Kavita N. Ramdas

Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender

As the contest for a Democratic presidential nominee enters its final stages, the feminist dilemma has become palpable and painful. My inbox has been filled with passionate and provocative pieces from Katha Pollitt, Frances Kissling, Caroline Kennedy and Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama, all explaining why they are not supporting Hillary Clinton. Equally strong commentary in support of Clinton, and dismissing Obama, has arrived from Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Ellie Smeal and Ellen Malcolm. All decry the misogyny evident in media coverage of the candidates and grapple -- with varying degrees of success -- with race and gender conflict. Clinton fans mention in passing that Hillary has been an international voice for women's rights.

As a feminist whose daily work focuses on the challenges facing women outside the United States -- particularly those living in poverty, in war zones and under extreme patriarchal control -- I think these conversations have a surreal quality. They are surreal because they are so perfectly American in their insularity. What is alarmingly absent from our conversations and arguments, even as they allude to race and gender, is any sense of how our decisions affect the well-being of people across the planet -- not least the status of women, 51 percent of us, who are being treated with appalling brutality around the globe.

There is something profoundly wrong when a conversation about qualifications to be President of the most powerful nation in the world ignores the reality facing most of that world's inhabitants. While American pundits debate whether Clinton is being targeted unfairly, for example, thousands of women and children in Gaza are being collectively punished as Israel, a neighboring state and former occupying power, withholds food, fuel and electricity. Yet who is talking about that? In the face of such a travesty of human rights and international law, not one of the presidential candidates, regardless of race or gender, has the gumption to speak out and say this is wrong. Not one has said that he or she will not tolerate such behavior by any ally of the United States.

We live in a world where women are facing an epidemic of rape in conflicts from Nepal to Chiapas to the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet neither Clinton nor Obama has seen fit to mention it. Recent reports of the widespread murder of educated women in Iraq by religious extremists are adding new horror to an already horrifying situation but are going almost unreported. Women and children today form the bulk of the world's refugees and make up the majority of the world's poor. Despite doing more than two-thirds of the world's labor, women own only 1 percent of the world's assets. Yet not one presidential candidate has chosen to highlight the profound threat that gender inequality is posing to the development, economic stability and future peace of our world.

At times like these, the practical politics of US elections are staggeringly oppressive. We are told by the experts that Americans do not care about, or vote on the basis of, what happens in the rest of the world. We hear claims that presidential candidates cannot raise these issues during the race: we just have to trust that they will do better once they are in office.

That is not good enough. I want to hear from the woman running for President why being a woman and a mother matters to her and how it will inform her leadership. I want her to stand up for the millions of women who are not heard here or around the world. I want her to chart her course as the wisest, most humane President this country has ever seen, not to show us how much more macho she can be as our next Commander in Chief.

Women in the developing world are not reassured when they see Madeleine Albright standing next to Hillary Clinton. They have not forgotten that this former Secretary of State, when questioned about the death of more than 500,000 children as a result of sanctions against Iraq, responded that the price had been worth it. Most would prefer a President tough enough to say that Iraqi children matter to her as much as American children and that she would use the awesome power of the presidency to ensure the safety and well-being of all the world's children. Hillary Clinton would not be alone if she chose to own her power as a skilled and qualified politician and as a woman.

There is a rising number of fiercely feminine and feminist leaders around the globe -- people like Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who is unafraid to be an agnostic single mother in a deeply Catholic country, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, whose first act as president was passing legislation against sexual violence. Hillary has a unique chance to stand alongside them. For her to dance so gingerly around the question of gender in international affairs is to miss an extraordinary opportunity to use gender as a platform for healing the deep wounds left by the previous presidency.

But my high expectations are not limited to Hillary. I have equally high goals for the man who says he will unite us. Obama has his own powerful but underutilized tool: race. What prevents him, for example, from drawing analogies between the plight facing women -- many of whom live in subjugation simply by virtue of their gender -- and the experience of slavery? And why stop there? By owning the question of race on an international stage, Obama would have an amazing opportunity to reach out to people worldwide -- who are in more need of hope than most Americans could imagine. Regardless of whether there are votes in it, this is of profound relevance to all of us in this country.

