Published on Tuesday, April 20, 2004 by the Inter Press Service
Bush Ideology Hurts Women Worldwide - Groups
by Marty Logan
MONTREAL - U.S. President George W Bush can talk a good line on women's issues but his performance is a flop, said U.S. groups Monday in a preview of this weekend's March for Women's Lives in Washington.
Grading the Bush administration in four areas -- its emergency plan for HIV/AIDS, global women's rights, international family planning and support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) -- the organisations argued that the president sometimes makes all the right noises but rarely follows up by taking the correct steps.
The groups -- Feminist Majority, Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and the Centre for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) -- said ideology, not evidence, is driving Bush's performance in these areas, and predicted that hundreds of thousands would turn out at the march Sunday to protest his approach.
For the first time since the marches began in the 1970s, this year's event will focus on international issues, said Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority.
''U.S. policies are now not only adversely affecting women domestically, but they're probably having their greatest negative impact worldwide,'' Smeal said.
''We used to say, 'if we lose (abortion rights) women will die'. You will not hear that at this march. You will hear, 'women are dying, are being injured, because it is now driven home how devastating these policies are','' she added in a telephone press conference from Washington.
Quoting U.N. figures, Smeal told reporters that 80,000 women die annually worldwide from unsafe or botched abortions, while 500,000 die because of a shortfall in funding for family planning programmes.
While the Bush administration cannot be blamed for all of those incidents, ''many of them could be averted with decent reproductive health care,'' she added.
Instead, Washington has politicised family planning to the extent that some organisations working in the developing world are refusing to accept U.S. money because it means they must promise to not provide or even mention abortion services, Smeal argued.
''One of the sad stories we hear is that some agencies (won't) treat women who are very ill or dying from botched abortions for fear'' of retaliation from U.S. funders. ''They cannot afford to lose any of the money they have.''
The administration will spend most of its money on anti-AIDS activities overseas this year on abstinence-only programmes, despite the fact that married women and adolescents are the fastest growing segment of the population in the developing world to be infected with the disease, said Jodi Jacobson, executive director of CHANGE.
''The primary factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS among these populations is unprotected heterosexual sex, which is also the primary factor in unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion,'' Jacobson added.
''Really what we're talking about here is the critical issue of whether women have the choice and the ability to practise safe sex and to enable themselves to be protected from unintended pregnancy and infection,'' she said.
The administration ''says it is going to address HIV from a compassionate perspective. But when one looks at the issue of choices, and one looks at the issue of what's happening to women with respect to HIV/AIDS worldwide, you can immediately see the links between the funding stream actually being directed in ways that undermine women's choices,'' Jacobson added.
In the area of women's rights, the administration is making some sure steps -- backwards, according to June Zeitlin, WEDO executive director.
In March, a U.S. State Department official told a U.N. meeting the administration would not reaffirm its commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action -- the concrete proposals that issued from the 1995 World Conference on Women and cover topics ranging from health to human rights -- because it contains items ''that could be interpreted to support, promote or endorse abortion''.
According to Zeitlin, that retreat followed another one weeks earlier, when the international community was revisiting the commitments it made at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The United States, which supported the original measures, opposed their reaffirmation.
''We know that President Bush and his administration are opposed to abortion. What we didn't know is that they would read abortion into all kinds of provisions in international documents that refer to family planning or to women's rights,'' said Zeitlin.
She also lamented that immediately after taking office, Bush asked the Senate to delay a vote on ratifying the Convention on All Forms of Elimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been adopted by 177 nations, including, lastly, Afghanistan. That vote has still not taken place.
''This unilateral and erroneous interpretation of global commitments is a real step back for women worldwide,'' added Zeitlin.
One glimmer of hope concerns the UNFPA, the world's most important provider of family-planning assistance, to which Congress had allotted 34 million U.S. dollars for 2004. In the previous two years Bush has withheld such funding, arguing that the agency finances abortion activities in China, a charge that UNFPA denies.
Its denials have been backed up by a number of independent investigations, including by a delegation of Muslim, Roman Catholic and Jewish experts and ethicists who travelled to China in 2003.
Smeal said Bush is expected to announce his decision on UNFPA funding within a few weeks.
Meanwhile, women will continue to die because of U.S. policies, stressed Jacobson.
''In many of the countries we're speaking about -- India, many of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa like Zimbabwe, Kenya -- in these countries deaths from unsafe abortion and pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death among women ages 15 to 35.''
Added Jacobson: ''So, really it's not this sort of abstraction, but the leading killers of women in that age group, their most productive age group, the age group in which they're most likely to have small children that they're raising.''