Secretary of State John Kerry joked that he had “big heels to fill” after the game-changing tenure of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. And even though Clinton’s tenure lacks a major diplomatic score – minor victories were overshadowed by the Arab Spring and the Wikileaks scandal, as well as the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks, all of which she handled with characteristic aplomb – but her legacy will probably rest in her work at bringing global women’s rights to the focus of United States foreign policy. Once Clinton left office many – including me – are concerned that while Kerry will be an enthusiastic and key figure in foreign policy, the attention to women’s rights will be decreased.
To many, global women’s rights is a PR-ready, soft concern that merits little result. To these critics, women’s rights is a niche topic that deserves little attention when it comes to approaching the overwhelming challenges the United States faces – primarily instability in the Middle East, the growing threat of nuclear proliferation from Iran, the constant threat of aggression from North Korea, national security and terrorism, as well as a global economy that’s crawling toward recovery. In light of all these issues, global women’s rights seems like an indulgence or a luxury, an argument that is short-sighted.
War and conflict are two issues that seemingly dominate foreign policy concerns – despite our avowed exit from Iraq, the world – particularly in the Middle East and parts of Africa, are still mired in conflict and fighting. The people who suffer the most from these problems are women and children. Women and children make up the majority of victims of war – and this becomes especially true when looking at how rape has become a tool of war for many combatants. The fact that women are still grossly underrepresented in governments as well as the military means that even though they have a limited hand in the decision-making process that goes into war-mongering, they are left to deal with the aftermath. And when peace accords are brokered, women often have limited roles in those agreements, as well.
And because men make up the majority of military casualties, women are left behind to fend for themselves – often in countries that offer little in terms of economic opportunity. This can lead to instability, which then makes an area hospitable for extremists organizations to set root. In our national continued zeal to stamp out extremism, one avenue that needs to be further explored is investing the future of these areas – programs such as micro-loans empower women to make financial decisions on behalf of their families, and can lead to independence, which then may lead to lowering poverty and hunger.
But these concerns may seem faraway to many average Americans – global women’s rights are relevant here in the United States, as well. Rape statistics in the United States remain disturbingly high, when compared to developing countries. According to RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, someone is raped every two minutes, and the real number of rapes (including those that may not be reported to the police) is at over 200,000 a year. In 2010, there were over 84,000 rapes reported – and even though his high number represents a decline since 2003, it has to be noted that rape is arguably one of the most under-reported crimes, with some estimated that over 50% of rapes go unreported. There are many factors that contribute to the high number of unreported rapes – mainly that a large number of rapes are committed by a partner or loved one (there is still a perception that “spousal rape” doesn’t exist); also victims are often blamed for their rapes, and the process of investigating a rape claim can be dehumanizing, humiliating and frightening.
Along with rape, domestic violence also affects a large segment of the United States population – roughly one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence. Domestic violence, like rape, has stigma attached, and often the women are blamed for the violence – anywhere from a quarter to 50% of domestic violence victims have lost their jobs due to the abuse they’ve suffered, and over half of homeless women are victims of domestic violence.
To look at global women’s rights, we have to include the United States as a part of a large and comprehensive list of countries that must strive to do better to ensure that women and girls are safe. Sex trafficking is a major problem in countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, where unscrupulous individuals take advantage of women from impoverished areas, often either resorting to kidnapping or entrapping their victims and forcing them into prostitution. In the United States, sex trafficking and forced prostitution has been a problem as – almost 2,000 women were found to be victims of sexual slavery in the United States by the Justice Department, under George W. Bush – some estimates have the number as high as 50,000 (though the higher numbers are disputed). The numbers for children – especially runaways are even larger – some nonprofits estimate as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation at any given time.
International Women’s Day this year has a theme of ending violence against women, as well as, gaining momentum for gender parity. The goals are lofty but essential. If we are interested in a world that is stable, we need to invest in developing countries, starting with the development of gender parity for women and girls. We cannot expect a stable international community, if over half the population is still disproportionately subjugated to oppression, discrimination, or violence.