Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Women’s rights are human rights, but will “backward” nations see them as keys to success?



High-level State Department work requires intelligence, sensitivity, and a healthy dose of optimism. This is what I took away from last week’s State Department briefings of 22 members of the Association of Opinion Journalists, formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Diplomats whose portfolios cover everything from Western Hemisphere Affairs to the Middle East, from North Korea, China and Japan to human rights and global women’s issues, were all highly analytical, had evolved policies for resolving conflicting interests among disparate world players, and seemed determined to measure success in very tiny increments. But will certain intractable problems be resolved even during their lifetimes?

Take, for example, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who heads the Office of Global Women’s Issues. Contemplating the transitional period in Afghanistan and the status of women after U.S. disengagement, she observed, “No one has suffered more in Afghanistan than women,” who “are the key to the future.” Their “survivability has grown,” as measured by a reduction in the maternal mortality rate, greater numbers of women going to school, availing themselves of economic opportunity including access to microcredit, more participation in the military and in parliament and the provincial councils.

All hopeful signs, to be sure. But the problem of violence against women is deeply entrenched, whether because of national cultural practices or misinterpretation of the Koran. Verveer says women’s strength is knowing of their own dignity. They are working with imams, mullahs and some community leaders to clarify what the proper reading of religious rules should be. Verveer’s optimism in the face of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan assumes continuing efforts to build women’s capacity to remain engaged in civic life. But it’s hard to believe there will not be substantial backsliding under increased Taliban influence.

Improvements in life, especially in economic activity and education, have “the highest positive value for continuing the changes,” insisted Verveer. It’s a slender reed of hope that education and greater economic sustainability will put an end to genital mutilation, that most barbarous culturally and religiously promoted process that afflicts women’s health and ability to shape their own lives. Verveer left us with the admonition of a new Afghan’s women’s network, a coalition of women’s organizations urging that people “stop looking at us as victims and look at us as the leaders we are.” I hope she is right. I wish I shared her optimism, especially considering the 142 million girls worldwide who have been subjected to this particular atrocity.
Human rights are repressed in different ways in different nations. Will “Arab awakening” movements make a difference? U.S. diplomats are closely watching Egypt and Yemen, among the nations where 80 percent or more of women have been victims of genital mutilation. What about Libya, where progressive activists have been tortured or made to “disappear?” We have less leverage with Libya than elsewhere because they have oil and don’t need our money.

We depend on oil from Saudi Arabia, which forbids women to vote or even drive and were barred from participating in the 2008 Olympics. We trade with China, which bans internet access, jails political dissidents, and restricts religious minorities and press freedoms.

The Obama Administration has just announced sanctions against companies and governments that use digital technology to deprive its people of human rights. So we’ are taking steps here and there, and moving forward incrementally to improve rights for women, political activists and religious and ethnic minorities.

 
Last night President Obama talked about the prolonged withdrawal from Afghanistan and “protecting human rights, men and women, boys and girls.” But our goal there, he said, is “not to rebuild the country in America’s image, but to defeat Al Qaeda.” The emphasis is clearly on military security and ending the war “responsibly,” whatever that turns out to mean. Human rights and opportunities for women may be pushed down the priority list when the Karzai government’s rampant kleptocracy and ill prepared troops still have yet to be properly addressed.

Managing international relations is a tough job, dependent not only on our government’s unsentimental pragmatism and technological sophistication but also on the healthy dose of optimism that characterize its diplomatic practices. That leaves experts and onlookers alike to ponder a time of great uncertainty.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo AP/Charles Dharapak

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