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Isobel Coleman: 'Tremendous Progress' in Women's Rights Since 1995 Beijing Conference

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 8, 2005


Isobel Coleman, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow whose specialty is women’s rights, says, a decade after the landmark United Nations women’s conference in Beijing, the rhetoric of women’s rights has made it into the mainstream of foreign policy. Now you have governments all over the world talking about women’s rights as human rights.

Is it all that people want it to be? she asks. No. Is there much more to be done? Yes. But, we should take stock of the fact that there has been tremendous progress. Coleman, who directs a Council initiative on women and U.S. foreign policy, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 8, 2005.

There’s a conference under way at the United Nations called Beijing + 10. Remind people what the original meeting in Beijing in 1995 was all about.

The initial Beijing conference in 1995 was important on a number of different levels. But what was most important was the affirmation that women’s rights are human rights and that there’s no basis on which to deny women their rights; no religious basis, no cultural basis. That put in place a specific program designed to promote the rights of women around the world and across many different countries, economies, and cultures. Beijing affirmed that the status of women needs to improve and that the world’s countries should get together to promote that status.

Has there been much progress?

I would argue that there has been tremendous progress. Is it all that people want it to be? No. Is there much more to be done? Yes. But we should take stock of the fact that there has been tremendous progress. At a minimum, the rhetoric of women’s rights has made it into the mainstream of foreign policy in a way that didn’t exist ten years ago. Now you have governments all over the world talking about women’s rights as human rights.

Give us some examples.

In our own country, the Bush administration is constantly talking about women’s rights in the context of its foreign policy, be it promoting democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan or broadly in the Middle East. It’s very high on the agenda. The United Nations has passed some very important legislation promoting the role of women in conflict resolution. There is Security Council Resolution 1325, which said that women must play a much greater role in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. It seems very obvious that they should, but it doesn’t happen very much in practice. Putting this into a U.N. Security Council resolution has brought this issue to the forefront.

Is that resolution workable, or is it just a dream?

No, it’s not a dream at all. The fact is, women make up half or more of the population of conflict-torn countries, because many of the men have been killed off or have left or have been recruited as soldiers. When the conflict has ended or is ending, women are a majority of the population, yet those who come to the negotiating table are the ones with the guns, and not the ones who, for the most part, have been trying to hold society together.

[That sidelines] a very important constituency. There are examples from all around the world of women playing an incredibly important and powerful role, both in creating and sustaining a peace. Rwanda is one example: at the end of the very bitter events there a little more than a decade ago, the international community relied on the women, about 65 percent of the population at that point, to pick up the pieces. Women, for the most part, do all the agriculture; they are the labor in these countries.

And the Rwandan women living in neighboring countries and refugee camps, for the most part, said, Yes, we’d like to return and get on with it, but guess what- we don’t own our farms. And when we go back and start rebuilding our country, it is very likely that my husband’s distant relative is going to come and claim it. So that doesn’t work for us. The international community and the Rwandans themselves started looking at it and said, You’re right, there are some real issues here on property and inheritance rights, and they changed those laws, largely at the instigation of women. Today, women in Rwanda make up 48 percent of the parliament, versus 14 percent in the United States. And they have been a very important component of efforts to try to build bridges across the tribal and ethnic differences that still exist in that country. Northern Ireland is another example where women played a very instrumental role in achieving the peace there and in sustaining the peace.

Under the Taliban regime, Afghan women had few, if any, rights. After the U.S. liberation, many promises were made to them. How has that worked out?

Well, it hasn’t worked out; it is working out. They are at the beginning of a very long process. People focus on the dark years of the Taliban, and it’s appropriate to do so- the Taliban were a very brutal and harsh regime that had a terrible impact on women. But it’s important to remember that, prior to the Taliban, only 5 percent of girls in the country were ever in school. So it’s not as if they threw 90 percent of girls out of school; they weren’t in school to begin with. Now, for those who were fortunate enough to live in cities and have access to schools, it was terrible for them that the Taliban eliminated their possibilities of attaining higher education. But Afghanistan is a terribly poor country. It is steeped in very strong and, in some ways, harsh tribal traditions. And it will take a very long time to change things there. A recent U.N. report describes how dire the situation remains for women in Afghanistan.

What’s interesting coming out of the United Nations’ taking stock 10 years along is that there is a very broad spectrum of countries out there. Some, like Afghanistan, are dealing with women’s most basic needs. Afghanistan has a maternal mortality rate of 115 per thousand, which is terribly high compared to very low single digits in most of the rest of the world. When women are dying in such high numbers in childbirth, it’s hard to be thinking about issues that are dominating the agenda for women’s studies in Norway, Denmark, or some of the other countries that are represented.

The issue that seems to run through all of these proceedings with the lesser-developed countries is the need for girls’ education. I think it’s recognized as the key to long-term empowerment for women, closing the gender gaps that exist in education. In Afghanistan, the gender gaps are still very large. The country overall is very poor, the literacy rates for both men and women are very low, but for women, they truly are in the single digits in many parts of the country.

What about in the Arab world in general?

There has been dramatic change in the Middle East and in the Arab world more generally. It is hard to generalize across the region because countries are starting from very different points and are progressing at different rates. If you look at literacy in particular, the region lagged behind many other regions of the world in female literacy but has been closing the gap quite impressively in the past 15 years. And so now, in countries like Jordan and Qatar and even in Tunisia, you see women certainly achieving parity at primary education levels and overtaking men at secondary and tertiary education levels.

More women than men are getting an education?

