Human Rights Are Women's Rights using political strategies; women are gaining power around the world by Peggy Curlin. Peggy Curlin is President of the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a woman-focused nonprofit international organization founded in 1975. Its mission is to empower women at all levels of society to be full partners in development. (Photo: Nanette Thomas, APC Dallas President)
This past decade has brought about a quiet revolution in what women think about themselves and in many respects what society thinks about them. Since the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), in which I was privileged to attend women have gained a new perspective from their traditional roles as caregivers for children and the elderly — they have found a new voice to express the need for more economic and political independence.
We have to look no further than our own political process to see that “women's issues” (i.e. education and healthcare) are high on the agenda of political parties all over the world. Has their lower status, their poverty and their overwhelming burden of hard work and disease kept women silent and passive? The answer is an overwhelming, “No!” At the 1995 UN World Conference on Women, participants included high-level representatives of member states, among them First Lady Hillary Clinton, and 50,000 non-governmental women observers. In June 2000, the governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met in a Special Session of the UN General Assembly in New York to measure the progress governments have made toward fulfilling the Beijing Platform for Action. The Platform calls for a human rights-based approach to women's development, recognizing that gender discrimination deters the achievement of women's rights. Mrs. Clinton said it best in her speech to the non-governmental women when she declared “human rights are women's rights.” While no country except Afghanistan has gone backward, few countries have lived up to the promises they made to women five years ago in Beijing. Women around the world know that to wait for governments to act is to wait too long. They have, as women always do, taken matters into their own hands. The real story comes from them – their success in using political strategies that address barriers and stimulate the action agenda for women, resulting in recognition by power brokers.
Lessons: Women have taken risks, reached out to the poorest and neediest in their countries, and learned many lessons along the often torturous road to becoming full partners in development.
In the quest for women's rights, the lessons learned are important to national development and to geopolitical issues. They also serve as milestones to women's march for equality.
Women have learned to use political strategies to negotiate culture. Female Genital Cutting (FGC) for example is a traditional cultural practice, not a religious one, as some believe. This harmful method of altering and damaging the female genitalia is believed culturally to assure that a woman can be controlled and pass safely through adolescence into marriage without dishonoring her family.
Nigerian women felt powerful enough to challenge this tradition, and I am extremely happy that Sierra Leone women also have taken up the challenge. They convinced traditional chiefs, powerful allies on issues of cultural norms, to outlaw FGC in one of the states where the practice is most prevalent.
In Senegal and the Gambia, two NGOs realized that while outlawing FGC was important, they must win the hearts and minds of villagers who supported the practice. Through painstaking discussions at community meetings, and most importantly the leadership of the cutters and the Islamic clergy, this practice and the law have changed.
In Egypt, where a staggering 97 percent of women are said to have had some form of FGC, getting the small percentage of parents who have decided not to circumcise their daughters to speak to community groups about their decision has had real and, we hope, lasting effects on parents at the community level. I want to implore every Sierra Leonean woman to stand up and say NO to the FGC.
In the political arena, women must claim their rights, not wait until they are given. Women have learned that while serving the basic needs of women and children is vital, lasting change from a welfare approach to a rights-based approach must take place in the political arena.
In South Africa, a women's rights group has made inroads to a woman's rights to inherit and own land in her own name. With seed capital from the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), the group has garnered the support of the South African government and other funders to expand the program. Inheritance rights are essential to alleviating poverty. When women can own the land they cultivate, they can reap the benefits of the crops they grow. These funds also result in improved access to health services and education for women and their children.
In Sierra Leone the 50/50 group is a very powerful women's group and they are doing extremely well in making their voices heard. I salute all the members and say continue to make the loudest noise until your voices are heard in a very significant way.
Women's health depends on how women are valued. The rate of infant death worldwide has been reduced by 50 percent over the past 20 years while health of women as measured by their maternal mortality and morbidity has not improved. More than 600,000 women die in childbirth each year, and 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries. Most of these deaths are preventable with basic pre- and post-natal care. All too often however, a mother-to-be is not given the resources or attention she needs to deliver a healthy baby. Again let me congratulate His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma for introducing the free health program for children and lactating mothers in Sierra Leone. I am absolutely sure this program will help reduce the number of women who die in childbirth each year.
Political Backlash: As women turn to the political arena to achieve their human rights; the barriers that are challenging their leadership often come from unexpected sources. This year, the U.S. House of Representatives traded the Administrations payment of UN dues for a global gag rule that prevents groups like those described from expressing an opinion on the abortion laws in their countries. This limitation on overseas groups receiving U.S. assistance for family planning services is bound up with U.S. domestic politics. Since 1973, groups receiving U.S. population assistance have not provided abortion services or referred clients to abortion providers as a requirement for receiving US foreign assistance.
The gag rule requires a certification process where international family planning groups must promise they will not use non-U.S. dollars – raised from their local communities, national governments, and private donors – for expressing an opinion about the abortion laws in their own countries. A total of $15 million has been allowed for all groups refusing to sign, and many organizations feel that their voices are being silenced by this arbitrary trade-off. They feel that signing away the right to express their opinions about the toll unsafe abortions have on women's health is likely to increase, not deter, abortion-related deaths.
A more fundamental question arises from efforts such as the international gag rule to silence women. In the 21st century, do women need the control and guidance of male policymakers, or are they capable of using their newly-found voices as segue to a more just and equitable world? We must not question the responsible behavior of women farmers in Africa who produce 70 percent of the food, build the schools and health clinics, pay the school fees for the children, and haul clean drinking water for miles. What they need are their rights and the resources to claim them.
The Beijing plus Five Review will illustrate an increasing political trend: women know that their future depends on elections, not handouts. From Washington to Sierra Leone elected officials should remember that women are an increasingly vocal force in shaping their own futures. Through the power of the ballot box, women can have the last word.