Plight of women often linked to human rights violations, cultural norms and ignorance

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted June 19, 2000

On June 3, 2000, I was privileged to attend a forum in Tuxedo, NY, sponsored by Congressman Benjamin Gilman, 20th District of New York, and his lovely wife Georgia, for the purpose of examining the plight of women throughout the world. The two guest speakers were Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Dr. Martha MacGuffie, M.D., founder of SHARE, a non-profit organization that conducts medical missions to Africa for the purpose of supplying much needed medical treatment, medical equipment, and disease prevention education. Both Congressman Gilman, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Ambassador Kirkpatrick are renowned experts in the field of foreign affairs and global issues. Congressman Gilman is also a well-known advocate for victims of Human Rights violations.

Ambassador Kirkpatrick relayed an experience that she had at a refugee camp located in Afghanistan (near the Pakistan border), in the mid-1980’s, during the Reagan administration when George Shultz was Secretary of State. With a translator in tow, Ambassador Kirkpatrick learned that only Afghani men were issued food ration cards; a woman was expected to "attach" herself to a particular man for the purpose of obtaining food rations and avoiding starvation. The problem for many of these women was that they no longer had "protectors"; male family members such as husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers to act as natural providers, pursuant to the cultural norm. Inordinate numbers of males had died during the Soviet occupation as a result of warfare, disease, and the many hardships of life, or were still absent from the scene fighting out in the countryside. An "unattached" woman, so to speak, was forced to become subservient or a "slave" (Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s term) to a man whom she would service in any way necessary, in exchange for being supplied with the basics of life such as food, etc. Furthermore, Ambassador Kirkpatrick was especially appalled that young girls were not provided with any educational instruction, again due to custom. Initially, Ambassador Kirkpatrick believed, given the power of President Reagan’s State Department and the leverage of both U.S. and U.N. funding to the refugee camp, that these violations against women could be stopped or alleviated in a reasonable time. Unfortunately, she soon learned that the cultural practices were just too entrenched and the Americans were not in a position to impose new societal standards.

Simply put, women had been denied, and are still being denied, legal and social status of any kind in Afghanistan. According to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which monitors and advocates on behalf of oppressed people throughout the world, "The people of Afghanistan have suffered extensive human rights violations in the course of the past twenty years….In November 1994, a new group named ‘Taliban’ emerged as a military and political force…The Taliban is the first faction laying claim to power in Afghanistan, that has targeted women for extreme repression and punished them brutally for infractions. To our knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment from showing their faces, seeking medical care without a male escort, or attending school."

In her speech, Ambassador Kirkpatrick referenced the ongoing abuses of the Taliban toward women, and indicated that something must be done. Ambassador Kirkpatrick made three points in summary: firstly, when the quality of life is poor, men may suffer, but women and children always suffer worse; secondly, women are being systematically discriminated against, legally and socially, in many countries throughout the world, not just Afghanistan; and thirdly, compassionate and adept individuals such as Congressman Gilman would continue to study human rights abuses, devising suitable interventions over time to halt these horrific conditions.

Regarding Dr. Martha MacGuffie, she is considered a modern day Albert Schweitzer, a humanitarian whose vision and love of children are boundless. Dr. MacGuffie’s many successful medical missions include her quick mobilization to the site of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, in order to treat the victims of a terrorist bombing.

She specializes in the treatment of AIDS and tropical diseases, which are rampant in Africa. Dr. MacGuffie views AIDS prevention as key in the battle against the disease. But avoiding the spread of AIDS is stymied in Africa by cultural norms, societal attitudes, superstition, subjugation of women and lack of education. The prevalence of polygamy, sexual promiscuity, and ignorance of disease transmission have all notably undermined the efforts to control AIDS. Dr. MacGuffie also seeks to draw attention to the plight of the more than 600,000 African children orphaned as a result of AIDS deaths of parents and relatives. Many orphaned children die of the deleterious effects of neglect or disease. Surviving boys often join warfare gangs, and some girls turn to prostitution.

Jonah Goldberg, in his recent National Review Online article "A Continent Bleeds" was right to join the chorus of many others who are sounding the clarion for needed emergency intervention in ravaged Africa. He reminds us that America is not only a superpower, but also a moral nation that must consider suitable strategies in response to dire circumstances occurring in other parts of the world. In his discussion of "the holocaust rolling across Africa", Jonah Goldberg cites rampant AIDS and disease, extreme hunger, human rights violations including rape of women and mass amputations of children’s arms, and other alarming conditions too numerous to detail here. He invokes the ideals of the "greatness" crowd, that America must tackle great causes and, accomplish great things, to fulfill its destiny. However, Jonah Goldberg suggests that we should not limit ourselves to the notion that only a Mars landing or exploration of the universe will suffice as "greatness". He states "But if great sacrifice is the measure of true greatness, then the answer does not lie on the surface of Mars".

We as a nation are obliged to engage in a balancing act of resource allocation (A position at ESR is at odds with - Ed.). Yes, its salient that we fund projects which inspire the mind and spirit of our citizenry, promoting innovation and ongoing progress in our civilization. But we must also recognize that seeking to alleviate human suffering and human rights violations in its many forms is more than just a worthy pursuit. It is, in fact, vital to enhancing the soul of America.

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