Global Women’s Health in the Debate

Anika Rahman watched the YouTube/CNN Democratic debate this week hoping that the American public (or at least the YouTube watching public) would prompt discussion on women's health globally.

Last week, I ended my first blog post by saying that, as part of the political debate, we need a serious discussion of the causes and consequences of women's health — no nation in the world can develop its economy while it excludes women from economic and political participation — and a sustained, long-term commitment from our leaders to assist the international programs that are already working.

Since our elected officials do not generate such a discussion, I watched the YouTube/CNN Democratic debate this week hoping that the American public (or at least the YouTube watching public) would prompt the people who want to be our next President into some discussion on this issue.

Just because the candidates weren't asked, "are we the kind of country that turns our back on the women of the world when it is politically expedient to do so?" doesn't mean nobody posed that question. It may mean that such a question just didn't make the cut from CNN, who chose the questions from the thousands that were submitted. And that would be a shame.

I suspect the truth is that CNN thought their viewers weren't informed enough about the issues that women face in low-income countries and what is being done to address them. The producers of the debate probably thought that high maternal mortality rates, limited access to contraception and astronomical rates of HIV infection are issues too big to discuss in the time allotted for answers in a debate. And they are correct, of course, but that didn't stop CNN from choosing questions about Iraq, social security and our own health care problems here at home.

And even more troubling is my suspicion that CNN worried it would be too controversial to ask this panel of current federal legislators "do you think the United States should withhold Congressionally-allocated funds from a United Nations agency that provides 500 million women with contraception each year and that has significantly decreased the rates of women dying in childbirth in countries all over the world because the person sitting in the White House is uncomfortable with family planning?"

Darfur, gay marriage — those topics are fine for debate, but when you get to women you're getting into territory too controversial for polite company. I'm overstating, of course, but there was a suspicious lack of discussion about women's health, perhaps because it would come too close to the abortion issue. Which means that a question about the work of UNFPA — to provide contraception to women who are poor and live in the most remote regions of the world who simply do not want more children, to find ways to help young married women and sex workers avoid HIV infection despite their lack of power in relationships with men, to reduce the disparity that gives African women a one in 16 lifetime risk of dying from a complication related to pregnancy or childbirth (vs. one in 1,800 for women in the West) — is not in our national debate.

So, they debated health care, Iraq and who is the better champion of women, but I saw no indication that our next President, should he or she be a Democrat, knows or cares more than our current President about the challenges and benefits of the United States' engagement in women's health globally.