Yet Obama is also missing this chance. What is happening when a truly multiracial candidate, whose first name means "blessing" in Hebrew and Arabic and whose middle name is Hussein, feels he must spend his moral capital proving his Christian credentials? What I want is for Obama to stand with my husband, a man born and raised in Pakistan, who now is asked to step aside for a random search each time we board an airplane. He needs to tell us that he knows only too well that if he were not a US senator but an ordinary man with a foreign name going on vacation with his family, this could happen to him. I'd like to hear from him that when he looks at the United States or the world, what he sees are not Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews or atheists but simply human beings desperate to be treated with dignity and respect.

Like Clinton, Obama, too, can find inspiration and solidarity with a new generation of global leaders emerging from the shackles of their minority status. For the first time in Latin American history, for example, indigenous or mixed-ancestry leaders are holding power as the head of state in Bolivia and Venezuela. Obama has an unparalleled opportunity to speak to them from an empathetic perspective. And as September 11 showed us, our foreign policy is only a short step from our domestic concerns.

The next President needs the ability to demonstrate the inner courage and conviction that comes from owning his or her "otherness." As a woman and a mother, Hillary Clinton could bring insights and perspectives no other President in US history could have brought to the negotiating table of war and peace. As the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim and the son of a Kenyan and a white woman from Kansas, Barack Obama manifests what it means to be a global citizen. What is at stake in this election is not merely the historic first that would be accomplished if either a black man or a woman became the next US President. What is at stake is the fragile future of our shared world.

No Fair Trade for Trafficked Women

This week marks the premiere of “TRADE” in local theaters, a powerful new film about the underworld of sex trafficking. (See trailer to the right.) The movie is inspired by a 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story by journalist Peter Landesman and shares with it the revelation that human trafficking exists right here in our own backyards. The release of the film also testifies to the success that the women’s movement has had in its sustained efforts over 10 years to bring an end to the traffic in human beings, partly by drawing much needed media attention to this hidden human rights violation.

In the film, a 13-year-old girl from Mexico City is kidnapped by sex traffickers, smuggled across the Rio Grande border and held prisoner in a “stash house” in New Jersey on a street that looks just like thousands of other streets in suburban USA. The girl represents one of an estimated 18,000 -- 20,000 people who are brought to the United States and used for forced labor or sex, according to State Department figures.

Many of them end up in my home state, California; in fact, San Francisco is one of the biggest receiving ports for human cargo shipped in from Asia. Earlier this month, six people were indicted for running a trafficking ring in Los Angeles that lured young women from Guatemala with the promise of good jobs. Once they crossed the border, the women were forced into prostitution to pay off smuggling debts.
Today, human trafficking is approximately a $31.6 billion global industry, making it the third most lucrative criminal activity in the world after illegal drugs and black-market guns. Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that one to four million people are trafficked each year, the majority from Thailand, Mexico and Russia.

Here in the U.S., 34 states have laws that specifically address human trafficking, which President Bush called “a special evil.” California led the way a few years ago by passing a comprehensive bill that makes human trafficking a felony and assists victims with social services to help rebuild their lives. Last May, New York State followed suit with similar legislation that cracks down on perpetrators.

Unfortunately, at the federal level, enforcement remains, at best, a work in progress. Federal laws aimed at prosecuting and punishing traffickers have few teeth because the Bush Administration has not committed the funds necessary to see them through. The number of trafficking investigations is also low: Between 2001 and 2006, the Department of Justice opened just 639 cases, resulting in 238 convictions. The resources allocated to address the crisis are simply not keeping pace with the rhetoric of the administration.
More importantly, as women’s rights groups know from experience, a purely punitive approach to human trafficking is unlikely to achieve long-term results. The growth of the industry in recent times is closely linked to the economic inequalities caused by globalization. The extreme poverty that persists in developing countries often forces families and young women themselves to sell their bodies to survive. War and the presence of armed militias can exacerbate the problem as women’s groups have documented in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Africa where HIV/AIDS has orphaned thousands, it is not uncommon for girls to be sold by relatives in order to pay for the care of their siblings.

Yet, none of these factors is as critical as the low status accorded to women and girls in most societies around the globe. This inequality continues to be at the root of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. When the value of a girl child’s life is simply not the same as that of a boy, she will much more likely be abused both at home and in the workplace.

Courageous women’s rights activists are fighting these entrenched inequities around the globe. Many of them have received financial support from the Global Fund for Women, the organization that I lead. Our grants currently help over 100 organizations in 48 different countries run safe houses, advocate for legal change, and train law makers how to identify and protect victims of human slavery. But they also ensure that all girls have access to an education, women are trained in non-traditional occupations, and are empowered to make their own decisions about work and life.

