March 10, 2005,
During last week's 49th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, several socially conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council, hosted a luncheon to highlight policy initiatives that would benefit women. Both meetings marked the ten-year anniversary of the U.N.'s Beijing Conference on Women. While not much has changed from the original, radical pro-abortion agenda of Beijing, the speakers at our luncheon indicated a path forward that could be a constructive course for upcoming U.N. meetings having to do with family, women, economics, or population.
At this point, the U.N. can claim no substantial advances for women ten years after its first conference. It's time for a change in strategy if we truly want to improve the well being of women around the world.
More specifically, there needs to be a shift towards an inclusive understanding of women, namely understanding them in relation to others in their communities instead of as isolated individuals. A relational understanding of women recognizes that many freely choose to marry and have children and that all women are essential members of their communities.
One of the conservative-group luncheon presenters, Professor Sophia Aguirre, an economist at Catholic University, dryly noted that despite the explicit Beijing recommendation that women be involved in commerce, the U.N. spends about 2 percent of its total budget on roads while spending more than 18 percent on population programs (read: contraception and abortion). If women's involvement in commerce were truly an objective, education and infrastructure would be spending priorities, not afterthoughts.
As one observer at the original Beijing conference famously remarked, "A document that respects women's intelligence should devote at least as much attention to literacy as to fertility." The U.N.'s spending reveals clearly its objectives for women. Literacy and infrastructure are not among them.
Patrick Fagan, another presenter at the luncheon, provided an immense amount of data from secular sources, all confirming that families provide the most security for every member of the family, including women. This is especially true when comparing various indicators for single mothers and married families. For example, in the U.S., a single, never-married mother has about $350 in total assets. A family headed by two parents who are not divorced and remarried tops the charts with total assets worth about $120,250. In other words, on the national average, a married first family has almost 350 times the amount of financial assets that a single mom has. While finances may not be everything, good finances certainly do contribute to social, political, and economic stability.
Shortly after Beijing, the five-year anniversary statement included a specific reference to women and families:
Women play a critical role in the family. The family is the basic unit of society and is a strong force for social cohesion and integration and, as such, should be strengthened. The inadequate support to women and insufficient protection and support to their respective families affect society as a whole and undermine efforts to achieve gender equality.
Yet the U.N. has done very little to implement this vision. Ten years after the first Beijing Conference, there's been lots of work on "reproductive health," but the rate of maternal mortality has not dropped. In fact, one report from the World Health Organization suggests an increase. Women still account for the majority of the illiterate and impoverished around the world. Many women still do not have equal political rights or equally valued social roles. Where substantial advances have been made, such as in Afghanistan, access to education and political participation have not come about as a result of direct U.N. involvement.
Recent U.S. initiatives such as the campaign to stop sex trafficking, the training of Afghan midwives, and literacy programs in Nepal offer constructive solutions to the difficult situations that real women (and men) face. Similarly, it was reported to me that a private citizen in the Indian state of Kerala realized the dire situation of many young girls who were forced to marry and leave school. Families were marrying off their daughters simply as a way of being certain that the girls would have a reasonable assurance of not starving. The private businessman funded a free-lunch program so that the parents would allow the girls to stay in school and not force them to marry. With the guarantee of one solid meal a day for their daughters, the parents agreed. As a result, the girls finished their education, entered the work force, delayed marriage, and were able to contribute to a stable population growth and their own holistic development all without "reproductive health."
Even in our own country, a radical reproductive-health agenda has created a situation in which women ultimately get the short end of the stick. Books like Bridget Jones and He's Just Not That Into You underscore the point with a bit of humor. But the reality, as reported by Janice Crouse during the luncheon, reveals that women who cohabit not only choose a more direct path to divorce and unhappiness but also end up paying about 70 percent of the household costs, increasing their chances of being a victim of domestic abuse and suffering a host of psychological and physical ailments.
When we isolate a woman's fertility as we would try to contain a disease, we arrive at a situation in which women are more objectified than ever. True, we can't deny the fact that there are women who are faced with unplanned or inconvenient pregnancies. But at the end of the day, the poor, uneducated, jobless woman who is the recipient of this band-aid solution will still be poor, uneducated, and jobless.
Such challenges require substantial social, political, and economic changes changes that might even be considered radical. At last week's meetings, our "conservative" voices were among the few willing to take up the serious work required to make the world a better place for women, and men.
Pia de Solenni is the director of life and women's issues at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC.