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Advancing Women A Top Clinton Goal

Tue, Nov 24, 2009

Press

The New York Times / By Janine Zacharia

WASHINGTON — When Hillary Rodham Clinton heard that an 8-year-old Saudi girl had been sold to a man in his 50s to pay off her father’s debt, the U.S. secretary of state telephoned the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, to protest.

Mrs. Clinton’s call — on the type of issue usually handled by an aide — symbolized her fervor for making women’s advancement a core part of her national-security efforts, even in dealing with problems such as Iran’s suspected nuclear threat or the Islamist violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Women are key to our being able to resolve all of those difficult conflicts,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech in August. Since then, she has pursued initiatives to help women gain political power, personal safety and enough money to help their communities and countries improve economically and transition to democracy.

“There is nothing that has been more important to me over the course of my lifetime than advancing the rights of women and girls,” she said in a Washington speech Nov. 6. “And it is now a cornerstone of American foreign policy.”

Mrs. Clinton, 62, has been pushing the cause from remote Congolese villages to the U.N. General Assembly. She appointed Melanne Verveer, 65, her former chief of staff, as the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues. On every foreign trip, Mrs. Clinton schedules an event with local women.

She visited a Cape Town community built by homeless women and consoled rape victims in the war-racked eastern Congo during an August tour of Africa. Her brow furrowed as she asked a volunteer at a refugee camp why women were venturing alone into a nearby forest to gather firewood, exposing them to attacks from militiamen.

While Mrs. Clinton is America’s third female secretary of state, the political profile of women is still low: Only 18.6 percent of Parliament members globally are women, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work and produce 50 percent of the food, while earning 10 percent of the income and owning 1 percent of the property, data from the United Nations Development Fund for Women show.

A new focus inside the State Department is financial inclusion: ensuring that women have access to savings accounts, health insurance, home ownership and business funding.

Women already get the majority of small loans made by more than 1,400 institutions worldwide tracked by MIX Market, a microfinance databank in Washington. SKS Microfinance Private, India’s largest microlender, has five million borrowers — all women. Profits soared to $17.5 million in 2008 from $71,121 in 2004.

President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, who worked to expand opportunities in Afghanistan, recognized the national-security value of improving women’s lives.

Karen Hughes, a close Bush aide, focused on the issue as an under secretary of state, a job that convinced her that “it is increasingly the women of the world who are the agents of change, the arbiters of peace and reconciliation,” she said in an e-mail.

A strategy to combat radicalism in part by empowering women has limits, says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington. While it may bear fruit against Al Qaeda or the Taliban, groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah in the Middle East “have highly motivated women fighters who are treated well and hate us, even if we are a secondary enemy,” he wrote in an e-mail.

By elevating the plight of women so publicly, Mrs. Clinton has breathed new life into women’s issues on Capitol Hill. Senator John Kerry and Representative William Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrats, are expected soon to introduce legislation to make permanent the ambassadorship Ms. Verveer now holds.

Their measure would also direct the administration to create a five-year strategy that reduces assaults against women and girls in at least 10 nations and creates ways to judge the effectiveness of U.S. aid in advancing the goal.

The administration’s willingness to consider women’s issues when making policy is being tested in Afghanistan. American fatigue with fatalities there is growing, and women have much to lose with a return to Taliban rule, which would mean a reimposition of restrictions on almost all aspects of their lives.

Nita Lowey, a Democratic representative from New York who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee, told President Hamid Karzai in May she would stop civilian aid unless he quashed a proposed law legalizing marital rape. Some of the bill’s most offensive provisions were removed. Similarly, after Mrs. Clinton’s intervention in April, the Saudi girl was allowed to divorce.

Internationally, women want to leverage Mrs. Clinton’s enthusiasm to win U.S. ratification of the 30-year-old Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Conservatives on Capitol Hill have long objected to the treaty because it affirms a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have not ratified the treaty, along with Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Mrs. Clinton’s aides say it is on her “treaty priority list.”

U.S. approval would prevent countries from using America’s lack of participation as a reason for not enforcing the agreement, said Mahnaz Afkhami, a former Iranian Parliament member and treaty advocate.

“I’ve never seen such awareness” in Washington, she says. “There is all sorts of hope that maybe this degree of seriousness will bear fruit.”

Bloomberg News

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom