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Women Are Not Special

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Women are not special. So if you are expecting another article about what the Obama-Biden administration should do for the constituency I claim to speak for (women), read no further. Women are not and should not have to be a special interest group. Policies that consistently ignore the needs of women are bad for men too.

To be sure, there is value in identifying policy areas in which women's needs and rights have been particularly neglected or scaled back during the past 8 years. Several individuals and groups have already called for action from the next administration, and the diligence with which the Obama transition team has been publishing these bodes well at least for their transparency and accountability. Most groups have identified maternal health, violence, and economic opportunities as priority issues for women.

These are not simply women's issues, though. They are issues of broad public concern. The question should not be whether "women" deserve more attention than "national security," "economic recovery," or any of a long list of other competing demands. The question is whether Americans can put food on the table and be safe as long as they treat concerns such as women's health, freedom from violence, and financial stability as separate side issues.

I say no. While generally billed as special interest concerns, women's rights must be addressed urgently if the new administration is to make inroads on other fronts. Allow me to illustrate.

Health. Using government data, the National Women's Law Center (a nongovernmental organization) publishes a report card on women's health. According to data from 2007, 18 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 have no health insurance, showing no change from 2004. Native American and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely to be without health insurance as white women.

The point has often been made that women are more likely to need regular health care because of their reproductive functions, and that health insurance for women therefore is a matter of prevention as much as of cure. And that is everyone's concern. Even though women carry out the physical function of giving birth, the whole family benefits. More generally, of working married women, 48 percent provide half or more of the household income.

Violence. A new US government report shows huge increases in reported cases of rape and sexual assault (25 percent ) and of violence by intimate partners against women (42 percent) between 2005 and 2007. Except for simple assault, which increased by 3 percent, the incidence of every other crime surveyed actually decreased. The country has long been enjoying a decline in violent crime, yet these new figures show a different, and very disturbing, story that should worry everyone.

Whether these figures represent an increase in actual crime or improved methodology, as the report's authors argue, they are alarming. Every American may have a family member or friend affected by these violent crimes. Children who witness domestic violence, even if they are not physically affected by it, may conclude that force is an acceptable way to solve conflicts. And while it is in everyone's interest to ensure that the law enforcement and justice systems respond adequately to violent crime, it should be noted that sexual violence is a category of violent crime that is seldom punished.

Economic opportunities. In the current economic climate, job security is a major concern for many Americans, men and women. But longstanding patterns of discrimination in the workplace exacerbate this situation for women. Despite significant progress, pay equity has still not been achieved -- women earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. And basic labor protections exclude some professions that are dominated by women, such as domestic work or homecare. Keeping in mind the major contributions women make to family income, these inequities affect us all.

There are also important arguments to be made about the unrecognized value of female-dominated professions and the need for equal pay and equal rights for equal work. The failure to promote and protect women's economic opportunities affects what might rightfully be called "an average American family:" about a third of American families are single-parent households, and 89 percent of them are headed by women.

So in the new year, I am not going to advocate that the Obama-Biden administration prioritize women's needs and rights over other concerns. I am going to advocate for policies and programs that promote human rights for all: health, freedom from violence, and economic opportunities. And I will know that as women benefit and women's rights advance, we will all be better off.

Marianne Mollmann is the advocacy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch.

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