President Bush used the occasion of International Women’s Day to tout his administration’s commitment to women. He spoke in glowing terms of how bringing democracy to the Middle East had improved the lives of women in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both the President and Mrs. Bush (this was a day for women after all) talked enthusiastically about girls going to school and women participating in government in both countries.
Neither however mentioned the continuing pandemic of sexual violence against women that was highlighted in the State Department’s report on Afghanistan’s continuing poor record on human rights that was released the following day. Nor was anything said about the continuing low literacy rates for women in Afghanistan (less than 20%) or that 50% of marriages in that country take place before girls reach the age of sixteen.
It was far too dangerous for women to gather in Baghdad to celebrate IWD as they did last year and there has been an horrific escalation of sexual violence against women in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. The undemocratic imprisonment of women in Iraq and Afghanistan in violation of the Geneva Convention and the denial of visas for Iraqi women who were invited by Code Pink to come to the U.S. to talk about conditions in Iraq did not figure in the President’s remarks.
The illusory accomplishments on behalf of women achieved by the Bush Administration is of course not limited to Afghanistan and Iraq. The first couple also talked about anti-viral drugs being provided to women with HIV in Africa. No mention was made of the administration’s refusal to fund family planning programs that would provide condoms to protect women before they got HIV/AIDS. Nor was mention made of any steps being taken to help the hundreds of thousands of women who die every year from the complications of childbirth or of anything being done to help the 700 million women in the world who live in unsanitary conditions without adequate and safe food and water.
The President took great pains to recognize the women in his cabinet and his administration as well as Republican Congresswoman who was present. He also paid tribute to the women leading governments in Germany, Chile, the Philippines and Liberia. But the reality is that women are still overwhelmingly under-represented in government both here and throughout the world. Mentioning that women are the heads of state in four countries doesn’t seem quite so impressive when you consider that there are 193 countries in the world. In our own country, women hold only 24.7% of state leadership and only eight states having female governors. The House of Representatives currently has 61 women and there are 13 female senators.
But what was most obviously missing from the President’s remarks was any mention whatsoever of what his administration is doing for women in this country. The reason for this omission is not hard to comprehend, he just doesn’t have much to brag about. As Ms. Magazine Money Editor Martha Burk points out, Bush’s budget proposal says it all. After signing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with great hoopla, President Bush’s budget proposal proceeded to cut $20 million in VAWA funding and provided no funding for new programs created by the legislation that would assist victims of domestic violence. The food program run by the Agriculture Department that provides nutrition for pregnant women and babies would be cut and Medicare benefit reductions of $29 billion would hit women the hardest. Ironically, as Burk notes, there is still plenty of money for marriage promotion and erectile dysfunction drugs.
The reality is that this administration has significantly jeopardized the lives of women both here and around the world. President Bush’s fawning attempt to frame himself as a champion of women is not only delusional, his remarks on International Women’s Day were an affront to women everywhere.