Boston Globe, December 8, 2006
Survival is the first human right. Women around the world who suffer beatings, rape, enslavement, or ritual mutilation cannot hope to access the full benefits of higher education or political empowerment. Every American concerned about a healthy, sustainable world should start with this baseline effort: violence against women must be made illegal and intolerable in even the poorest societies.
Last month the United Nations Population Fund issued a report documenting horrific gender violence in countries from Cameroon to Mexico, sometimes perpetrated under the protective rubric of "traditional cultural practices" or religious customs. The problems are widespread and deeply rooted: rape has become a routine weapon of war, for example; and 80 million girls are forcibly married before their 18th birthdays, an age when pregnancy is the leading cause of death.
The fund, known as UNFPA, is shedding light this year on five under-reported crimes against women as part of its effort to eradicate such brutality. These include so-called bride kidnapping (a "tradition" in Kyrgyzstan and other central Asian countries that amounts to little more than rape and enslavement); child marriage as early as age 11 ; traumatic fistula (a debilitating side effect of violent rape or unsafe childbirth); the systematic disappearance and murder of women; and breast-ironing, a form of mutilation that mothers in parts of Africa perform on their own daughters in a desperate attempt to make them unattractive to violent, predatory men.
The UN Population Fund does for poor women what UNICEF does for children abroad: advocate for their health and protection. UNFPA supports projects in the most difficult settings to transform attitudes about such oppressive practices and enforce human rights. As UNFPA director Thoraya Obaid puts it: "Widespread impunity not only encourages further abuses and suffering, it also sends the signal that male violence against women is acceptable or normal." The UNFPA works at the grassroots, in partnership with local men and village elders, to promote alternative futures for women and girls.
Maddeningly, the Bush administration has for five straight years refused to fund the US share of support for UNFPA (roughly $34 million) on the specious claim that the agency promotes coercive reproductive policies overseas, particularly in China. This is so even though a hand-picked State Department team debunked the claim in 2002.
A non profit group of volunteers called Americans for UNFPA is working to heal the damage to women created by this administration's ideological blindness. They provide an outlet for Americans to contribute to the crucial work the Bush administration disdains. Advancing the status of women is a human right that will enhance the health, safety, and freedom of all people.
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