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US: Not delivering on women's rights in Iraq

The Bush administration talks about promoting women's rights in Iraq and Afghanistan but does too little in the field, three women's organizations said.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST

President George W. Bush's administration talks about promoting women's rights in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the fight against HIV/AIDS but does too little in the field to deliver on those promises, three women's organizations said Thursday. The Feminist Majority, the Women's Environment and Development Organization, and the Center for Health and Gender Equality released their third quarterly Global Women's Issues Scorecard, giving the administration high marks for rhetoric and low ones for achievement.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, based in Arlington, Virginia, said U.S. officials have been "extremely strong" in their verbal support for including women's rights in the Afghan constitution and other vital issues.

"But strong statements have not been met with actual action," she said during a telephone conference with journalists. "The rights of women are in the new constitution, but they are very fragile."

Women's rights are threatened by Afghan efforts to make family law subject to Islamic codes, by reprisals in which more than 30 girls' schools have been burned down, by insecurity and the rise of militias, and by the U.S. failure to spend the money needed for reconstruction, she said.

Smeal said she didn't think the Bush administration's rhetoric was insincere, but rather that its strategies are failing in Afghanistan. She said it should work harder to separate religion and government there and to extend multinational peacekeeping throughout the country.

June Zeitlin, head of the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organization, said that in Iraq, women's participation in the transitional leadership has been very limited, despite pledges by the U.S.-led coalition to promote it.

"I think the administration just doesn't get it," she said. "They are speaking about women's rights and participation. I think they have underestimated the extremism (opposing women's rights) ... in both societies."

Iraqi women have achieved some victories _ for example, a clause in the interim constitution that sets a goal of 25 percent women's representation under the future elected government. But they have done so largely by demanding it themselves in street demonstrations, Zeitlin said, adding that U.S. officials didn't favor a quota system.

"Experience around the world shows that without quotas, women have not achieved critical mass" in politics, she said. Jodi Jacobson, head of the Center for Health and Gender Equality, based in Maryland, said Bush administration rhetoric on fighting HIV/AIDS abroad ignores the impacts of poverty and violence against women on the spread of the pandemic.

"There are several things to suggest the rhetoric is a political strategy," she said, including the White House's requests to Congress for less than the announced $15 billion over five years. Last year, the administration asked for $1.9 billion and this year for $2.8 billion, despite congressional inclinations to appropriate more.

Jacobson also faulted the Bush administration's prevention efforts for focusing on sexual abstinence rather than comprehensive efforts that include promoting use of condoms.

"The abstinence-only strategy has never been proved to work anywhere," she said. Administration policy takes a "value-laden and religious perspective rather than a public health approach" to the epidemic, she added.

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST