Imagine a terrible plague--a devastating
disease--descending on and ripping apart the fabric of your
community, killing, crippling, or otherwise disabling half of your
friends, family, and neighbors.
Beyond the human pain and suffering this
would cause, consider the incredible impact it would have on your
community's ability to thrive. How could the economy grow? How
would societal institutions function? How stable could things
possibly be? The world would be compelled to action.
in far too many places around the world today, there is indeed a
plague holding back many communities and keeping untold millions
from reaching their potential. It is a plague the world must face,
not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because the cost
for ignoring it is simply too great. What is this plague? It is the
systematic and violent exploitation of women. This exploitation
takes many forms, depriving women of their most basic freedom,
robbing them of their health, keeping them from the education they
need and deserve, and condemning them to lives without economic
country can prosper when women's voices are silenced, their bodies
exploited and their rights violated. Around the globe, the
oppression of women goes hand in hand with failed societies.
Nations, like women and their children, have the best chance to
thrive where fundamental freedoms, human rights, and property
rights are ensured for all.
United States has been the world's leader in helping to free women
from exploitation and despair. Guaranteeing the human rights of
women and children is essential to the creation of stable,
democratic, and prosperous societies. This is not only in keeping
with the deeply held values of the American people; it is strongly
in the United States' national interest as well.
Americans, we take our rights for granted. We cannot conceive of
being sold into sexual slavery, forced into an arranged marriage at
age 5, subjected to female genital cutting as a rite of passage,
systematically raped as a weapon of war, or killed with impunity in
the name of honor--by a father or brother.
the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status
of Women, I have seen how women in many parts of the developing
world, especially in regions of conflict, face these very threats
today. It is inconceivable that in the 21st century so many women
still lack legal protections for basic human rights.
Plight of Refugees
group is in greater danger than the large number of women refugees
and internally displaced persons. They are often single-handedly
responsible for the survival of their children, even when their own
survival is at stake. Every day provides challenges that increase
the risk of physical danger: finding cooking fuel, carrying water
(often for miles), obtaining sufficient food at distribution sites,
and accessing primary health care for themselves and their
are also exposed to violence at every stage in their flight.
Secretary Rice has expressed deep concern with the rape of
displaced women in Darfur when they venture out to gather food or
firewood, a story brought to light in a July U.N. report.
Sexual violence and exploitation,
associated psychological trauma, and the risk of sexually
transmitted diseases, are among the terrible dangers confronting
refugee women today.
Violence takes many forms--trafficking in
persons, domestic violence, rape, and harmful traditional practices
such as female genital mutilation and honor crimes. It shatters the
most fundamental human right to which every woman is entitled: the
right to be safe.
most egregious violation of human rights is the modern-day slavery
of human trafficking, which affects hundreds of thousands of
persons each year, mostly women and children, depriving them of
basic freedom and inflicting unspeakable physical and emotional
Ambassador John Miller, director of the
State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in
Persons notes that 80 percent of trafficked persons are female and
nearly half are children. He states "Sex slavery ... is the
dominant form ... then domestic servitude, both of which are
largely women or girls. What was once a race issue has become
primarily a gender issue."
Women are particularly vulnerable in
post-conflict societies with economies in shambles. Faced with lack
of opportunity at home, they are easily lured by false promises of
well-paying jobs abroad. Many are then coerced into lives of
prostitution, domestic servitude, or other types of forced
President Bush told the U.N. General Assembly in 2003, "Nearly two
centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and
more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last
strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be
allowed to thrive in our time."
Bush Administration has provided more than $295 million to support
anti-trafficking programs in more than 120 countries, including a
special $50 million initiative that the President announced at the
U.N. This funding helps countries to develop laws, investigate
cases, rescue and voluntarily repatriate victims, build emergency
shelters, run awareness campaigns, and mount rehabilitation and
vocational training programs.
Combating trafficking successfully
requires educating people on prevention. One such program is run by
the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID/Ukraine's
Trafficking Prevention Program has seven regional centers offering
job skills training, hot lines, crisis prevention, and referral
services to vulnerable women. More than 30,000 women have used the
services provided by these centers.
must remember that without buyers women could not be sold. That is
why at the 2005 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women,
the United States introduced a resolution on eliminating the demand
for trafficked women and girls. This was the first U.N. resolution
addressing how demand--particularly for commercial sexual
exploitation, or prostitution--fuels human trafficking. Certain
countries do not want to acknowledge the important link between
commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in women and girls.
