June Zeitlin

(WOMENSENEWS)–As worldwide demonstrations and events are staged today as part of International Women’s Day, a consortium of U.S. women’s groups are distributing a report critical of the Bush administration, claiming it gives more rhetoric than assistance to women’s global battle with disease and political empowerment.

While the Bush administration has been an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, it hasfailed to follow through with the money andprogram assistance needed to reduce women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and to improve women’s security in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the consortium.

“The administration has put itself in a position where it wants to be seen as being great on women’s issues, but there is a huge disconnect between the rhetoric and reality,” said Jodi L. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, an international reproductive health and rights organization based in Tacoma Park, Md.

Jacobson’s center together with the Feminist Majority and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, recently released their third quarterly report card of the Bush administration. The scorecard is a monitoring device the organizations developed last year to measure the gap between what the administration says and what it does. The consortium said that it would continue releasing these reports every quarter regardless of who wins the November presidential election.

In the quarterly report released last week, the groups graded the words and actions of the administration in three areas: women’s rights in Afghanistan and Iraq and the implementation of the The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In each of these categories, the consortium found that the Bush administration has failed to live up to its promises.

‘D’ for Implementing AIDS Plan

The Center for Health and Gender Equity gave the Bush Administration a grade of B for its rhetoric surrounding The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and a D for its effectiveness in implementing the plan. Jacobson said that while the White House promised to spend $15 billion over five years on the global scourge, or $3 billion a year, actual allocations have been a total of $800 million short in the first two budgets since the emergency plan was announced last January 2003.

This year, the organizers of International Women’s Day are focusing on the growing claim HIV/AIDS is making on the world’s women.

“Ten years ago, women were at the periphery of the epidemic, today they are at the epicenter,” wrote Noeleen Heyzer, in a mass e-mail promoting today’s events. Heyzer is executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, a worldwide voice for women that spearheads International Women’s Day events, which range from campus fund-raisers for feminist groups in Israel, teach-ins about international women’s issues and protests about trade issues that shortchange women.

In addition to being critical of the shortage of funds, Jacobson said the White House’s abstinence-only approach was bound to fail, especially in regions where the youth are sexually active and young women tend to marry much older men.

“Abstinence only means not offering condoms to youth at risk,” Jacobson said. “But a large share of youth and adolescents are already sexually active and 50 percent of girls (in sub-Saharan Africa) are married by the time they are 18.”

Studies released last month by the United Nations showed that HIV infection rates were higher among teen-age brides in some African countries than sexually active unmarried girls of similar ages in the same areas. U.N. officials say that teen-age brides often marry older men who are already infected with HIV or who are practicing unsafe sex outside the marriage.

Administration Not Just for Abstinence

In response to the criticism, Tom Flavin, a spokesperson for the Global AIDS Coordinator’s Office in the State Department, denied that the administration’s approach was abstinence only.

“It’s a common misunderstanding that The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is focused on abstinence only,” Flavin said. “As the plan makes clear, condom distribution for use in high risk situations is very much a part of the prevention strategy.”

Flavin defined “high risk” as any situation in which a person was “required” to have sexual intercourse with an individual whose HIV/AIDS status was unknown to him or her.

He said that currently 20 percent of the budget to fight AIDS had been allocated to prevention. Of that, Flavin said, 33 percent was earmarked for abstinence-until-marriage programs while the remainder was designated for condom distribution and promoting faithful marriages.

Flavin also said that President Bush would ramp up spending over the next five years in order to meet the $15 billion commitment he promised to fight AIDS.

Afghan Measures ‘Inadequate’

On the Afghanistan front, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, which has tracked the status of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban were in power, awarded the president an A for rhetoric, but a D for its actions to support Afghan women’s rights.

Smeal said that while the Bush administration has proposed a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild the war-torn country, U.S. assistance in terms of peacekeepers and other measures has been “woefully inadequate” to ensure the security of women.

Referring to the warlords who are now in the cabinet, Smeal said the Bush administration “put in people who are part of the problem.”

Smeal congratulated Afghan women, who succeeded in getting constitutional quotas to mandate that 25 percent of the seats in the parliament’s upper house and 12 percent of the seats in the lower house be held by women. But Smeal noted that “because of fears of reprisals” only 2 percent of eligible women were registered to vote in the upcoming June general election. The Bush administration has generally not supported quotas for women in elective offices in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it did not go so far as to veto them. The White House and the Department of Defense did not return calls seeking comment.

Quota Laws Unclear

As for Iraq, June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an international advocacy organization based in New York, awarded the Bush administration an A for its rhetoric on women’s rights in Iraq, but said she could only give an incomplete on its actions until the final text of the interim constitution was reviewed. The constitution was released last week but its signing has been indefinitely postponed.

Although she congratulated Iraqi women for helping to ensure that the preliminary interim constitution that would set a 25 percent goal for women’s representation in the future assembly, she said many steps would still need to be taken to ensure the quota was met.

“We don’t know what types of laws will be drafted to implement these quotas,” Zeitlin said. “It’s not automatic. You need to take very deliberate steps to make sure women meet these quotas.”

Zeitlin noted that women have been absent from decision-making bodies controlled by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority and the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which was appointed by the United States, has just three female members. There is only one woman in the Iraqi Cabinet, and none of the 18 provincial governors are women.

Ensuring the separation of religion and state would also be critical in the fight to safeguard women’s rights, especially in the area of family law, Zeitlin said.

Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York.

For more information:

Center for Health and Gender Equity:

Women’s Environment and Development Organization:

Feminist Majority: