thousands of women have been raped over the past decade. She visited a refugee camp and met with one woman who was gang-raped while eight months pregnant; she heard of another who’d been sexually assaulted with a rifle. She was told of babies cut from their mothers’ bodies with razors. She spoke of “evil in its basest form.” She promised $17 million to fight sexual violence.

And back home, all anyone could talk about was Bill.

Had he upstaged her with his trip to North Korea? Had he dogged her, in absentia, all the way to Kinshasa, where a university student, wondering about “Mr. Clinton’s” views, set her off, and set the world cluck-clucking, once again, about her marriage, her temperament, even her hair?

As she circles the globe in coming years, making the case for women’s empowerment, starting with their basic right to be taken seriously, Clinton really has her work cut out for her. And it isn’t just because the situation of women around the world is so dire, and the ocean of problems confronting them — maternal mortality, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, malnourishment, lack of education, lack of adequate medical care, just for starters — is so wide and so deep. And it isn’t just that her historic mandate — to equally empower the other half of the world’s population, to chip away at the forces “devaluing women,” in the words of Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s new ambassador at large for global women’s issues — is so huge and vague and seemingly overwhelming. It’s also because the tide of trivialization that washes over all things “Hillary” is just so powerful. That tide threatens to drown out anything of substance Clinton might attempt for a population whose problems have long been obscured in the androcentric world of diplomacy. And that’s a huge pity.

This could be a moment for America to redeem itself as far as the world’s women are concerned. Our recent track record, after all, is pretty dim. The Bush administration sent anti-feminists to Iraq to train that country’s women in participatory democracy. We pulled our financing from the United Nations Population Fund and imposed a global gag rule barring women’s health organizations that merely talked about abortion from receiving U.S. funds. We never ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a pretty base-level human rights treaty, because of worries by black helicopter types that American sovereignty would be compromised. Our lack of paid maternity leave made us something of a world joke.

If those of us who care about the rights of all women get weary at times, we need only look to Hillary for inspiration. She keeps up the good fight wherever she is, no matter what is going on in the rest of the world.

And once in a great while our good ol’ boys’ media comes through as in the special feature in the NY Times Magazine, Saving the World’s Women, in which Mark Landler’s column appeared titled A New Gender Agenda. Landler begins:

Hillary Rodham Clinton staked her claim as an advocate for global women’s issues in 1995, when, as first lady, she gave an impassioned speech at a United Nations conference in Beijing. As secretary of state, she pushed to create a new position, ambassador at large for global women’s issues, and recruited Melanne Verveer, her former chief of staff, to fill it. And she has drawn attention to women at nearly every stop in her travels, most recently on an 11-day visit to Africa, during which, among other things, she went to eastern Congo to speak out against mass rape. Hours before leaving on that trip, Clinton discussed women’s issues and the Obama administration’s foreign policy for 35 minutes in her elegant seventh-floor office at the State Department. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Q: In your confirmation hearing, you said you would put women’s issues at the core of American foreign policy. But as you know, in much of the world, gender equality is not accepted as a universal human right. How do you overcome that deep-seated cultural resistance?

Clinton: You have to recognize how deep-seated it is, but also reach an understanding of how without providing more rights and responsibilities for women, many of the goals we claim to pursue in our foreign policy are either unachievable or much harder to achieve.

Democracy means nothing if half the people can’t vote, or if their vote doesn’t count, or if their literacy rate is so low that the exercise of their vote is in question. Which is why when I travel, I do events with women, I talk about women’s rights, I meet with women activists, I raise women’s concerns with the leaders I’m talking to.

I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential.

Toward the conclusion of the interview, Landler asked a question that many of us are still asking in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential race and as she usually does, Hillary looked on the bright side:

Q: Last month in New Delhi, a young woman asked you an interesting question: How would you view the progress of women in both India and the United States? She pointed out that India elected a woman as prime minister within three decades of independence, while the U.S. had yet to elect a female president. Is there any lesson from your own presidential campaign that you can use to take to women elsewhere in the world?

Clinton: Well, you’ve heard me talk about this in a lot of settings, from Japan to South Korea to Indonesia to India to Latin America [laughs]. It is one of the most common questions I’m asked, along with the question about how I can now work for and with President Obama, since he and I ran so vigorously against each other. It is clearly on young women’s minds. And I find that both exciting and gratifying.

My campaign for many millions of reasons gave a lot of heart to many young women. It is still the most common comment that people make to me: “your campaign gave me courage” or “your campaign made a difference in my daughter’s life” or “I went back to school because of your campaign.” So, it is unfinished business, and young women know it is unfinished business.
Perhaps if we can continue to raise the consciousness of our male-dominated media, the unfinished business will one day be finished.

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