State Dept. Seeks Gains For Women
By Thomas W. Lippman
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is elevating the importance of women's issues in America's international agenda, placing new emphasis on a policy originally promoted by President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Albright, who took office two months ago, has instructed U.S. diplomats around the world to make the furtherance of women's rights a central priority of American foreign policy. The U.S. government has been active in this field in a variety of ways:
In Pakistan, the State Department contributed funds to a volunteer group running a school for Afghan refugee girls, who otherwise would go without education.
In Namibia, the U.S. Embassy used its entire discretionary fund to finance community efforts to combat sexual violence against women.
In Washington, the State Department and the Justice Department will play host next month to two dozen Russian judges and law enforcement officers in an effort to stop clandestine trafficking in Russian women, who are being duped into prostitution by organized crime figures who tell them they will appear in folk music troupes.
And in North Carolina today, Albright will venture into Jesse Helms country to call upon the Senate to ratify a 1979 U.N. convention on discrimination against women a treaty that Helms (R), as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has bottled up.
"Advancing the status of women is not only a moral imperative, it is being actively integrated into the foreign policy of the United States," Albright said at a March 12 International Women's Day ceremony at the State Department. "It is our mission. It is the right thing to do, and frankly it is the smart thing to do."
According to the State Department, Albright "has instructed all U.S. embassies abroad to consider the advancement of women's human rights as an integral objective of U.S. foreign policy."
As with former secretary of state Warren Christopher's emphasis on the environment in Clinton's first term, it is not yet clear whether this stated commitment will amount to much in practice.
As one State Department official said: "We're upping the profile on this issue, but it's not going to start trumping other considerations. We aren't going to be beating up on the Saudis" about the status of women in that country, where women cannot drive and cannot travel without permission from their fathers or husbands.
"The Department of State and the Clinton administration have made some very strong and important pronouncements. What you don't see is what it means in practice," said Regan Ralph, who monitors women's issues for the watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "How publicly is this raised with some of the worst offenders? What we have seen is that other issues trump women's human rights. If the administration wants to maintain that it is promoting women's rights, it can't continue to do that. Let's see something beyond the words."
Albright and other officials, however, maintain that there is a broad range of activities where progress can be made with a small investment of money or political capital, and that the administration is committed to doing as much as possible.
The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, for example, is working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to set standards for refugee camps on how far women's toilets should be located from their sleeping quarters. This might seem mundane, one official said, but it is part of an effort to minimize the chronic problem of violence against women at refugee sites.
Albright is this nation's first female secretary of state, and is using her position to intensify an emphasis on women's rights that predates her appointment. Both Clintons have been outspoken advocates of women's rights, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's attendance at the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing and the president's decision last year to invest $5 million in a separate fund to provide loans and training for Bosnian women.
"What this administration believes," Hillary Clinton said when she joined Albright at the March 12 event, "is that if half the world's citizens are undervalued, underpaid, undereducated, underrepresented, fed less, fed worse, not heard, put down, we cannot sustain the democratic values and way of life we have come to cherish."
"I am not among those who believe that if the world were run solely by women, war would disappear," Albright said. "The human capacity for folly and miscalculation is widely shared. But the history of this century tells us that democracy is a parent to peace. And common sense tells us that true democracy is not possible without the full participation of women."
That, she said, is the reason she will support the U.N. convention when she accompanies Helms on the visit to Wingate, N.C., and joins him in an appearance at Wingate University's Jesse Helms Center.
"I will state explicitly," she said, "that it is long past time for America to become party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women."
Helms is unlikely to agree, an aide said. He was one of several Republicans, then in the minority, who opposed the convention when it came up for ratification in a previous Congress.
The treaty, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979 and signed by the United States in the last year of the Carter administration, obligates signatories to condemn discrimination against women and take measures to combat it. But the Republicans branded it counterproductive and unenforceable.
"We fear that creating yet another set of unenforceable international standards will further dilute respect for international human rights norms," their report said.
Noting that Libya is among the signatories, Helms and his fellow GOP senators said they reject "outright the view [advanced by the State Department] that the United States must be a party to the treaty in order to criticize or encourage other governments in their practices regarding women. We should not concede to countries such as Libya the moral high ground on women's issues simply because they have signed an unenforceable convention."
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