Feminism and Aids
Awhile back, as part of a discussion on liberals, conservatives, and human rights, Eve Tushnet suggested that liberals had a blind spot when it came to the human rights problems involved in population control
(bloggered link -- May 12). I agreed -- with some reservations. Anytime people with power are trying to control reproduction, there's potential for horrendous abuse,
and that abuse will inevitably be directed at the powerless. And although we think of control of reproduction as something that empowers women -- which, for the most part, it does -- it isn't surprising that in places like China
where there are deep economic and social biases against girls and women, the same tools that give women control over their lives elsewhere can also be used to decrease the population of unwanted girls.
My caveat is that the people emphasizing the abuse are often concerned not so much with eliminating the abuses as with taking away the tools. But I think that because we're aware of that hypocrisy, liberals may be reluctant to criticize population control programs that deserve criticism, or simply assume that every criticism is nothing but a right-wing excuse to control women.
I got a few politely critical letters from people who felt I was giving up too much of the argument to the right, that the "abuses" were blown out of proportion. My response was simply that I continued to believe that Eve made a valid point, and that was part of the reason that I emphasized women's health and control of their bodies and lives rather than "population control" per se. If women control their own lives -- not just their reproductive lives, but their education, marriage, work lives, etc. -- they make decisions the end result of which is a smaller, healthier, better educated population. What is good for women is usually good for a country as a whole.
Anyway, via Ampersand,
I just found an interesting article expounding on my vague and somewhat unsatisfactory (to me, anyway) answer -- Challenges from the Women's Health Movement: Women's Rights versus Population Control
. It's too amorphous to summarize easily, but it looks at programs and movements in many countries, and argues that reproductive services "must treat women as their subjects, not their objects." It also looks at the threats to women's rights and health from both population control programs that emphasize demographic objectives, and conservative forces attempting to control women's access to birth control.
I think that's pretty much what I was attempting to say: The key is giving women real choices.
Which brings me to another, related topic. Two days ago, I wrote about the Senate passing a deceptive AIDS bill. There was one rather surprising provision in the bill: It would fund programs to -- as the Washington Post
phrased it -- "teach feminism to African men." (Um....can we get one of those programs going here, too? Start with the Senate?)
I'm well aware of the connection between women's rights and sexual health -- particularly when it comes to AIDS. Everyone knows, I assume, about the rumor that traveled through Africa that you could cure aids by having sex with a virgin. But it's not just a matter of education against that kind of nonsense. Where women are subject to violence and coercion, where economic powerlessness leaves them dependent, where lack of education leaves them with no options but childhood marriage, they have no means of delaying sex, abstaining from sex, insisting on condom use or fidelity, or anything else that will slow down the progress of the disease. (The fundamentalists are partly right that abstinence and fidelity help slow the spread of the disease -- they just don't seem to understand that "just say no" is probably even more unlikely to prevent sex than it was to prevent drug use), and that it just isn't going to happen if women, or even young girls, can't get away with saying "no.") Still, even I kind of wondered if there was anything to this provision, or if it was just liberals cramming their pet project in the bill, just as conservatives had stuck abstinence in there.
Silly me. There's nothing like reading a right-wing argument against
something to make you realize what a good idea it is. Wendy McElroy goes after the bill at the Fox News website
Someone should have asked, "Why should the average American, already staggering under the twin burdens of taxation and a weak economy, foot the bill for teaching gender sensitivity to men in Africa?" Why is re-educating men and boys on gender attached to a bill meant to provide emergency medical care?
I love that dismissive word "sensitivity." As if the point were to teach African men to bring flowers or something. I guess Ms. McElroy wouldn't be impressed by the way Pearl Nwashili fights AIDS with soup kitchens, microcredit, and vocational training for women, either. But, for goodness sakes, you can't easily separate women's rights and health care. Remember the heartbreaking piece Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about obstetric fistulas, a painful and humiliating condition that strikes women in poor countries? Look at the means of preventing the condition:
- Postponing the age of marriage and childbirth until the woman's body is mature is key, along with family planning to space children to allow recovery time.
- Measures to alleviate poverty and malnutrition can reduce the physical frailties that contribute to obstructed labor.
- Universal access to basic reproductive health care allows screening and referral to skilled care for pregnant women likely to suffer obstructed labor.
You can treat the condition, but if you're going to stop it, you must
deal with the economic and social factors that disempower women. And that's true of many illnesses -- including AIDS.