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By Kavita N. Ramdas
Fifteen years ago in Beijing, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said firmly, “Women’s rights are human rights.” Today, after eight years of nonexistent U.S. support for women’s reproductive rights, Secretary of State Clinton is reviving women’s hopes around the globe by affirming the Obama Administration’s support for the International Conference on Population and Development Action Plan.
This historic agreement, signed by 179 nations in Cairo in 1994, outlined a visionary 20-year strategy for making family planning universally available by 2015. For the first time, a global consensus acknowledged that the empowerment and economic independence of women and education of girls were integral to meeting global population and development goals. It was the first time that an international document clearly stated that women had the right to determine their own reproduction. Principle 4 of the Action Plan states: “ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility, is a cornerstone of population and development-related programmes.”
The founding president of the Global Fund for Women, Anne Firth Murray, noted that the Cairo declaration was the first major UN document that defined women as independent sexual beings, not merely child-bearers or mothers. In her words, “This was a revolution in women’s empowerment.”
From villages in Bangladesh to urban favelas in Brazil, women used the language of Cairo to push for concrete gains in accessing reproductive health and rights. In many ways, worldwide family planning has been a huge success: the global birth rate halved from 1950 to 2005. Many women around the world now view their right to freely and responsibly make decisions over their reproduction, free from coercion and violence, as a basic human right.
Yet, for some, the commitment to spreading freedom around the globe stops far short of ensuring women’s reproductive freedom. At a recent House foreign affairs committee hearing, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) aggressively questioned Hillary Clinton about whether the Obama administration’s policies on reproductive health included access to abortion. Clinton responded unapologetically: “Family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.”
We are going to need more straight talk of this nature, and walk our talk, if we want to ensure that the groundbreaking gains of Cairo are not eroded by a growing conservative and religious backlash. Despite the dedicated work of the United Nations and women’s rights advocates worldwide, more than 500,000 women still die annually from preventable childbirth-related injuries and illnesses. According to Population Action International, one in 65 women in developing countries risks dying during pregnancy or childbirth in her lifetime. Many of these are related to complications arising from unsafe abortions. In Mexico alone, up to 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually.
Secretary Clinton’s speech comes on the heels of a dismal global conversation on climate change that made it all too clear that we must find ways to effectively offset carbon emissions. Population growth and climate change will collide in ways that will put all our lives at risk, and will most grievously harm the poorest countries. In the Global Fund’s own experience, when girls and women have greater access to education—not just the three R’s: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but also the three C’s: courage, contraception, and choice—their improved health leads to positive community outcomes including economic growth and sustainable development. We agree with columnist Ellen Goodman: “if we can lighten the burden on the planet while widening the chances for women,” that’s our kind of offset. And, at least on the issues of women’s reproductive rights, this is proving to be our kind of State Department.
To watch the live stream of the speech (2:30 p.m. EST) or read a transcript.
KAVITA N. RAMDAS is President & CEO of the Global Fund for Women, an NGO dedicated to advancing the rights of women.
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