Money Where His Mouth Is: Bush Talks a Good Game on Women's Rights. but Talk Is Cheap. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

AFGHAN WOMEN ACQUIRED an unlikely ally last November, when first lady and "Comforter in Chief" Laura Bush became feminism's newest convert. In a radio address, Mrs. Bush bemoaned the plight of Afghan women and declared a U.S. commitment to restoring their rights. Four months later, on International Women's Day, the first lady embraced even more of her sisters, telling the United Nations, "We affirm our mission to protect human rights for women in Afghanistan and around the world."

But if the administration's feminist puppet show looks too good to be true, that's because it is. In July, the White House bowed to conservative Christian pressure and cut $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides reproductive-health services for women in 142 countries. And now the White House is stalling a landmark UN treaty affirming the basic human rights of women. It's a document the Bush administration originally supported--before conservatives began to clog White House phones and e-mail with complaints.

Reversing course on the treaty now doesn't do much for the administration's earlier hearts-and-minds campaign to link the war on terrorism to the "fight for the rights and dignity of women," particularly Afghan women. The first lady's November radio address was the cornerstone of that effort. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Independent Women's Forum soon took up the cause, along with conservative columnists such as Kathleen Parker, who half-jokingly suggested that the United States provide Afghan women with automatic weapons to wield under their burqas.

Belated and politic though it was, the administration's rhetoric of international support for women's rights was music to feminists' ears--especially for those who had spent 20 years campaigning for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The treaty requires member nations to reduce barriers against women in legal rights, education, employment, health care and finance, and it establishes equal rights to work, pay, benefits and worker safety. Using CEDAW, women in Tanzania won the right to inherit land, Japanese women sued their employers for wage and promotion discrimination, and the law-makers in Colombia enshrined protections against domestic abuse in the 1991 drafting of their constitution.

Ninety percent of the UN membership, or 170 countries, has already seen fit to ratify the agreement. The United States is the only industrialized country that hasn't, which puts it in the company of Afghanistan, the Sudan and "axis of evil" member Iran. According to Leila Milani, co-chair of the Working Group for the Ratification of CEDAW, advocates felt it was "the right time for this administration to confirm its commitment to women's rights across the globe and ratify the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights." Former Minister of Women's Affairs for Afghanistan, Sima Samar, felt the same way, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. ratification would empower Afghan women to demand the same protections in their laws. Ratifying the treaty would go far toward dispelling international criticisms of U.S. unilateralism, and it would give weight to the administration's embrace of women's rights, liberating its critiques of other countries' policies toward women from accusations of cultural imperialism. …