What would the world look like if women had full human rights? If girls went to school and young women went to college in places where now they are used as household drudges and married off at 11 or 12? If women could go out for the whole range of jobs, could own the land they work, inherit property on equal terms with men? If they could control their own sexuality and fertility and give birth safely? If they had recourse against traffickers, honor killers, wife beaters? If they had as much say and as much power as men at every level of decision-making, from the household to the legislature? If John Ashcroft has his way, we may never find out. After twenty years of stalling by Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early June held hearings on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty ratified by 169 nations. (President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, but the Senate blocked it.) George W. Bush originally indicated that he would sign it–that was when he was sending Laura onto the airwaves to blast the Taliban–but under the influence of Ashcroft, he’s since been hedging. Naturally, the religious right has been working the phones: According to one e-mail that came across my screen, the operator who answers the White House comment line assumed the writer was calling to oppose CEDAW, so heavily were the calls running against it. The reasons? CEDAW would license abortion, promote homosexuality and teen sex and destroy The Family. In 2000, Helms called it “a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their anti-family agenda into international law.”
How radical can CEDAW be, you may ask, given that it’s been ratified by Pakistan, Jordan and Myanmar? Genderquake is hardly around the corner. Still, across the globe women have been able to use it to improve their access to education and healthcare as well as their legal status. In Japan, on the basis of a CEDAW violation, women sued their employers for wage discrimination and failure to promote; the Tanzanian High Court cited CEDAW in a decision to overturn a ban on clan land inheritance for women. Given the dire situation of women worldwide, it is outrageous to see US policy in the grip of Falwell, James Dobson and Ralph Nader’s good friend Phyllis Schlafly. Like the Vatican, which uses its UN observer status to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalist governments on behalf of fetus and family, on CEDAW the Bush Administration risks allying itself with Somalia, Qatar and Syria to promote the religious right agenda on issues of sexuality. In the same way, at the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the Child–where the United States opposed providing girls with sex education beyond “just say no,” even though in much of the Third World the typical “girl” is likely to be married with children–the Bush Administration allied itself with Libya, Sudan and evil axis member Iran. Some clash of civilizations.
Given this season’s spate of popular books about mean girls and inhumane women, it might seem starry-eyed to suppose that more equality for women would have a positive general social effect. Where women are healthy and well educated and self-determined, you can bet that men are too, but the situation of women is not only a barometer of a society’s general level of equality and decency–improving women’s status is key to solving many of the world’s most serious problems. Consider the AIDS epidemic now ravaging much of the Third World: Where women cannot negotiate safe sex, or protect themselves from rape, or expect fidelity from their male partners, where young girls are sought out by older HIV-positive men looking for tractable sex partners, where prostitution flourishes under the most degraded conditions and where women are beaten or even murdered when their HIV-positive status becomes known, what hope is there of containing the virus? Under these circumstances, “just say no” is worse than useless: In Thailand, being married is the single biggest predictor of a woman’s testing positive. As long as women are illiterate, poor and powerless, AIDS will continue to ravage men, women and children.
Or consider hunger. Worldwide, women do most of the farming but own only 2 percent of the land. In many areas where tribal rules govern inheritance, they cannot own or inherit land and are thrown off it should their husband die. Yet a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that women spend more time on productive activities, and according to the International Center for Research on Women, women spend more of their earnings on their children than men do. Recognizing and maximizing women’s key economic role would have a host of benefits–it would lessen hunger, improve women’s and children’s well-being, improve women’s status in the family, lower fertility.
And then there’s war and peace. I don’t think it’s an accident that Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in the parts of the world where women are most oppressed–indeed, maintaining and deepening women’s subjugation, the violent rejection of everything female, is one of its major themes. (Remember Mohammed Atta’s weird funeral instructions?) At the same time, the denial of education, employment and rights to women fuels the social conditions of backwardness, provincialism and poverty that sustain religious fanaticism.
If women’s rights were acknowledged as the key to human progress that they are, we would look at all these large issues of global politics and economics very differently. Would the US government have been able to spend a billion dollars backing the fundamentalist warlords who raped and abducted women and threw acid at their unveiled faces while “fighting communism” and destroying Afghanistan? At the recently concluded loya jirga, which featured numerous current and former warlords as delegates, a woman delegate stood up and denounced former President Burhanuddin Rabbani as a violent marauder. For a moment, you could see that, as the saying goes, another world is possible.