Women: The Smartest Investment

In an empowering speech on Friday, January 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women’s rights as human rights. Exactly 15 years since the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Secretary Clinton praised the progress made in improving the health and lives of women and children around the world since this groundbreaking gathering.

This progress has included a marked increase in the use of modern contraceptives from less than 10% in the 1960s to 43% today; an encouraging increase in child survival rates; and an increase in female enrollment in schools. Despite this progress, Secretary Clinton rightly emphasized the crucial need for a continued commitment toward reaching the Conference’s goals by the target year, 2015.

Secretary Clinton cited alarming statistics: half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without access to crucial medical care and 215 million women worldwide lack access to modern forms of contraception – as Clinton put it, the “numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable.” Vast gendered inequities remain; and women continue to represent the majority of the world’s “poor, unhealthy, and under-fed.”

Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration’s recognition that investing in women is “the smartest investment to be made…” shows that they’re on the right track. Earlier this year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton demonstrated their support for these issues by appointing Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.  The creation of this position sends a strong message to the world that the United States, in its deliberations on foreign policy and foreign aid, will give top priority to issues that affect women. Ambassador Verveer has since been a strong advocate on behalf of women around the world.  In October, she testified before Congress in hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on violence against women.

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Nicaragua's Abortion Ban Is Endangering Women's Lives

Since July 2008, abortion in all circumstances has been banned in Nicaragua. The new law makes no exceptions for terminating pregnancies that endanger the health or life of the woman, or that result from rape or incest. Girls or women seeking or obtaining abortions are subject to imprisonment. Health care professionals providing abortions — or even unintentionally injuring a fetus — face jail time and being barred from practice.

A new Amnesty International report, The Total Abortion Ban in Nicaragua, details the effects of the new measures. Medical professionals are put in an impossible situation: they’re prevented, on pain of criminal prosecution, from providing essential medical services — in direct contradiction of best-practice guidelines from the Ministry of Health. Women who need abortions to preserve their health — or lives — have to find doctors willing to risk prosecution and suspension of their license, or seek out dangerous back-alley terminations.

The ban has a chilling effect, too, on women suffering obstetric complications: one woman admitted to a hospital following a miscarriage was so frightened that she would be charged with having an abortion that she asked doctors not to intervene. The rate of maternal deaths in Nicaragua has increased: Official figures show that 33 girls and women have died in pregnancy or childbirth so far this year, up from 20 in the same period a year ago.

Finally, girls and women who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence must either carry the pregnancy to term, or look for risky, clandestine abortions. Our researchers spoke with women, raped by relatives, who were forced to give birth — sometimes to their own brothers or sisters. In every case, it’s low-income women who are hit hardest — richer Nicaraguans are able to travel abroad to escape the ban.

Now, all of this was shockingly, appallingly predictable — but the full litany of violations makes terrible reading. That the Nicaraguan health minister is dismissing the report just shows how hard human rights supporters will have to push to overturn the ban.

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Read the whole report (or the digest), o en Español (digest).

Lilli Evans contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints – July 28, 2009

HONDURAS

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras for the second time on Friday, July 24, 2009.  After a brief moment in his home country, Zelaya retreated back into Nicaragua, setting up camp on Saturday to demand his return home and to power.

Since then, Zelaya has refrained from making another attempt to enter the country for fear of attacks against his supporters, as reported by the BBC.  Curfews remain in place in southern Honduras, while supporters of Mr. Zelaya have blocked main roads.

The Honduran armed forces endorsed the San José Accord, an agreement that was forged in Costa Rica between delegates representing President Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, the leader of the de facto government.  According to the New York Times, the accord is supported by most governments in the hemisphere and it would allow the return of Mr. Zelaya as president with limited powers.

There are currently no further talks scheduled to take place between the de facto government and Zelaya.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was detained by Honduran military personnel and forced into exile at the end of June.  Several government ministers are also reported to have been detained.  Roberto Micheletti, Congress speaker, has been sworn in as “Interim President.”  Micheletti has imposed a curfew.

Recent reports also suggest that journalists who have published news stories on the crisis or covering the issue of protests and scores of detentions have been intimidated.  Prosecutors have also reported threats on account of their attempts to verify human rights abuses during protests.

Must Reads

Overheard

“President Zelaya’s effort to reach the border is reckless.”  Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, July 24, 2009.

“The United States should be helping me, not criticizing.”  Manuel Zelaya, Ousted Honduras President, July 25, 2009. 

SOMALIA

The worsening security situation in Somalia was exemplified by Al-Shabab raids on two UN compounds in Baidoa and Wajid last week, which severely hindered the UN’s humanitarian work in Somalia.  Al-Shabab has also threatened to shut down 3 UN operations in Somalia, accusing the UNDP, UNDSS, and UNPOS offices of working against Somali Muslims.  Ongoing fighting in Mogadishu has already led to the closure of many feeding centers throughout the city, putting pressure on already crowded IDP camps and straining the capacity of aid agencies all over Somalia.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Somali Security Minister Abdullahi Mohamed Ali vowed Friday to reform the security forces, telling Reuters by telephone that his “main priority is to gradually re-establish capable security forces that can defeat the terrorists.”

Must Reads

Overheard

“Such acts target the whole gamut of UN peace and humanitarian operations in Somalia.  The UN is providing life-saving support to people in need throughout Somalia, and will continue to do all it can to help the country emerge from decades of violence.”  Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, July 21, 2009.

“We again appeal to the warring parties in Somalia to respect basic international humanitarian and human rights principles and to guarantee the safety and security of the civilian population as well as for the humanitarian workers trying to help the victims.”  Ron Redmon, UNHCR Spokesperson, July 21, 2009.

Coming This Week

  • July 27: Obama begins economic talks with Chinese leaders
  • July 28: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to arrive in Washington, DC for further discussions
  • July 30: Senate hearing on US strategy on Sudan
  • July 31: Renewal of UNAMID mandate
  • July 27 -  July 31: George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and Robert Gates in Jerusalem for talks regarding West Bank settlements

Juliette Rousselot and Jacki Mowery contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.