Secretary Clinton's commitment to "put women and girls at the center of US foreign policy" is a laudable one, and after playing a central role at the 1994 Cairo conference, it is only fitting that she should deliver the speech to commemorate the achievements of the conference 15 years later. The conference represented the first truly global commitment to women's rights, and has had a powerful and measurable impact on reproductive health, infant mortality, and maternal empowerment.
Fifteen years on, however, women are still under threat throughout the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where the coercive population control policy, informally known as the "One Child Policy," represents an unprecedented State intrusion concerning women's reproductive choices. China was highly involved in the Cairo conference of 1994, and indeed one of the biggest disappointments of the Cairo conference for human rights activists was that it did not adequately address the abuses occurring at the time in relation to China's One Child Policy. To the contrary, many proponents of zero population growth used the occasion to applaud China for its efforts at population growth reduction, and China has since used the Cairo conference as moral cover for the draconian methods employed in enforcing the One Child Policy.
These abuses continue today, and yet there have recently been increasing calls for the world to take a look at the One Child Policy as a model for how to reduce population growth. These calls are severely misguided. The One Child Policy does not represent "family planning" in the way the UN intended. Although the policy is unevenly applied throughout the country, it has resulted in a range of gross human rights violations. Women of child-bearing age are routinely subjected to monitoring of their menstrual cycle by family planning officials, and their employment is often contingent upon compliance with the policy. Unmarried women are not allowed to have children, and even married couples must apply for a birth permit before they can legally bear children. Women who violate the policy are served with fines which may be several times their annual income, or worse, subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations as punishment. If they refuse to submit, their family members may be detained and their homes destroyed.
It's tempting to cite the positive environmental impact of the prevention of 300 to 400 million births, but the One Child Policy privileges the wealthy, who can afford the fines for additional births and have better access to contraceptives and health care, while punishing the poor, who are financially crippled by the fines incurred for additional births, and whose limited access to health care means that contraceptives may not have been a viable option, and that their children have lower chances of surviving to adulthood. Moreover, this policy punishes the children of the poor, because they are more likely to be kept hidden from the state, and thus will not have access to health care and the education they need to climb out of poverty.
Regrettably those same voices that encouraged support for the One Child Policy at the 1994 Cairo conference are growing in influence once again. Rather than focusing solely on population reduction, however, the goals of the conference to improve women's access to health care and increase their control over their bodies and their personal lives should be highlighted. It should be up to each individual woman to decide how many children is right for her family, and empowering women both physically and economically has proven to reduce birth rates throughout the world, without the moral repugnancy of tying women's reproductive choices to the State.
The One Child Policy is one of the most disempowering legal forces against women in operation in the world today. Not only does it represent an intolerable intrusion into the most sacred personal freedom of one-fifth of the world's women, but it has directly contributed to the exploitation of women throughout Asia as China has become the epicenter for human trafficking in the region. The Secretary has spoken out on the One Child Policy before; I hope that she will take the opportunity of the anniversary of the Cairo conference to influence this debate once more. China's women and girls are depending on her.