March 15th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

U.S. official: Family planning is vital worldwide

By Amar C. Bakshi, CNN

I recently sat down for an interview with U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, who came out strongly in favor of family planning even as a political battle is heating up within the U.S. about those very same rights. Ambassador Verveer insisted:

"Family planning is one of the best public health interventions that can be made. It makes such a difference in a woman's life for her to be able to have the wherewithal - the family planning contraceptives available - so that she can decide the size and the spacing of her children....It is just unfathomable that women can't get the access that they need."

Below is an edited transcript of the interview where Ambassador Verveer speaks about the affect of the Arab Spring on women, the great costs of gender discrimination, the role of religion and culture in repression and much more.

The economic costs

Amar C. Bakshi: When you look around the world today, what are some of the greatest challenges facing women?

Melanne Verveer: I think if we look at where women stand, we've made a great deal of progress over the years. But there are still pockets that really need a lot more attention that have huge payoffs for all of society.

One is women's economic participation. It isn't what it could be. There are obstacles women confront – whether they want to start a business, grow a business, be in positions of management and leadership, or just work as employees in terms of the kinds of jobs they're able to procure. Women farmers could be doing so much better. So there's the whole realm of economic participation, which has such huge potential positive consequences if women can be more engaged in ways that have these payoffs.

Amar C. Bakshi: Give a sense of the scale of the economic consequences.

Melanne Verveer: If you just take women who run small-sized and medium-sized businesses, we know from all of the data and the research today that in fact they are accelerators of GDP. We want to create jobs. We want to grow economies. I don't know a country that doesn't want to do better in this area. But we're shortchanging ourselves because we're cutting off a whole area of enormous potential.

We've done a lot of work in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with the forum APEC represents and there's a statistic that in that region alone, between $42 billion and $46 billion in GDP is lost annually because of the potential of women isn't tapped. Now I know a lot of people who say that number is far greater than that. But imagine the scope of what we're talking about. So I think clearly we need to do better in that arena.

And if you look at all of the data today about women's progress, where women are making the least progress is in political empowerment. In holding appointive office or running for elections, being able to run in the first place, and then succeeding in that, there's still tremendous discrimination against women.

Women in politics

Amar C. Bakshi: Let me follow up on that. Only 17 percent of America's Congress are women. We're 78th on the list of women in politics at the national level. We're behind the United Arab Emirates. We're behind Iraq. We're tied with Turkmenistan. Is there a hypocrisy or a danger in us trying to promote this agenda when we don't have our house in order? Or would you phrase it differently?

Melanne Verveer: Well, I think we are part of the world, so we have to do better as well. We are doing better by some measurements, certainly not in the Congress, as you said where are at 17 percent –we ought to be much better than that – but we have a better record in local politics, in some state positions, and, of course, in the administration there have been any number of high-level female appointments made.

But this is not about us not looking at our own situations as well. We all have to do better, because in the end we're short-changing not just women in being able to have their potential tapped, be able to hear their perspectives, be able to have them bring their talents to the fore, but we're shortchanging the possibilities for better policies, better programs, a better deal for all the arenas in which they engage.

The Arab Spring

Amar C. Bakshi: I want to switch to the Middle East and talk about Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. A lot of these countries now have Islamist parties with much greater control than they had before. In Egypt, for example, many are calling for a rollback of myriad different laws that have protected women for years. Is the Arab Spring, in net, bad for women?

Melanne Verveer: Well, as I've been saying, I hope we will see the blossoming of what the Arab Spring is supposed to represent in terms of protection of dignity and human rights, and an embracing of democracy as what it was. It wasn't about a rollback by any stretch.

And there is a co-option in some respects that's going on now. You pointed out that in Egypt women have pretty much been precluded from even the transitional governance that has been going on there. There has been a taking back of the quota that would have had more women in the parliament. And there is the potential that so much of the progress that they have made will be rolled back. That's yet to be seen in terms of a lot of the laws that have been passed and adopted and enforced.

So it is a work in progress. What we see so far is not terribly propitious for women by any stretch. By any calculation I think there are about 10 women in the parliament now, and they are pretty much from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tunisia has many more women in its parliament. Tunisia has a long history of progress. There are many, many women in the professions, a third or more of faculty members, much more of a middle class.

So there is a different situation there. And I think there it's going to be a question of whether or not the party that has come to power – that forms the majority – will move forward in a direction that they claim they intend to move forward in, or whether they will indeed begin to push back as well. So again the jury is out there.

Religion or culture

Amar C. Bakshi: How do you understand the problem? Is it a cultural issue in a lot of these Arab countries that now that some form of democracy is coming to them, women's rights could potentially be rolled back? Is it a religious issue? Is there something specific to Islam? Where do you place the root of this problem?

Melanne Verveer: Well, there are those who will use religion or use culture to justify what they want to do. There are vast differences within these societies. There isn't one point of view that holds the monopoly.

There are so many women struggling for change in their societies. Today is International Women's Day and we just honored several women from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, at the State Department. They received the International Women of Courage Awards.

Now they're not unique. They are unique in many ways in terms of their courage and what they have done. But they represent thousands more like them. And some of the most innovative changes that have been taking place have been taking place in some of these societies.

Take Morocco, which several years ago passed the family law reform, the Moudawana reform, one of the toughest reforms really to embark on. But they came together and to those forces in society who were saying, “Oh, this is not consistent with our Quranic values, this is not consistent with our religion,” the women said, “No, it is consistent with our religion.” And they fought back on the same grounds. And the king met them more than halfway. And when this Moudawana reform was proclaimed, it would say women have the right to custody of their children. And then there was a Quranic verse that said essentially that.

So there are forces in all of these societies that want to use religion to say it justifies violence or it justifies the kinds of discriminatory practices. But those are interpretations. And there are so many Muslim women, since we're talking about this part of the world where the religion is dominant, who profess to be good Muslims and say, "No, those are not the values of my religion."

Family planning

Amar C. Bakshi: One the front page of the New York Times today, the Texas legislature is taking steps that are going to result in 130,000 women having reduced access to reproductive health. There was the Blunt Amendment in Congress that was similarly anti-contraception and anti-abortion.

Two questions here: First, as I've alluded to before, does this pose a problem in your work? And related to that: Is access to reproductive health an essential part of the women's rights movement globally?

Melanne Verveer: Well, as I said with respect to how many women we have in our Congress, we confront issues at home and we have to work them through our own political process. But family planning is one of the best public health interventions that can be made. It makes such a difference in a woman's life for her to be able to have the wherewithal – the family planning contraceptives available so that she can decide the size and the spacing of her children.

It is about her health. It is about her future. It is about the betterment of her family. And where it has become available in ways in which women want to utilize it, they know it is so important to the quality of life for them.

So certainly in societies there are those who say, “Well, there's no place for this. “ But I think we all know this a sound public health tool. It is one we support. It is part of the Global Health Initiative that the United States has been supporting.

It brings down the numbers of abortions around the world. And it is just unfathomable that women can't get the access that they need so that they can have healthier lives, healthier families, and be able to do a great deal more for their families, for their communities, and for themselves because they're deprived of it.

So we need to be making every effort to make it more available.

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Topics: Women

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