Human rights of women

February 04, 1994

The State Department has highlighted a neglected field of human rights deprivation on reporting the status of women in 193 countries. It is idle to talk about human rights violations without noticing rape, slavery, genital mutilation, forced prostitution, lack of marital rights, prohibition against driving, lack of career and education opportunities and other practices that make women less equal than men in many nations.

The new emphasis is telling it like it is, a reflection of the Clinton administration's priority for women's issues, and a form of political grandstanding that is not new with this report.

The accusations are correct. The practices diminish the human spirit. They should be righted. With greater enlightenment and education, they would be. Shining this spotlight may do some good.

The State Department is in the report card business on other nation's human rights because Congress mandates it. The reports are embarrassing because they conflict with the State Department's other duty, which is to carry on relations with all countries, the good, the bad and the ugly. As a result, the State Department feels pressure to weasel, and the reports generally lack the credibility of those by such private organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Normally, human rights violations are defined as sins of commission by governments. The breakthrough in the State Department's emphasis on crimes against women is that these are at most sins of omission in enforcement by governments. For the most part they are the acts of individuals sanctioned by cultural tradition or religion. That is a delicate area into which the State Department, at administration behest, is barging. Since many of the societies specified are non-Western, under-developed, non-white or non-Christian, this finger-pointing will be protested as cultural meddling.

Casting these aspersions, when accurate, has the virtue of upsetting the stereotypes of the cultural diversity ideology that holds women and people of color to be victims of white, male, Western domination. Deprivation of women's rights are more flagrant in non-Western societies.

Congress really ought to take the State Department out of the human rights reporting business so it can do its main mission more effectively and so that others can do the report cards more credibly. But as long as the State Department is in that business, the new emphasis on women makes the reports more honest and compelling.

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