The world today is transfixed by the retreat of the Libyan rebels, but a far more momentous retreat is under way, and it does not bode well for the future of the world. It's the retreat on women's rights.
Because so much progress has been made on gender equity in recent decades, it's easy to assume that it will continue. But progress in any area of human endeavor is seldom linear. Reversals occur, sometimes with stunning speed. And that may be happening today with respect to the rights and welfare of women in the world.
Throughout much of human history women have been treated like second-class citizens or worse. In good times and in bad, but particularly in bad times, women have often borne the brunt of any adversity. The 20th century did much to change all that, and many of us would like to think that gender equality can be fully realized in the 21st century. Gender equity, after all, is not just a matter of respect for the rights of all human beings; it is essential to human fulfillment. Human potential will never be completely realized until women are fully empowered.
But like the Libyan rebels who presently find themselves outgunned by Gadhafi's henchmen, women in many parts of the world today are losing in the face of formidable odds. Many are victims of sexual assault, like the reporter in Egypt who was sexually assaulted by a gang of men in the streets of Cairo, or the estimated 8,000 women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were raped last year by marauding soldiers.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote this week about Hena, a 14-year old girl in Bangladesh who was reportedly gagged, beaten and raped by an older man in her village. To pay for her 'crime' the local iman issued a fatwa pronouncing her guilty of adultery and sentenced her to 100 lashes in a public whipping. She collapsed after 70 lashes, and subsequently died from her wounds.
Hena's story, as shocking as it is, is not unique. In some parts of the world today, girls who are raped are presumed guilty of adultery, shunned by their families, and often beaten, if not killed. If they are lucky enough to survive, and become pregnant as a result of the rape, they are forced to have the child and become the wife of the rapist. Some of these young girls later die in pregnancy, or suffer an obstetric fistula that leaves them incapable of controlling their bodily functions.
This past December, Congress came close to passing two bills aimed at curbing practices such as these. The first was a bill directing the State Department to combat the practice of child marriage. The second was a bill directing the U.S. to join with other nations in actively condemning and combating international violence against women. Despite significant support in both Houses of Congress, both bills were blocked. The latter, the International Violence against Women Act, failed because anti-abortion advocates insisted at the last moment, without any supporting logic or evidence, that the measure would support the provision of abortion services.
That was the old Congress. In the new Congress that convened in January, things are much worse. In this Congress, the rights and welfare of women are in full retreat. Under the guise of austerity, some Members of Congress are seeking to wipe out government support for family planning and reproductive health services, both at home and abroad: the health and welfare of women and their families be damned.
At home, Congress is on the verge of slashing funds for Title X family planning services, which has helped to provide family planning services to low-income women in this country for four decades. The House, in fact, has passed a bill that would eliminate all funding.
At the same time, House appropriators are seeking to slash funding for international family planning assistance by over $200 million. So what does that mean for poor women in developing countries? The Guttmacher Institute estimates that every $100 million decrease would result in:
Meanwhile back at home, abortion opponents are looking at ways to further restrict any funding of abortion services. Earlier this year, Rep. Chris Smith attempted, unsuccessfully, to narrow the definition of rape used in the Hyde Amendment (which restricts the use of federal funds for abortion) by restricting it to "forcible" rape. In Georgia, a state legislator state recently introduced a bill that would make having a miscarriage a capital offense unless the mother can irrefutably prove that there was "no human involvement whatsoever in the causation of such an event."
Around the world, the rights and welfare of women are under assault. And it's not just in developing countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Even in the U.S., the cause of women's rights is in retreat.
It's time to stop the retreat.