March is Women's History Month, and to commemorate it, the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations (OGR) is highlighting important public policy issues related to women in which the church has an important voice.
The Rev. Margaret Rose, director for Women's Ministries, noted that recent meetings with some 100 delegates-from 36 of the 38 Anglican provinces-to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women gave new urgency to the church's public policy work, promoting better understanding about the challenges faced by women around the world on basic matters such as legal rights, education, and family planning.
The Episcopal Church has taken a strong leadership role in promoting the Millennium development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight strategic targets designed to cut poverty in half by the year 2015, including specific targets for gender equity and women's health.
"The immediate work we are doing to promote international family planning, and the long term effort for ratification of the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), are critical parts of our support for the MDGs," said Rose.
On March 8, International Women's Day, the Rt. Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, retired bishop suffragan of Washington, joined other religious leaders to endorse the Focus on Family Health Worldwide Act (HR 4188), a bipartisan proposal authorizing funding increases in international family planning programs. Funding would begin at $600 million in the current fiscal year, increasing $100 million each year to a peak of $1 billion in 2011.
"The proposal could not come at a more critical time," said Dixon, noting that "funding for international family planning and other important initiatives for impoverished women stands near an all-time low."
Dixon described the programs as critical in the struggle to combat poverty in the developing world.
"At least four of the eight MDG goals-HIV/AIDS, maternal health, child mortality, and gender equity - would benefit significantly from HR 4188," Dixon said.
The Episcopal Public Policy Network is featuring "Social Justice Advocacy as a Lenten Practice" and sent out an appeal March 8 for co-sponsors for the bill (see http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3654_72745_ENG_HTM.htm).
Following the press conference, religious leaders participated in an interfaith worship service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill at which Dixon was the principal homilist. Her text for preaching was Isaiah's call to "proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
"What does it mean in our world and our time to proclaim...the acceptable year of the Lord?" asked Dixon. "The great prophet Martin Luther King put it like this: 'The acceptable year of the Lord is any year we decide to do what is right...The acceptable year of the Lord is the year when we will learn to live together as brothers and sisters...The acceptable year of the Lord is the year we allow justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'
"And on this International Women's Day, I believe that if Dr. King, or Isaiah, or Jesus were with us here today, they might add that 'the acceptable year of the Lord is when all the people of God will come together to insist upon the fundamental dignity, equality, and empowerment of women, all throughout God's creation.'"
Family planning services are seen by most development experts as essential to creating sustainable communities in impoverished countries, according to Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst for the Office of Government Relations. "Family planning services are critical because they give women and their families the power to space births, plan pregnancies, and avoid abortion," said Baumgarten. "This greatly enhances maternal health and strengthens the family unit, which in turn strengthens communities as a whole."
"A great many of these women desire-but have no access to-family planning services," Dixon wrote in a letter to Congress asking for co-sponsors of HR 4188. "In fact, 200 million women around the world who desire family planning services have no access. Unmet need is highest in sub-Saharan Africa, and demand is only increasing... This is why people of faith everywhere should welcome Congresswoman McCollum and Congressman Ramstad's proposal. Women are not, and can never be, an afterthought to human development."
The Episcopal Church is also working with other supporters on a long-term strategy to gain ratification of CEDAW in the United States Senate. "While 182 countries have ratified this important treaty, the United States joins Iran and Sudan in not taking action on what is known as 'the bill of rights for women,'" said Maureen Shea, director of the Office of Government Relations.
Shea pointed out that CEDAW is the only international human rights treaty that comprehensively addresses the fundamental rights of women and girls in political, legal, economic, cultural, social, and family life. In order to ratify a treaty, 67 Senators must vote to support it. No action is required by the House of Representatives.
"We will not press for a vote until we are sure we have the 67 votes needed, but it is important to continue to educate voters and Senators now as to CEDAW's significance," Shea explained. "We encourage parishes and dioceses to learn about CEDAW's significance and share that information with their Senators."
The Episcopal Public Policy Network recently sent out an alert on CEDAW: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3654_72995_ENG_HTM.htm.
Rose said that CEDAW was a discussion topic among the Anglican delegates to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In countries that have ratified CEDAW, the treaty has become a crucial tool for improving the lives and well-being of women and girls. For instance, after treaty ratification:
- Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines passed laws to curb sexual trafficking.
- Colombia now ensures protection for all female victims of domestic violence.
- Pakistan introduced coeducation in primary schools.
- Argentina, Mexico, and Australia instituted programs to provide health care to indigenous and migrant women.
- In China, women are now guaranteed joint ownership of marital property and equal inheritance.
- Germany, Guatemala, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom have improved maternity leave and child care for working women.
The United States has a long history of bipartisan support for international standards through human rights treaties and as a world leader on human rights. Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton ratified similar treaties on genocide, torture, race and civil and political rights.
US failure to ratify the treaty allows other countries to divert attention away from their neglect of women and undermines the powerful principle that the human rights of women are universal across all cultures, nations, and regions, Shea said. "While the United States is a leader in many areas of women's rights, we still lag behind in important areas such as political representation, with women holding only 81, or 15 percent, of the 535 seats in this Congress."
"Opponents of CEDAW are circulating myths about what ratification would mean - including one that we would not longer celebrate Mother's Day," Shea added. "It is important to understand and to answer them as we seek wider support."
Among the most noteworthy, Shea said:
- The treaty grants no enforcement authority to the United Nations or any other body.
- No changes in US domestic law would be required for the US to be in compliance.
- The treaty does not seek to regulate family life; it urges governments "to adopt education and public information programs to eliminate prejudices and practices that hinder women's equality."
- The treaty does not require countries to send women into combat.
- The treaty intentionally does not address the issue of abortion.
- The United States would not have to abandon Mother's Day.
"I encourage all Episcopalians to join us in Bishop Dixon's call for 'an acceptable year of the Lord' as we advocate for significant public policy advancing the rights of women. H.R. 4188 and CEDAW are two excellent examples of the public policy work that the church does throughout the year," concluded Rose.