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Bush touts support for women's rights

WASHINGTON -- Surrounded by his wife and high-ranking women in his administration, President Bush yesterday touted his record in advancing human rights for women, highlighting the administration's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.


"Just think about it," Bush said at the White House in a speech marking the close of International Women's Week. "More than 50 million men, women, and children have been liberated from two of the most brutal tyrannies on earth -- 50 million people are free. And for 25 million women and girls, liberation has a special significance. Some of these girls are attending school for the first time. Some of the women are preparing to vote in free elections for the very first time."

Bush made the remarks as his leadership of the military invasion of Iraq continues to come under criticism, most notably from his likely rival in this fall's presidential election, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Women in the United States have been an important part of the Democratic constituency for many years. Current polls show Bush tied with Kerry for support among men, but still trailing among women by about 10 percentage points.

The administration has worked hard to overcome that deficit, sending Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, to events the White House hopes would impress women. Bush himself spoke on domestic policy at a forum for female entrepreneurs in Cleveland on Wednesday.

Yesterday, President Bush tied women's rights to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, saying the two are "ultimately inseparable."

"The advance of freedom in the greater Middle East has given new rights and new hopes to women," Bush said.

He stopped short of offering political asylum to women who are the victims of domestic abuse, although

the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are considering changes to US laws to allow that. Some women's groups, however, say the Bush administration has failed to take advantage of opportunities to advance the cause of human rights for women.

June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization, criticized White House opposition to abortion rights.

"The actions of the Bush administration means more women will continue to die because of inadequate reproductive rights and health programs," Zeitlin said, pointing to international agreements signed in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995 that the administration has pulled away from.

In a rare move yesterday, the first lady introduced her husband, offered her own praise of his policies, and urged people to go see the movie "Osama," which tells the story of an Afghan girl who struggles to help support her family during the oppressive regime of the Taliban. "The struggle for women's rights is a story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things," Laura Bush said. "And today, the women of Afghanistan are writing a new chapter in their history."

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