In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Aaron David Miller opines that President Obama should resist the urge to become a “foreign-policy President” in the wake of electoral losses that will make it difficult to push a domestic agenda. Others have also argued that that may be all that’s left for him. However, while President Obama and his bruised-but-not-broken Senate Democrat allies will assuredly find a more hostile landscape come January, there is at least one key area with regard to international affairs where they can continue to make headway: global women’s rights. This is an issue that has been sidelined by all but the most persistent of activists as being “important but not urgent.” Unfortunately, we cannot afford to wait, and this might just be the right opportunity to pursue an ambitious agenda in support of women’s rights worldwide.
President Obama and the retained Democratic majority in the Senate have several opportunities to promote women’s rights around the world. The first pertains to legislation currently pending before Congress: the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), which focuses on helping the millions of women worldwide who suffer abuse on account of their gender. This bill devotes resources and attention to this pandemic of violence by coordinating efforts to integrate gender into U.S. foreign assistance programs and policies. I-VAWA had been scheduled for mark up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the elections, but was postponed to allow for this year’s aggressive campaign schedules. Now is the time to bring it up again and move forward in the fight to save millions of women and girls from a lifetime of abuse and neglect.
Another item that should be on the agenda is the ratification of CEDAW – the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women. Adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly, CEDAW defines gender discrimination and offers recommendations for state action to promote gender equality and opportunities. Currently, 187 countries have ratified CEDAW; other than the United States, the only others that have not ratified are Iran, Qatar, Nauri, Palau, Tonga, Somalia, and the Sudan. Ratification of this Convention would represent a crucial step forward in the fight for global equality and reinforce the United States’ commitment to ensuring the safety and security of all women around the world. More importantly, perhaps, in this climate, ratification of CEDAW does not require House approval. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the treaty for this week; members of the Committee should approve the Convention and move to a full vote in the Senate as soon as possible.
Aaron David Miller claims that President Obama “lacks ready-made or even easily manufactured opportunities abroad,” essentially arguing that “‘game-changing” peace agreements or international diplomatic overtures” are unlikely to bear fruit. He may be right in the grand scheme of foreign policy. But violence against women and girls is a severe human rights violation, a dangerous health epidemic, and a barrier to solving additional global challenges such as extreme poverty and terrorism. President Obama can help improve the lives of millions of women worldwide without taking the entire world on his shoulders or completely turning his back on Americans.
The number one issue for voters this election season was – justifiably – the economy. And no doubt, President Obama needs to continue to reach out to Congress to get our economy back on track. However, so far, imminent Republican control of the House of Representatives has manifested itself as a blatant refusal to compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy, extend unemployment benefits to the needy, or take meaningful steps to stimulate the economy effectively. If Republicans are serious about their intentions to meet the White House halfway and work with President Obama, they should use this opportunity to turn some attention to millions of women and girls worldwide who need our help.
For more information about advancing global women’s rights, please check out the follwing resources: Half the Sky Movement; Women Thrive WorldWide; Women for Women International; Amnesty International; Change.org.
Picture: A woman in Sierra Leone learns about a new training center that will offer basic literacy classes. Source: Abigail Colazzo.