However, the resolution was adopted by consensus with over 50
Sadly, women are not just abused by
strangers. On a trip to three Central American countries, I found
that domestic violence afflicts an astonishing percentage of women
and families. In a sample survey of over 300 women in Santiago and
in Managua, reports of domestic violence reached 40 percent and 52
percent. I heard the same concerns from women in Latvia and the
Republic of Georgia.
many countries victims of domestic violence confront laws, or the
absence of laws, that make it difficult or even dangerous to pursue
justice. Many countries do not explicitly criminalize domestic
violence, and even where they do, police and judges often treat it
as a private or family matter and penalties are not enforced.
United States funds education of law enforcement officers, judges,
and medical personnel on the problem, trains attorneys in domestic
violence prosecutions, and contributes funds for shelters and
crisis centers for victims of domestic violence in many
Attacking HIV, Mutilation
Inequality and violence against women
contribute to women's vulnerability to many things--including
HIV/AIDS. Women who suffer at the hands of an intimate partner, who
are raped during times of armed conflict and political instability,
or are trafficked for sexual purposes are at high risk of
contracting HIV. Women known or suspected to be HIV positive are
especially vulnerable. They may be abused, abandoned, or even
killed. Even when women are not living with HIV themselves, they
bear the brunt of caring for those with the disease.
half of the 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS today are women.
Worse, among young people living with AIDS, nearly two-thirds are
female. Over 2 million infected women give birth each year,
transmitting HIV to newborns. Nearly 2,000 babies a day become
infected with HIV during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Most
of these children will die before their fifth birthday.
Because reducing mother-to-child
transmission is a major U.S. priority, President Bush announced his
$500 million International Mother and Child HIV Transmission
Initiative, which dedicates funding specifically to prevent
transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborns.
United States' five-year, $15 billion program known as the
President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is working to prevent
millions of new HIV infections, provide antiretroviral therapies to
millions living with HIV/AIDS, and care for millions of
HIV-infected individuals and AIDS orphans. The plan supports
HIV/AIDS programs in 123 countries with a special focus on 15
countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia representing
more that half the world's infections. It also encompasses
bilateral programs in nearly 100 other countries.
Women's health receives too little
attention in the developing world. Each year more than 500,000
women (99 percent in developing countries) lose their lives to
easily preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
Childbirth is the leading cause of death of women in Afghanistan,
where the lifetime risk of maternal mortality is 1 in 15. The
majority of maternal deaths are preventable through increased
access to skilled birth attendants, antibiotics, and other
currently available technology.
year I chaired a panel discussion at the U.N. aimed at increasing
the political will so sorely needed to address this issue.
United States has launched a $5 million initiative (REACH) to
provide health-related accelerated learning and basic literacy
training for women and girls in Afghanistan, including the training
Worldwide, over the last four years, USAID
has provided more than $475 million for maternal health, family
planning, and reproductive health programs.
harmful traditional practice that also threatens the health and
violates the human rights of women is female genital mutilation or
female circumcision, believed to prevent daughters from being
unfaithful to their future husbands. Medically unqualified persons
usually perform the practice--without anesthetic--on infants and
girls. It may cause massive and fatal bleeding, and lead to chronic
infections, sterility, and other complications.
USAID has supported activities to
eliminate female genital mutilation in a number of countries. This
includes training health care providers about the long-term
implications of female genital mutilation and educating local
communities to abandon this cultural practice.
Valuing Women's Education
Education is essential to addressing or
averting every aspect of exploitation and despair, from reducing
vulnerability to disease, maternal mortality, and violence to
enhancing economic opportunity.
ability to read and write is fundamental for life in today's world.
Some one-sixth of the world's population is illiterate; two-thirds
of the illiterate are women. Female education is strongly linked to
economic development and health. For example, maternal and infant
mortality is much higher--sometimes two to three times
higher--among children of uneducated women compared with women with
at least some secondary education.
President Bush has said, "Literacy and
learning are the foundation of democracy and development. Indeed,
educating women and girls raises every index of development."
you educate a man you educate an individual; when you educate a
woman you educate a whole family.
cultures do not place value on education for women. Her value to
her family is her "bride price." Parents contract a future marriage
relationship for their very young daughters. A man, often much
older, may pay a bride price to the family of a girl 5 to 7 years
old, with a commitment to marry when she becomes "of
high dropout rate of girls in primary grades is partly explained by
this practice of early marriage and pregnancy. It also encourages
seeing the girl as property. Like human trafficking, treating women
and girls as commodities is dehumanizing.