Women outnumber men in universities in Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan. [Knowledgeable observers say] Kuwaiti women do better academically and have higher grades than their male counterparts, authorities have unofficially instituted a higher [grade point average] threshold for women to enter the school of engineering, because they’re trying to get more men into the school of engineering and in other places.

Are there affirmative-action policies for men?

There is affirmative action for men in certain professional schools now in Kuwait.

You’ve just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are strictly limited. Women weren’t allowed to vote in the recent municipal elections, for example.

There are only a few countries in the world where women cannot vote; Saudi Arabia is one of them. Yet pretty much everyone I spoke to felt that it’s simply a matter of time, that it was a huge step for men to vote and that to have layered on women voting at the same time might have been too much for certain elements in society to handle. So, to make it more palatable and manageable, after much debate, they decided not to include women this time around but, almost with certainty, they said that women would be included next time around.

The Saudi schools are segregated by sex, correct?

Everything is segregated for the most part, but that is beginning to break down. It is breaking down a little bit in the workplace, and you see it in the malls and the restaurants, but not much. I gave a talk at Dar al-Hikma, which is one of the women’s colleges there, and I was very impressed with the women graduates. There are two private women’s colleges, and I think that what is offered to them is far superior to anything being offered to the men in Saudi Arabia- other than perhaps the King Fahd University for Petroleum, a technical university and graduate school for men often working in the oil industry.

Is that because interference from the clergy has diminished?

A couple of years ago, women’s education was taken away from the religious authorities and put into the ministry of education, which runs the state system. But I think what you see going on with the private colleges is that men and women are trying to change the system from within. And so they have funded, generously, some women’s colleges in an attempt to provide an international education within Saudi Arabia for women. Maybe it’s because men are perhaps still more free, given cultural traditions, to go overseas for university. Now, it’s a very small, elite group, just a thousand or so students at these [women’s] private colleges. But women are making strides in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps not as fast as some would like to see, and much faster than others want to see, but there is progress.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said recently that he’s going to let women into the foreign service. Did you have a chance to talk to him about this?

I didn’t talk to him about that, but I talked to many other people about the changes that are going on. It is a very paternalistic society and change comes slowly, often from the top. It’s reminiscent of King Faisal’s decision in the 1960s to begin the education of girls, which was met with tremendous resistance from the religious authorities. But he said, Look, we’re going to open schools for girls, we want our children to be educated, including the girls. And I’m going to send my own daughters to school. You don’t have to send yours, but it would be nice if you did. And over time, pretty much everybody did send their girls to school.

Likewise, I think what Prince Saud is doing is saying, We’ve now educated the women; they should start to work. And one place we’re going to have them work is in the foreign ministry, as a way of beginning to break down some of those barriers. I think the more cynical explanation is, OK, they can work, but it’s overseas. It’s not here in Saudi Arabia. But that said, many women do work in Saudi Arabia. They own their own businesses, they work in all sorts of different areas: I met women lawyers, I met women business people in the financial world, journalists, professors, in the medical profession- women work all over Saudi Arabia.

Back to ten years after Beijing: what major problems are still to be resolved?

Women from the different countries who are meeting at the United Nations have different needs. Women from some of the more advanced economies are focused on issues of equal pay, of promoting political participation, of child care; whereas women from some of the poorer countries are focused on basic issues of maternal health and access to reproductive health care. Women do much of the work around the world in terms of gathering wood for fires for cooking and fetching clean water. There’s a recognition that women’s empowerment is critical to achieving development goals. We’ve seen a greater awareness of the need to invest in infrastructure that promotes time-saving elements for women, such as clean water and energy, and in making sure the gender gap in primary and secondary education is closed. Great strides have been made there, but much more needs to be done.

Are there any parts of the world that particularly need change more than others right now?

Three parts of the world have the most persistent gender gaps: South Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. And in the countryside in India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan.

How much of the problem is in the legal structure?

In many of these countries, the laws are not horrible. In many of these countries, the laws are quite favorable to women, but they are not carried out in practice. A woman who was running for parliament in Afghanistan, Soraya Parlika, was here at the Council this week, and she says the constitution in Afghanistan is very nice for women. But in reality, constitutional law will be interpreted by judges who’ve been trained only in sharia, and Islamic law is not favorable for women. It will take many years for women to achieve the de facto rights that they have been granted in the constitution.

Under Iraq’s interim constitution, every third person elected is supposed to be a woman. Is that going to work?

In Iraq and in many countries, quotas have been used to promote the rights of women. I think this has helped increase the political representation of women in many countries around the world. Jordan has done it, Morocco, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, South Africa. But now, these issues have matured, and people are saying, OK, in Rwanda, women make up 48 percent of the parliament, but do they really wield that much power? Do they have that much political clout? And the answer is no. So women are now saying, It’s not enough just to have numbers, we need more political clout in all different ways. That is quite uniform across rich and poor countries looking at this issue.

One thing we haven’t talked about, which is very important, is the spread of HIV/AIDS around the world and the recognition that a lack of women’s empowerment is really driving this pandemic. And that in many countries, the majority- sometimes 60 or 70 percent- of new cases are among women, and it’s because women don’t have the economic empowerment or the empowerment they need within the home to say no or to control their own decision-making on these issues. You see that there is a greater awareness today, that women’s empowerment is very much linked to halting the spread of AIDS.

The challenge is that promoting abstinence doesn’t work because these are married couples. Abstinence doesn’t work in the context of marriage. But there is a recognition now, there are studies that have come out, that show that when women have some economic independence, their incidence of AIDS is lower. There are very strong correlations between women’s empowerment and global health, between women’s empowerment and economic development.