Women were the focus of attention on numerous stops in an August swing through Africa by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and she has talked about putting women's issues at the core of American foreign policy, especially in developing countries. Gale Summerfield is director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program at Illinois, and a professor of human and community development. She was interviewed by social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Foreign policy concerns often focus on issues of political stability or national security, and "women's issues" and other "soft" issues traditionally get little attention. So what's the rationale for this attention?
Human security is the backbone of a society. By meeting basic needs for women as well as men, such as employment, health care, housing and education, for example, a society is less likely to have the instability that generates extremists. And as Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview, women who feel safe in their societies also are likely to have smaller, better-educated families, which can minimize stress on the environment and reduce conflicts over land and water.
Can you cite some examples of how focusing programs on women can make a difference?
The state of Kerala in India has lowered its fertility rate by changing values associated with women's opportunities for education and employment. By having fewer children, women can put more resources into educating them and also have more time for activities outside the home.
The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the Self-Employed Women's Association in India offer microcredit programs aimed largely at women, who use these small loans to start businesses that can improve family nutrition and pay the school costs for their children. In some cases they make enough to get out of poverty, but even if not, the women and their families are often better off. There can be problems with microcredit, but there are many success stories.
Societies often resist changes in women's roles for reasons of religion or tradition. Should we respect those concerns?
In general, we need to have an attitude of working together with other countries rather than trying to impose a U.S. perspective. However, we can still advocate for gender equity goals and report on steps toward or away from meeting agreements.
Societies and cultures change over time. In agriculture for example, an area may adopt new crops, new seeds and new technologies, and move from feudalism to small independent farmer arrangements, but want to hold on to traditional exclusion of women from owning land. Is this culture or discrimination?
Many countries have participated in the four United Nations world conferences on women and have agreed to support the Millennium Development Goals, which give attention to some basic improvements for women and girls. These agreements can be used to initiate discussion about breaking down gender barriers and sharing opportunities.
We hear about the extreme cases of violence or discrimination against women: mass rape in Congo, violence against girls' schools and their students in Afghanistan, human sex trafficking, and female infanticide in India and China. Beyond denouncing these on moral grounds, what arguments or actions might bring about an end to these practices?
These extreme forms of discrimination do not like transparency. Bringing global attention to these problems through political discussion, conferences, publications, and the media can make a difference. Even in the U.S., we haven't eliminated violent crime, sexual abuse, and trafficking. As part of a global effort, we won't eliminate these problems quickly, but ignoring them is an invitation to expansion. Improving the lives of some women and girls right now is possible. With consistent effort, we can accomplish more. Having gender equity as a key piece of U.S. foreign policy can be a step toward those goals.