120 million children, most of them girls, do not attend school, in
part because of hunger or malnourishment. They are expected to stay
at home, care for their siblings, and do household chores. Often
the distance to a school poses a threat to girls' safety.
United States leverages food aid to do more than reduce hunger. The
2003 McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child
Nutrition Program provides children with nutritious meals as part
of their education. In 38 countries around the world, this program
feeds 7 million children at school. In countries where education
for girls is not inherently valued, when schools provide nutritious
meals, parents have more incentive to allow their daughters to be
of the greatest education needs are found in post-conflict
societies like Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, it is so hopeful to see
young girls--who were forbidden by the Taliban to leave their homes
unless accompanied by a male relative; who had to hide their books
under their burkas--now studying math and science.
U.S. support and the efforts of the Afghan people themselves,
nearly 5 million Afghan children are enrolled in school. Of those
schoolchildren, about 40 percent are girls--many more than at any
point in Afghanistan's history. A new Women's Teacher Training
Institute/Afghan Literacy Program, announced by our First Lady,
opened in Kabul in September 2004. The Institute trains cadres of
Afghan women to teach literacy throughout Afghanistan.
Similar progress is being made in Iraq,
where the U.S. has renovated thousands of schools. Female
attendance now exceeds pre-war rates, with girls making up some 45
percent of all primary students. U.S. programs are training
teachers, and training Iraqi women in media, entrepreneurial, and
2002 President Bush launched the five-year Africa Education
Initiative--to increase support for Africa's education programs by
$200 million to provide 250,000 girls with scholarships and to
offer teacher training.
importance of education to securing women's rights was very evident
during my recent visit to Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa. I
went to train members of the recently formed Women Leaders Caucus
of Côte d'Ivoire in leadership skills and the nuts and bolts
of political campaigning. The women participating were
well-educated professionals--professors, scientists, lawyers,
pharmacists, etc., living in the capital city. They were highly
motivated to run for political office and have an impact on the
kind of society they live in.
contrast, in what seemed like a time warp, we visited rural
villages where the promise of education is an elusive dream. Women
in these villages have little if any schooling, are married at 12
and 13, and live as little more than chattel. There, we found
illiterate women hoeing fields, gathering firewood, and hunting
clean water for their children. Picture women, babies on their
backs, struggling under heavy loads of pineapples, water jugs, or
baskets of firewood carried on their heads. Picture the
dispossessed homeless widow with several small children in a
culture that denies her the right to inherit her husband's
property. These women--lacking education, ownership of property, or
access to credit--can never be secure.
Political and Economic Rights
women are educated, they are far less likely to fall victim to
violence, poverty, or the scourge of AIDS. Women who have control
over their economic assets are better able to avoid risky sexual
and abusive relationships.
key element in U.S. efforts to reduce women's vulnerability is
promoting property and inheritance rights for women, which we do on
the ground in many countries and in U.N. deliberations.
many ways we support entrepreneurship and women's integration into
the mainstream of economic life. One of our greatest commitments is
to micro-finance programs. Over the last few years our investment
in these small loan and technical assistance programs--about
three-quarters of which go to women--has topped $130 million. This
simple tool--which may be a $100 loan to stock a stall in a market
or acquire a sewing machine--gives millions of women the means to
better their own lives, the lives of their families, and the
economy of their countries. Huge gains for women can come from tiny
have an impact on the legal and social structures of any country,
women must be a part of the political process. My own greatest
accomplishment has been developing and leading negotiations at the
U.N. General Assembly for a U.S. resolution urging countries to
expand opportunities for women to participate in the political
process. The resolution, passed by consensus with 110 co-sponsors,
offers concrete steps countries and civil society can take to help
reach this goal. Now I am helping to implement it in many
President Bush has said, "respect for
women is both a non-negotiable demand of human dignity and a
foreign policy imperative of the United States."
my work, I have seen things that have shocked and saddened me. I
have met women who have energized and inspired me. And I am very
proud of the work that the United States is doing to increase hope,
human rights, and fundamental freedoms for women and their
The Honorable Ellen R.
Sauerbrey is U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission
on the Status of Women.