This post is part of our online salon: A New Agenda for Girls' and Women's Health and Rights, co-hosted with UN Dispatch.
I think it is terribly important for the new US administration to advance gender equality as part of a more comprehensive strategy for peace and social justice both at home and in the rest of the world. It is also vital to show by deed as well as by word that the United States means to walk its talk on gender justice. This would go a long way in rebuilding the trust and goodwill that the past administration has squandered in the rest of the world.
The new administration needs to be willing to stand up and publicly recognize that the United States, despite being among the wealthiest nations, has a long way to go before it is close to meeting some of the most basic gender equality standards in terms of women's representation in the political process and in terms of economic justice. Women represent over 51% of the US population, but only 14% of representatives in both the US House and Senate are women. There is enough research to show that increased representation by women in legislative bodies results in policies that invest in the long term human security of their citizens. Repeated studies by the AFLCIO have shown that you can cut poverty rates in the United States (close to 70 percent of those who are poor in this country are women and their dependent children) simply by paying women equal pay for equal work. Not a single new Congressional appropriation would be needed for such a "war on poverty." Yet, the fight for the ERA – or Equal Rights Amendment, which would be the most effective strategy to achieve "equal pay for equal work" has long since ceased to be a mobilizing banner for the US women's movement. It is also arguably the most likely reason that the United States has simply failed to ratify the most universally recognized women's human rights treaty worldwide, the Convention for Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW.
Violence against women in the United States continues to claim unacceptably high numbers of victims and basic pre-natal care for pregnant women is almost non-existent for poor women without health insurance. Fifteen years ago when I worked in Chicago, Black women suffered from maternal mortality rates that were worse than Bangladesh. Poor children continue to die across the US because they lack basic preventive health care, including vaccinations against common diseases like measles. Despite the horrors inflicted on poor residents of the Gulf coast, it seems that Katrina barely ruffled a political feather – it hasn't shown up as a major policy agenda on a single candidate's stump speech. The new administration must demonstrate that it is willing to take action on such blatant violations of basic human rights – right here at home.
Finally, an effective US administration will need the active and tactical support of the women's movement in the US. To provide sufficient ballast, the movement in the US needs to deepen and broaden its message beyond the rather narrow confines of fighting to preserve Roe v. Wade. On reproductive rights and health, it must be willing to stand up for the right of all women (immigrants, the poor, rural, sexual minorities, etc) to be able to plan their families, have access to contraception, and to bear and raise healthy children. And the women's movement needs to show the political will and courage to refuse to cede the moral high ground by showing itself able and willing to speak to the moral ambiguities around the issue of abortion.
At the most base level, a U.S. administration's commitment to advancing women's rights would serve to reinforce our country's commitment to social justice and international law. Neither our government, nor any other, can invade nations or bomb them into submission — even under the guise of "fighting terror" — with a carrot in the other hand touting "human rights." Such practice looks too much like the hypocrisy the developing world has come to expect from its former colonial powers.
The same holds for economic coercion or what I like to call "market fundamentalism." The free markets the West and the US are so keen to export and impose on the rest of the world are remarkably well regulated here in the US to serve the "national" interest. Look at how farm subsidies to the tune of $20 billion per year continue to underwrite US agriculture, even as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank are busy demanding that the rest of the world (Brazil, India, Egypt, and most sub-Saharan African nations) tear down their subsidies on agriculture and food. A recent article in The New York Times quoted the President of Malawi saying, "We decided to follow what the West did, not what they preached, and expanded subsidies to our farmers." Malawi has made remarkable progress in the past few years on food production as a result.
This speaks particularly to Michelle's point making the links between women's fertility, population growth and the rising cost of food. I submit that the cost of food prices has far more to do with oil prices, uneven and unfair trade practices than with how many poor mothers are having babies. This is not to undermine the critical need for inexpensive and reliable means of family planning. They should be made as widely available as possible. In fact, women's rights is as appropriate a lens by which to understand the challenges around population as any. What women's rights activists in the West need to be more outspoken about is the model of growth that is based entirely on consumerism.
A few statistics will make my point clear as day: Americans eat 815 billion calories of food daily, that is about 200 billion more than needed, more than enough to feed 80 million hungry people. Two hundred thousand tons of edible food are thrown out daily in the US. Eighty percent of corn grown and 95% of oats are fed to livestock in the US. Fifty-six percent of all available farmland in the US is used for beef production. In turn, when the US exports our model of high economic growth to the rest of the world consumption of meat rises in countries like China and India.
With all due respect, I would argue that those are the key factors contributing to rising food prices, not women in poor countries having babies.