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How Bush treats women

LAST WEEK President Bush marked International Women's Day by touting his military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming they have liberated thousands of women from lives of tyranny and oppression. "The advance of freedom in the greater Middle East has given new rights and new hopes to women," he said in a White House address.

The president's unusual focus on the feminist side of his foreign policy may have been designed to deflect attention from a domestic agenda that is decidely unpopular with many women. Bush suffers a gender gap of up to 10 percentage points in comparison with Democrat John Kerry in most opinion polls. But the speech actually obscured actions the Bush administration was taking almost simultaneously in Santiago, Chile, where it dropped its commitment to the health and survival of millions of poor women abroad.

At a diplomatic meeting of 38 nations in Santiago, the US delegation alone refused to join a routine statement of support for the international agreement on population and development approved at a United Nations summit in Cairo 10 years ago. The Cairo agreement -- which the United States signed in 1994 along with 178 other countries -- replaced a sometimes coercive focus on population "control" in the developing world with a new commitment to encouraging smaller families by improving the health and prospects of women.

In the 10 years since Cairo, wider access to family planning, prenatal care, and education for girls has been credited with preventing 187 million unwanted pregnancies a year and millions more maternal or infant deaths. Contributions through the United Nations Population Fund to implement the Cairo program are used to build rural health clinics, train traditional birth attendants, promote AIDS prevention, and send girls to school. None of the US contribution to the fund supports abortions, even in countries where abortion is legal. A third of US spending is earmarked to promote sexual abstinence among adolescents.

But in Santiago, US diplomats tried to rewrite the Cairo agreement, eliminating all references to "reproductive health" and "family planning services." The Bush administration's hostility to the Cairo plan is well known, but rarely is it aimed so transparently at contraception and women's health. The proposed revisions were roundly rejected.

No one doubts that the lives of women in Afghanistan are better without the Taliban's reign. But infant mortality in Afghanistan is the highest in the world: 162 infants per 1,000 die before their first birthday, compared with a world average of 52. For the Bush administration to claim that it cares for the human rights of women and then withdraw support for the Cairo agreement is a shocking abdication of responsibility and a cynical exercise in bait-and-switch.

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