Attendees at the Daily Beast’s first “Women in the World” summit might have felt that it got off to a shaky start when Fran Townsend, an official in the recent Bush Administration who advocating bombing Pakistan and torturing “enemy combatants,” moderated a panel discussing the problems that women face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the panel did not reflect on how America’s 9-year-and-counting war in the region had affected the lives of women.
The summit’s rocky start was occasionally reflected throughout the two days; when Madeleine Albright, for instance, defended the UN’s role in the Congo despite hearing from Congolese women that the UN’s record was far from stellar; when Queen Rania of Jordan talked about the need to improve women’s literacy and access to education, while failing to note the significant gender-based literacy gap in her own country; when an interview with Valerie Jarrett, the chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, failed to address either the Paycheck Fairness Act or whether the President would sign a health care reform bill with the Stupak anti-abortion language included. And although the summit’s intellectual highlights included serious panel discussions on rape as a weapon of war and the burden of and grassroots solutions for female genital mutilation, there wasn’t even a whisper of the most widespread reproductive health phenomenon: lack of access in much of the world to basic reproductive health education and services, contraceptive supplies and, yes, safe abortion services.
What gives? It was only a year ago that President Obama rescinded the Global Gag Rule, but that doesn’t mean the work to help provide access to contraception, reproductive health education and abortion is somehow over.
The President’s 2011 budget cuts $5 million from the United States’ contribution to the UN Population Fund, though it does increase the money the U.S. will spend on international reproductive health and family planning by $67 million overall. Most of that money will go through USAID — where grants are subject to restrictions that include a prohibition on paying for any abortion and “Buy American” provisions for USAID’s condom purchases, which raises prices and limits total distribution. USAID funds can’t be used to recruit or train medical professionals to perform safe abortions, and they can’t fund groups that lobby their governments to address the toll on women’s lives of unsafe abortion or to legalize abortion. But USAID cannot “discriminate” against groups that only offer training to individuals in “natural family planning methods” (i.e., the rhythm method). It might be better than the dark days under the global gag rule, when groups couldn’t inform women about the existence of abortion or how to safely procure one, but it’s far from the comprehensive education programs that most women envisioned or that women urgently need.
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The Obama Administration does realize that increasing the age at which women give birth to their first child, as well as arming women with the knowledge of how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, is an important part of raising the standard of living for many women in the world — those are both explicit targets of the Administration’s Global Health Initiative. So, where was the panel on how to educate women about their bodies, about peer education on birth control and HIV prevention, about the delicate ways that local women and health professionals — even ones working under USAID auspices — can steer women to safe abortion services rather than sitting on their hands as women poison or maim themselves (or are hurt by their partners or their rapists) to prevent unwanted pregnancies?
Where was the panel about cervical cancer in the developing world and peer education programs to address this issue? The panel on the special needs of women when it comes to HIV prevention, particularly among sex workers? The group discussion of anti-gay sentiment, which ranges from “corrective rapes” in South Africa to the fight to impose the death penalty on gay men and lesbians in Uganda? A flashy appearance by Queen Rania to talk about the need to educate women is great, or the ability for a woman to head a company in China can be compelling, but those are hardly topics that escaped the attention of the mainstream media.
What they are is uncontroversial. No one in the Daily Beast crowd thinks that the mutilation of women’s faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan is tolerable; no one thinks that rape should be used as a weapon of war; no one believes that women shouldn’t run companies; and no one believes that girls shouldn’t receive an education. But like The Daily Beast itself, where bylines by Palin campaign adviser Nicole Wallace and Meghan McCain run alongside columns defending serial sexual harasser Terry Richardson and graphic descriptions of the content of John Edwards’ sex tape, editor and founder Tina Brown deliberately walks the line between the salacious and the informative, and between the center and the right. During the 2008 campaign, it hosted the coming out of closet Palin supporter (and former Ms. Magazine editor) Elaine Lafferty and a number of her ideological compatriots who all agreed that abortion rights should be secondary to the visibility of a woman in power — and that it didn’t matter which woman.
So the conference, like the publication, catered to the lowest common denominator: rape bad; education good, and there’s no immediate harm in that. But, as many rape survivors know, access to abortion and emergency contraception needs to be part of post-rape health care, when it’s desired; peer education programs designed to teach about family planning and contraception can also help education women about the real risks of FGC; and fighting the social forces that attempt to restrict women’s sexuality often means fighting the same people who will demonize and criminalize homosexuality. Conferences like Women in the World can and need to be used to generate more understanding and even consensus on controversial topics without bowing to a political correctness that caters to those more scared of the shadow of the right than its actual presence. Otherwise, it’ll just be a sideshow of feel-good policies, famous women and empty promises to the women of the world who need us most.