In Iraq, where precarious economic circumstances coincide with a total breakdown of law and order, the Organization for Iraqi Women’s Freedom, a Global Fund grantee, runs three shelters for women and children who have been sold into forced labor.

In Mumbai, health workers and prostitutes are publishing a monthly magazine called “Red Light Dispatch,” written by and for women who work in local brothels and their families and distributed for free in Hindi and English. In Calcutta, sex workers have organized to advocate for their own rights. This past March, 500 young women who had been trafficked into India from Nepal organized a national meeting in Katmandu. They demanded that the government provide economic opportunities, not only for themselves but for their poor peasant families who eke out a living on the rocky mountainsides and cannot afford to feed or clothe their own children.

These organizations see women as active agents of their own liberation, not merely as passive victims of exploitation. This reality on the ground contrasts -- sometimes markedly -- from the images we are used to seeing, even in courageous feature films like TRADE. The activists we fund are not waiting for family members or the feds to deliver them from brothels or oppressive workplaces. They are choosing instead to become their own heroes and rescue other women and girls by helping them to challenge the status quo. They deserve no less than our wholehearted support.

By Kavita N. Ramdas, President and CEO, Global Fund for Women

Need a Safe Abortion? Go to Mexico City

It is easier to access contraceptive services in Iran, an Islamic theocracy, than it is in Mexico or other Latin American countries. In the U.S. the pro-choice movement is reeling from last Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortions.

U.N. data shows that in countries where women have access to safe contraception, reproductive health care, and legal abortion, the actual abortion rates are much lower than in countries where women do not have such rights.

Mexico's state-by-state abortion laws are among the most restrictive, and the abortions available for poor women are often life threatening. It is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually across the country, making abortion the fifth-leading national cause of maternal mortality and the third-leading cause in Mexico City.

This is why those who can afford it leave the country for abortions in Texas or California. There is hope: On April 24, Mexico City's opposition legislators of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, and smaller parties such as Alternativa, PT and Convergencia, will vote to fully legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of a woman's pregnancy (abortion is now only permitted for rape victims or when a mother's life is endangered).

This dramatic policy shift in the world's second largest Catholic nation is due, in part, to the valiant and persistent efforts of a well-organized feminist movement in Mexico. It also stems from Mexico City's liberal majority which gave same-sex unions almost all the rights of marriage last month and recently granted homosexual conjugal visits in prison.

The Mexico City legislature is among the most progressive governments in any Latin American city today. The conservative leadership of the Catholic community is rallying against the April 24th vote, so much so that the Vatican has sent its main anti-abortion campaigner to Mexico to help coordinate activities and media.

The social conservatives who dominate the Mexican political landscape outside the city have also demonstrated sustained opposition to overturning the ban in public protests.

Despite and in response to these obstacles, local women's organizations have led nuanced, vocal campaigns to educate the public on abortion and modify existing laws. A sturdy coalition of these groups called Alliance Pro-Choice includes three long-time Global Fund for Women grantees: Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for a Free Choice) or CDD, Equidad de Género: Ciudadanía, Trabajo y Familia (Gender Equity: Citizenship, Employment and Family), and Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (Reproductive Choice Information Group) or GIRE.

Recently, in Mexico's La Jornada, CDD, which provides Catholic pro-choice education on reproductive and sexual health and rights, publicly called for church leadership to "follow the Constitution" and not interject religion into public policy discussions. For such a group, that takes pluck.

Meanwhile, GIRE, an advocacy group for reproductive policy, has established strategic relationships with policy makers to expand reproductive rights for women, while Equidad has mobilized pro-choice advocates.

Historically, Mexico has played a leadership role in Latin America; its laws, policies and practices were frequently emulated regionally. This influence has lessened in recent years, however, due to Mexico's close ties to the U.S.

Abortion is clearly on the legislative dockets of many countries in the region -- last year Colombia relaxed its total abortion ban while Nicaragua expanded its own. Assuming the vote on April 24 overturns the Mexico City ban, the question remains whether other progressive governments such as those in Argentina and Chile, where women's groups have helped to improve women's access to sexual and reproductive rights, will follow suit.

If so, women -- and all of us -- will have much more to celebrate.