Sen. Clinton to Head State Dept: Advocate for Women Worldwide?

Emily Douglas

As Secretary of State, women's rights champion Sen. Clinton will have the opportunity to act as an ambassador for women and girls worldwide, say advocates of international women's health.

The
FDA was dragging its feet on approving emergency contraception – medication
that ceases to be effective if its use is delayed – for over-the-counter
pharmacy access.  She held up a Senate confirmation until the FDA
approved.  The Department of Health and Human Services threatens to
promulgate regulations that would broaden provider conscience protections,
enabling providers to refuse to prescribe or even refuse to refer patients for
care they find "morally objectionable" – including contraception.  She
introduced legislation that would prevent finalization or implementation of the
regulation.  She has co-sponsored legislation to repeal the global gag
rule, to end funding for abstinence-only education and fund comprehensive
sexuality education, to expand contraceptive access, and to codify Roe v.
Wade
in federal law.  At the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing
she said proudly, "Women’s rights are human rights," attending the
major international conference over the objections of Congress. 

Now
women’s rights champion Senator Hillary Clinton, who The New York Times is
reporting
will accept President-Elect Barack Obama’s offer to take on the top
diplomatic post in his administration, will have the opportunity to act as an
ambassador for women’s rights.  For women and girls
worldwide, it’s a coup, say advocates of international women’s health.

How
can the Secretary of State put pressure on governments – including
our own – to recognize that women’s health is a prerequisite for economic
development?

Adrienne
Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, says that
President-Elect Obama doesn’t need help realizing that sexual and reproductive health
must be addressed as a cornerstone of social and economic development.  

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"In this administration, we don’t have to put
much pressure," she says.

But as Secretary of State, women’s rights champion
Sen. Clinton can keep him focused, say advocates. While Obama has committed to
foreign assistance reform and the Millennium Development Goals, a Secretary of State who keeps those issues
on the front-burner means they’re less likely to get lost even as economic issues and Iraq demand President-Elect Obama’s attention.  In fact, realigning US policy to address
realities facing women and girls in large part does not require additional
spending – rather, non-ideological allocations of funds.

"Without spending a
penny more, the new administration can do an enormous amount just by standing
strong for the human rights of women and for the kinds of actions that are not
simply needed but that countries time and time again – since Universal Declaration
on Human Rights – have agreed to," says Germain.

A major priority for women’s health leaders is to align U.S. foreign assistance with the principles
espoused by in the 1994 International Conference of Population and Development
in Cairo and
the UN Millennium Development Goals, articulated by world leaders in
2000.  In 1965, the foreign assistance bill was revised to include support
for family planning programs, but it does so in a context of population
control, not of human rights. 

"The rights approach has not been
reflected in policy," says Jamila Taylor, from the Center for Health and
Gender Equity.  "Do it from a human rights perspective, not even just
a reproductive rights perspective. Human rights runs the gamut of issues – access to education,
income generation – all the things that make women vulnerable or empowered around
the world."

In Beijing, Sen. Clinton included in her speech a statement that’s still radical today: "What we
are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their
families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will
flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in
society, their families will flourish. And when
families flourish, communities and nations do as well."

As currently written, the US Foreign Assistance Bill has budget
categories that make it difficult to deliver comprehensive sexual and
reproductive health care, including separate budget lines for population,
maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, and other reproductive health needs.  Health systems need to be strengthened overall
to deliver care to those most in need, says Germain.

The
Secretary of State can also set administration policy when it comes to
HIV/AIDS.  As Secretary of State, Sen. Clinton could encourage the
President to address administratively PEPFAR’s weaknesses in curbing infections
among women and girls.  "The President
has the final say, but the Secretary can push him along," says Taylor. 
And the Office of the Coordinator on AIDS is situated in the State
Department, meaning the Secretary of State could push the office to make gender
concerns a priority in PEPFAR funding.

Germain, one of the lead negotiators on the Cairo Programme
of Action, worked closely with Sen. Clinton when she was First Lady.  In key global conferences held in those years,
the US
government led the world in making vital changes in support of women’s health
and equality.  "We had not had that kind
of opportunity before in my 40 years of professional work," says Germain, "and
it was made much more of an opportunity because of Hillary’s willingness and
ability to weigh in and make a difference in the administration."  Though the US
was a leader on the Cairo Programme, it has always ignored the Millennium
Development Goals, which are based in large part on Cairo.

With Clinton at the helm of the State Department, the US has an opportunity to retake its role as international leader on human rights and women’s rights.

What
will happen to the Senate when it loses its women’s rights champion?  It’s
an opportunity for advocates to reach out to a new generation of lawmakers,
says Taylor.
"We have to get in there and get to know new members," she
says.  Advocates have to gauge "what their temperament is in
terms of being outspoken on these issues."

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