02/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reclaiming Foreign Policy

Reflecting on the priorities of the Bush administration over the past eight years, one could be forgiven for thinking that foreign policy means "the military." In reality, our foreign policy has global implications -- even when we aren't at war.

Hillary Clinton's appointment to Secretary of State is a powerful opportunity to reclaim a broader definition of foreign policy that includes an appreciation of the impact that United State's foreign policy has on women's lives. Secretary Clinton brings not only a strong military background to this role but also a dedication to, and humanitarian understanding of, the rights of women.

Globally, women have suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Bush administration, beginning on day one when President Bush reinstituted the Global Gag Rule. The Gag Rule (which President Clinton had repealed) prohibits any foreign organization that receives US funding from: performing abortions in cases other than rape, incest or a threat to the woman's life, lobbying to make abortion legal or more available in their country; or even providing abortion counseling and referral. In short, the U.S government has repeatedly put organizations in the impossible position of either accepting accept U.S. funding and being censored from even talking about abortion or rejecting this misguided policy and losing vital U.S. funding and contraceptive supplies.

Far from accomplishing the Gag Rule's ostensible goal of reducing abortion globally, the policy has actually obstructed the very services that help women avoid unwanted pregnancy and STDs! The Global Gag Rule Impact Project points out that, in addition to forcing clinics to close or cut services, the administration stopped shipping desperately needed USAID-supplied contraceptives to 16 developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Unfortunately for the women who relied on them, these family planning organizations were the only recipients of USAID contraceptives in their countries.

This, then, was our country's foreign policy? To attach strings to tools that could've prevented unwanted pregnancy and STDs, including AIDS?

Wreaking even more havoc was Bush's defunding, seven years ago, of the U.N. Population Fund on the false claim that it supports China's one-child policy. To date, the agency has lost approximately $235 million in U.S. support.

Ironically, the dire consequences of the Bush administration's "pro-active" international health care policy are rivaled only by its inaction elsewhere. Focusing myopically on Iraq, the Bush administration has sat by silently while growing humanitarian crises in Africa have destroyed women's lives. Multiple African countries - notably Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- have adopted rape as a weapon of war, taking brutal fighting onto the bodies of women.

Women for Women International, an organization dedicated to helping women war survivors rebuild their lives, points out that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo rape has been used by almost all parties of the conflict as a weapon of choice. Observers now see it spreading among civilians as a means of intimidation, torture, and exercising power. In the Sudan, militants use similar tactics, dispatching rapists to terrorize women and children; a doctor in the Sudan recently described treating dozens of girls aged 7-13 who'd been brutally raped in an attack on their school. Because many young Darfuri girls had been forced to undergo an extreme form of genital mutilation (where the vagina is stitched closed until marriage) these rapes were exceedingly violent, painful and bloody, with an increased risk of AIDS transmission.

Thirteen years ago at The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, then First Lady Hillary Clinton said, "Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated. Even in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used as an instrument of armed conflict... These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words. Those of us with the opportunity to be here have the responsibility to speak for those who could not."

"It is," she added, "a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war. It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation. It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families...Now it is time to act on behalf of women everywhere. "

As Secretary of State to a President committed to protecting women's health and rights, Ms. Clinton is in the powerful position of single handedly being able to act. On behalf of women everywhere, the United States will finally reclaim its vaunted position as a moral leader and, together, stand up for those who can't.

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