Women: The Smartest Investment

January 14, 2010

In an empowering speech on Friday, January 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women’s rights as human rights. Exactly 15 years since the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Secretary Clinton praised the progress made in improving the health and lives of women and children around the world since this groundbreaking gathering.

This progress has included a marked increase in the use of modern contraceptives from less than 10% in the 1960s to 43% today; an encouraging increase in child survival rates; and an increase in female enrollment in schools. Despite this progress, Secretary Clinton rightly emphasized the crucial need for a continued commitment toward reaching the Conference’s goals by the target year, 2015.

Secretary Clinton cited alarming statistics: half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without access to crucial medical care and 215 million women worldwide lack access to modern forms of contraception – as Clinton put it, the “numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable.” Vast gendered inequities remain; and women continue to represent the majority of the world’s “poor, unhealthy, and under-fed.”

Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration’s recognition that investing in women is “the smartest investment to be made…” shows that they’re on the right track. Earlier this year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton demonstrated their support for these issues by appointing Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.  The creation of this position sends a strong message to the world that the United States, in its deliberations on foreign policy and foreign aid, will give top priority to issues that affect women. Ambassador Verveer has since been a strong advocate on behalf of women around the world.  In October, she testified before Congress in hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on violence against women.

Secretary Clinton lamented in her speech that global rates of maternal mortality remain unacceptably high. As efforts to reach the Cairo Programme of Action’s goals move forward, Secretary Clinton must make reduction of maternal mortality a priority for this administration. Maternal mortality is a human rights crisis.

Around the world, one woman dies every minute due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.  Of all the central development issues, maternal mortality needs the most urgent action and yet of all the Millennium Development Goals, it has seen the least progress. This year, we released a series of reports on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, Nicaragua and Peru showing the devastating effect inadequate maternal care has on women. These reports highlight the need for urgent action on this issue.  The U.S. can and should play a leadership role in combating this human rights crisis.

It is also clear that if the Administration is sincere in their efforts to halt the ongoing marginalization of women globally, it must address the issue domestically. As of August 2009, the United States is among a small minority of countries that have not yet ratified Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Treaty for the Rights of Women), including Iran and Sudan. CEDAW is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life. The principles espoused in CEDAW are consistent with those in U.S. law and with our country’s foreign and domestic policy objectives. With U.S. ratification, CEDAW would become a much stronger instrument in support of women’s struggles to achieve full protection and realization of their rights.

As Secretary Clinton is so fond of saying, “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” We certainly look forward to seeing her progress on both fronts.

Contributed by Cristina M. Finch, Government Relations Director