In 1994, Cairo was the site of an unprecedented commitment by 179 governments to place women’s rights and access to reproductive health at the center of population policy.
And early yesterday, Cairo provided the backdrop for an impassioned
call to world leaders to uphold the human rights of women everywhere.
What’s that you say? That I must be talking about President Barack
Obama’s speech in Cairo, but that you’re pretty sure women’s rights
took up only a few minutes of his 55-minute-long speech (and you were
timing it)? That you didn’t hear him mention the term "sexual health"
once (and you were listening for it)? That, as a matter of fact, you’re
pretty sure the speech that YOU heard President Obama give in Cairo
this morning was about relations with and among the Muslim world?
Well, it was- in part. But for all the attention Obama’s speech is
getting for its frank discussion of Mideast issues, some of the main
principles he emphasized- and their direct complement to the issues and
rhetoric of the ongoing international women’s health and rights
movement- are flying under the radar.
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Probably some of the most effective moments of Obama’s speech- and
there were many of them- came when he actively affirmed the humanity of
the subjects of his speech, whether by acknowledging their sometimes
marginalized experience, as he did when he mentioned the "daily
humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation" for
Palestinians, and when he explicitly described the 9/11 victims as
"innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations
who had done nothing to harm anybody."
Well, this humanizing rhetoric was just as effective for an equally important issue- investment in women’s health and rights.
"Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity –
men and women – to reach their full potential," Obama declared.
Obama’s explicit statement advocating for investment in women’s
development is a nuanced point, and not one we should take for granted.
The idea that all of humanity benefits from investment in the world’s
girls and women often seems obvious, but this idea should have tangible
implications for actions to be taken on behalf of women and girls that
are too often left undone. Child marriage, access to education, and
lack of attention to sexual and reproductive rights and health
threaten the health and well being of women everywhere. By extension of
Obama’s logic, these phenomena threaten the very health and well being
President Obama is not the first to stand in Egypt’s ancient capital
to affirm the rigths of women worldwide. Fifteen years ago, IWHC stood
strong with women’s rights organizations and governments for women’s
rights at the International Conference on Population and Development
(ICPD) to produce a Programme of Action recognizing that women’s empowerment is key to global development and prosperity.
But for now, let’s seize this opportunity to once again highlight
Obama’s affirmation of the humanity of women and girls. Let’s follow
through on the implications of his logic and never forget that
investing in women and girls means investing in the future of all
humanity. The symbolism of the site of President Obama’s
speech yesterday in Cairo 15 years after the ground-breaking ICPD is
not lost on me: Is it lost on you?