Afghan women acquired an unlikely ally last November, when first lady and "Comforter in Chief" Laura Bush became feminism's newest convert. In a radio address, Mrs. Bush bemoaned the plight of Afghan women and declared a U.S. commitment to restoring their rights. Four months later, on International Women's Day, the first lady embraced even more of her sisters, telling the United Nations, "We affirm our mission to protect human rights for women in Afghanistan and around the world."
But if the administration's feminist puppet show looks too good to be true, that's because it is. In July, the White House bowed to conservative Christian pressure and cut $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides reproductive-health services for women in 142 countries. And now the White House is stalling a landmark UN treaty affirming the basic human rights of women. It's a document the Bush administration originally supported -- before conservatives began to clog White House phones and e-mail with complaints.
Reversing course on the treaty now doesn't do much for the administration's earlier hearts-and-minds campaign to link the war on terrorism to the "fight for the rights and dignity of women," particularly Afghan women. The first lady's November radio address was the cornerstone of that effort. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Independent Women's Forum soon took up the cause, along with conservative columnists such as Kathleen Parker, who half-jokingly suggested that the United States provide Afghan women with automatic weapons to wield under their burqas.
Belated and politic though it was, the administration's rhetoric of international support for women's rights was music to feminists' ears -- especially for those who had spent 20 years campaigning for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The treaty requires member nations to reduce barriers against women in legal rights, education, employment, health care and finance, and it establishes equal rights to work, pay, benefits and worker safety. Using CEDAW, women in Tanzania won the right to inherit land, Japanese women sued their employers for wage and promotion discrimination, and the lawmakers in Colombia enshrined protections against domestic abuse in the 1991 drafting of their constitution.
Ninety percent of the UN membership, or 170 countries, has already seen fit to ratify the agreement. The United States is the only industrialized country that hasn't, which puts it in the company of Afghanistan, the Sudan and "axis of evil" member Iran. According to Leila Milani, co-chair of the Working Group for the Ratification of CEDAW, advocates felt it was "the right time for this administration to confirm its commitment to women's rights across the globe and ratify the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights." Former Minister of Women's Affairs for Afghanistan, Sima Samar, felt the same way, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. ratification would empower Afghan women to demand the same protections in their laws. Ratifying the treaty would go far toward dispelling international criticisms of U.S. unilateralism, and it would give weight to the administration's embrace of women's rights, liberating its critiques of other countries' policies toward women from accusations of cultural imperialism.
The administration seemed to concur. In February, it sent the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a letter that placed CEDAW on a list of treaties that the "administration believes are generally desirable and should be approved." But the news reached conservative opponents, who pushed the White House to call for a delay on CEDAW hearings until the Department of Justice -- and staunch CEDAW opponent Attorney General John Ashcroft -- could review the document. Although the Justice Department is still holding up the treaty, committee Democrats rejected the White House's stall tactics by calling a hearing and a vote, which resulted in a 12-to-7 decision to send CEDAW to the full Senate floor.
CEDAW opponents are working overtime against the treaty, alleging that it infringes on national sovereignty, advocates legalizing prostitution, and promotes abortion and what Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, calls the "homosexual agenda." But the treaty makes no mention of abortion, homosexuality or legalizing prostitution, and a potential member country can attach conditions to protect its laws before ratifying the treaty. As it stands now, the document is "entirely consistent" with the U.S. Constitution and federal and state laws, Harold Koh, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during the Clinton administration, told the Senate.
Despite the conservative attacks, steady international pressure and bipartisan support for the treaty have raised advocates' hopes that CEDAW will clear the Senate in the fall. If it does, President Bush will be hard-pressed not to ratify it, given his recent outspoken language on women's rights.
Supporters of UNFPA, the fund Bush slashed last month in another move to appease the Christian right, also remain optimistic. Last fall, Bush had requested a special $600,000 grant for UNFPA's services for Afghan women, raising the hackles of a small, Virginia-based anti-abortion group, the Population Research Institute. The group launched a campaign alleging that UNFPA supports China's one-child policy by pushing abortion. The funding Bush cut as a result of that campaign could, according to UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid, have prevented 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths. This despite the 2002 findings of a State Department team, which found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the [People's Republic of China]." Furthermore, no U.S. money has gone toward UNFPA programs in China in several years because of previous conservative demands.
Again, the Senate has stepped into the breach, setting aside $50 million for UNFPA in the new Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2003, which passed in mid-July. The Senate also added language that would override the president's discretion, forcing him to clear the money within 30 days.
But Senate Democrats can only do so much. Until the president is ready to put his money, and his signature, where his mouth is, women's rights will remain hostage to fundamentalists everywhere -- here and abroad.