As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is bringing an unprecedented level of attention to women’s rights, the Washington Post reports. It’s sad, but not surprising, that some people think this is a bad idea.
Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, offers this paradigm of condescension:
“It’s great she’s mentioning the issue. As to whether her bringing it up will substantially improve the situation or treatment of women in Africa, frankly I doubt it.”
Schaefer, an expert on international development and foreign assistance, doesn’t seem to think that the Secretary of State has anything to do with international development and foreign assistance. His treatment of Clinton—as if she’s a celebrity dabbling in overseas charity work—is perplexing, though it’s only a more brazen expression of the neglect of women’s rights among countries, like the US, that provide international aid. Last month, Nicholas Kristof wrote about the failure of industrialized nations to address maternal and infant mortality. And, as Michelle Goldberg points out in an excellent piece in The American Prospect, our last president did damage through action rather than inaction, as a crusader against women’s health:
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The Bush administration worked to roll back reproductive rights internationally and was either indifferent or hostile to international agreements on women’s rights. At the same time, it bolstered support for the war in Afghanistan by promising to liberate that country’s women.
Indeed, conservatives profess to support women when it’s convenient to do so. In an embedded clip on the Heritage Foundation’s website, Brett Schaefer appears on Fox News to comment on a Sudanese woman’s arrest for wearing pants in public. The anchor is outraged that “this still happens in some countries,” and Schaefer calls Sudan “backward” and “intolerant.” Americans have no trouble criticizing rules about women’s dress because we’ve never had such strictly-enforced rules in America, and because it’s an easy target for antipathy towards countries in the Middle East. Unfortunately, concern for women’s rights among many conservatives extends only as far as it can be used against our enemies.
When Clinton announced in March that “reproductive rights and the umbrella issue of women’s rights and empowerment will be a key to the foreign policy of this administration,” Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey put his boxing gloves on, as Michelle Goldberg recalls. At Clinton’s appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Smith
lectured her about the evils he believes Sanger unleashed around the world.
Then he asked, “Is the Obama administration seeking in any way to weaken or overturn pro-life laws and policies in African and Latin American countries,” either directly or through multilateral organizations? He continued, “Does the United States’ definition of the term ‘reproductive health’ or ‘reproductive services’ or ‘reproductive rights’ include abortion?”
Yes, said Clinton, and here’s why:
“When I think about the suffering that I have seen, of women around the world — I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil, where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies, and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. … We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health, and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal, and rare.”
If you asked him, the “pro-family” Chris Smith would undoubtedly say that he wants to reduce maternal and infant mortality. But you cannot separate women’s health care from access to contraception and safe abortion. By opposing funding for reproductive health care in developing countries, American conservatives are turning their back on women—not just on women who seek abortions or birth control, but on women who want to have healthy pregnancies, or who wish to live long enough to have children.
The Post reports,
Clinton vowed in a major policy address last month to make women the focus of U.S. assistance programs. The idea is applauded by development experts, who have found that investing in girls’ education, maternal health and women’s micro-finance provides a powerful boost to Third World families.
And Goldberg notes that while some policy experts believe that the US must go cautiously when approaching gender issues in foreign countries, others maintain that empowering women is the best thing a developing country can do for itself:
Lawrence Summers, no paragon of radical feminism, argued when he was chief economist of the World Bank that "educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world."
And, according to some experts in development and women’s issues,
Feminism . . . is actually a component of realism, not a fanciful, blithely idealistic departure from it.
Women’s rights are good for a country that’s trying to become stronger, and when developing countries become stronger, that’s good for the United States and the world. When conservatives like Chris Smith look at Hillary Clinton’s broad, ambitious, and complex plan for women’s empowerment and see only one thing—abortion—they’re undermining global economic development, diplomacy, and peace. They’re undermining women, men, and children. So much for being pro-family.