On Friday, if we finally have
the opportunity to watch the first debate between the now official candidates
for President of the United States, we will no doubt hear questions
about each candidate’s views on foreign policy. We Americans tend
to think of foreign policy in terms of war, terrorism, international
trade and today, perhaps financial policy. Few of us think of U.S. assistance
to combat extreme poverty in Africa as an important part of our foreign
As a country, we view U.S.
assistance for global women’s heath programs as important, but not
necessary to our own interests. This is because we have somehow
divorced "people" from foreign policy; it is as if a small group
of people in power in other countries generate all the issues that must
be addressed by our government. And further, we have separated "women"
from the larger body of citizens. Why address merely women’s
issues when we can address a nation’s issues?
It’s true that women have
particular needs that are distinctly different than the needs of an
entire population. Everybody needs clean water; yet only women can
die from childbirth. Also, the needs of women are so intrinsically tied
up in the needs of families, communities and nations that it’s absurd
to consider "women’s issues" apart. Women are the fabric
of a nation. It is ridiculous to think that women should be invisible
when we deal with poverty alleviation, conflict, global relief and environmental
pressures, all of which lend themselves to peace and stability (or a
lack thereof). Women are disproportionately affected by all these
calamities. Nations can only develop economically so far without
the participation of half of their citizens.
But we can’t expect women
to be a significant part of any solution if they exist in a society
in which it is considered easier and cheaper to get a new wife than
to save the one who is hemorrhaging from childbirth. So we can’t
say that women’s health is what we will get to after we have
a handle on education. Because in the society I’ve described, the
girls aren’t going to school any time soon.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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For the U.S. to be a significant
part of the solution that elevates the status of women and all that
such progress entails, our foreign policy has to start dealing with
the realities of women’s lives instead of attempting to legislate
morality. Just about everybody agrees the rate at which women around
the world die from preventable causes
of pregnancy and
childbirth is a tragedy. But the fact is that keeping women alive includes
contraception. In much of the world, contraception actually
saves women’s lives
by allowing girls to delay childbearing and by permitting undernourished
women to space their children. A leader may debate the morality of
contraception in his or her private views, but those views will eventually
crash into the morality of letting hundreds of thousands of women die
needlessly. It’s best to leave that philosophical debate to the person
whose life hangs in the balance.
We can enter into inane debates
on condom use as well, or we can acknowledge that new HIV/AIDS infections increasingly occur to young, married
girls and our international assistance can stop blocking efforts to
distribute condoms as a matter of survival.
These issues form a core part
of our foreign policy as much as oil, war and trade. The United States
supports global women’s health, but all of it goes out with our government’s
stamp of morality (such as a policy that requires one-third of all PEPFAR
HIV prevention funds to be spent on abstinence-only programs) and
is our foreign policy. American foreign policy currently provides
no money for multilateral approaches to global women’s health because
the Bush Administration, in its most egregious of decisions, withheld
the U.S. contribution
to UNFPA for seven years.
Not only does this funding need to be restored, but we need to do far
The next President will take
office in a world where a woman dies every
minute from preventable complications of pregnancy and childbearing, where 600 million women are illiterate,
where 82 million girls living in low-income countries will be married
by the time they turn 18, where 6,800 new cases of HIV occur every day.
No candidate for President
of the United States has the luxury of naïveté as to what these statistics
mean to the world. Rampant poverty and discrimination against
women across much of the globe will hinder all
our efforts to create a more and more prosperous, technologically savvy
and environmentally stable world.
In Friday’s debate, questions
about foreign policy will likely be parsed into individual issues in
order for the candidates to answer in the time allotted. It would be
more helpful for Americans to hear each candidate’s philosophical
approach to foreign policy. Let’s hope our next President is both
grounded and visionary enough to recognize that women are part of the
whole, that when we are smart about it, we can be part of the progress
in which societies evolve to the point where women participate economically
and politically. We Americans would be far better off if we invested
in the world’s women.