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Hillary Clinton, State Feminist? | The Nation

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Hillary Clinton, State Feminist?

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“One of the first things I did as secretary was to elevate the Office of Global Women’s Issues under the first ambassador at large, Melanne Verveer,” Clinton said during her speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Verveer was sitting in the audience, and so was the office’s deputy, Jennifer Klein, who told me earlier that helping women and girls around the world was “not only the morally right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.” 

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Tara McKelvey
Tara McKelvey, a 2011 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret...

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At the Office of Global Women’s Issues, Verveer and her staffers have assisted women in countries around the world who are fighting sexual violence and other crimes. In July, for instance, officials announced that the United States would contribute $5 million to a public-private partnership, Together for Girls, that works to reduce sexual violence in Kenya, Haiti and other countries. 

The office also funds workshops through the Small Grants Initiative, such as the one-day conference for the Female Lawyers Association in Gambia in August 2011, and helped lead the China-US Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue program, which brought together female leaders from both countries.

As secretary of state, Clinton has “mainstreamed” women’s issues, just as President Jimmy Carter once did with human rights, says Alan Henrikson, a director of diplomatic studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The State Department’s annual human rights report now includes information on the legal age of marriage in every country, showing the places where girls are routinely forced into early marriage. In Yemen, for instance, there is no minimum age, and girls as young as 8 can be forced to marry.

Aside from helping draw attention to the plight of women and girls in Congo, Clinton has led a widely publicized cookstove initiative to raise awareness of the dangers of primitive stoves in the developing world. Cookstoves, which cause diseases and illnesses such as pneumonia, kill 2 million people a year. These stoves also produce black carbon, one of the biggest causes of global warming. In 2010, Clinton said that the United States would commit $50 million toward the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an organization that aims to convince people in 100 million households around the world to switch to cleaner stoves. Since then, that figure has increased to $105 million, with yet more funding to come.

“She was genuine about the stoves, as it turned out,” says New York University’s Richard Gowan, an expert in international cooperation. Critics argue, however, that the new stoves don’t make a difference: in fact, some of the new models cause more pollution than the old ones. In addition, as one study by Harvard and MIT researchers showed, families who received the new stoves did not use them properly, or stopped using them altogether after a few months. In that study, they essentially gave the stove away and did not find great results. “I’m like, ‘Big surprise,’ says the State Department’s Jacob Moss, director of the US Cookstoves Initiative. He explained that the study showed that technology alone, or simply giving away better stoves, is not enough. Instead, experts have to look at the problem holistically, which, he says, is what he and others at the State Department are doing. 

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Others who appreciate Clinton’s dynamic leadership on women’s issues question whether she has always followed through with commensurate resources. “She was good at making statements and getting policies in place,” says Equality Now’s Quast, “but they didn’t necessarily come with the money.”

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, recalls how she and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and other activists waited in an anteroom on the seventh floor of the State Department to meet with Clinton in October 2012. “The doors swung out,” she recalls, and Clinton, dressed in a gown of reddish-pink African cloth, stepped out to greet them. “She’s very charismatic,” says Girard. “There’s a lot of wattage.” Tutu bowed toward Clinton and said, “Oh, I am so honored.” 

Girard, Tutu and the other activists in the room were hoping that Clinton would support their efforts to fight child marriage by creating a coordinated approach to the problem—and also by investing $100 million in US funds in a public-private partnership. They all sat together in a meeting room. Tutu “was really pressing for a commitment,” Girard says. “Instead, we got a couple of programs,” such as the ones in Bangladesh and Congo that were designed to help girls stay in school and avoid early marriage. “Some commitments,” Girard allows, “but not at the level we’d hoped for.”

Girard and her colleagues have also attempted to help HIV-positive women in developing countries have access to contraceptives, which would reduce unwanted pregnancies and minimize the risk of mother-to-child infections. US government officials could approve money for contraceptives at HIV clinics. 

“The secretary of state could sit down and take a look at this and say, ‘It would be a lot more convenient for women in Gambia, when they go to an HIV clinic, to also get access to family planning,’” Girard says. “We got no action on that.”

In addition, Clinton could have allowed funds to be used for abortions for women in serious need overseas. The 1973 Helms amendment states that foreign-aid money may not be used for abortions, but it provides exceptions for when a woman’s life is in danger and in cases of rape or incest. “That’s something Hillary Clinton could consider doing,” Girard says, but she did not. “We expect more from our friends.” 

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