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The Feel-Good Issue of the Year

September 25, 2009
Get on the train!

Get on the train!

Empower women and girls = save the world. That’s a simplification, I know, but the more this message is spreading like a viral meme, the more simplified it’s getting.  I’m not complaining, but…OK, I am a little bit.  What I’m finding is being left out of the discussion is this millennium’s elephant in the room, abortion, and a consistent focus on women’s rights as human rights.

This week is particularly juicy since the General Assembly has brought lots of VIPs to NYC, and girls and women are on the brain (don’t read into that).  I went to a panel discussion yesterday sponsored by the World Leadership Forum called “Making Women’s Rights and Health Central to Global Development.”  The speakers were impressive, including former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, but the meat of the panel was dry.

For instance, one thing that irked me as someone who works on global abortion issues, is that the very catchy figure of 536,000 maternal deaths per year was repeatedly misconstrued to mean 536,000 women dying in childbirth.  Now that’s very convenient to say and it’s also very gut wrenching, but it’s inaccurate.  The 68,000 + women who die each year due to unsafe abortion and pregnancy complications are actually included in this figure.  They are not beleaguered mothers with swollen bellies, but may be teenage survivors of sexual abuse or a woman who simply can’t afford a child, but can afford to pay an ex-janitor $25 to bring her period down with a knitting needle.  I’m sorry, I know it’s not a pretty image — but when we talk about empowering women and protecting rights, it’s also these women we’re talking about.

There are many thoughts about why Millennium Development Goal 5, is lagging so sorely behind the others.  The noble goal was to reduce the global number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth by three-quarters over the course of 15 years.  We have five years left to meet that goal and we have only reduced it about one percent.

Political will, funding, the priority of women, empowerment of women to demand their own health and rights…all of these are plausible reasons for this travesty.  But I also want to suggest also that the central role that safe abortion plays in reducing maternal mortality, and the general aversion to thinking about/talking about/funding/supporting this issue is a HUGE obstacle to achieving MDG5.

So while I’m all on the women and girls’ empowerment bandwagon — hell, I’m pretty sure I was born on the wagon — it’s feeling a little bit like when the Red Sox became popular after they broke the Curse of the Bambino.  Really?  Now you’re a fan?  Come on.  In all seriousness, though, we DO need the political will and support of these suits and heads of state, but why can’t the conversation be more real instead of so feel-good/obviously well-marketed with lots of USAID funding??  Or rather all this mainstream attention and media is great…but what now?  Anna from Jezebel also wonders, for big businesses, is all this feel-good just a fad?

Other recent empowerment things you know about but check out:

  • The Girl Effect, a catchy notion that if you educate a girl you will eventually lift a people out of poverty is both heart warming and tear jerking, and mostly true.  (Watch this to be inspired.)
  • Nick Kristof’s “Half the Sky” has just been released to great anticipation, and there are already 87 holds on 6 copies at the New York Public Library.
  • Feministing reported on The Clinton Global Initiative’s recent annual meeting, which discussed the importance of investing in women and girls.

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