What Clinton’s candidacy means to women worldwide

The World
Updated on
Hillary Clinton's role among women

She doesn't talk about it much on the campaign trail.

But as she is lauded at home with a historic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton is being praised abroad for decades of quiet work that put the rights of women around the world at the top of the agenda.

“She’s a strong voice for women since Beijing and that strong advocacy has not gone unnoticed by women around the world,” says Martha Karua, Kenya’s former justice minister, referring to a pioneering UN conference in 1995 on women.

Although the US press corps rarely asks her about it, Clinton is considered a champion of gender equality globally. Many know of her speech at that 1995 conference in Beijing in which she declared “women’s rights are human rights.” Fewer understand the ins and outs of the feminist foreign policy she unrolled as America's top diplomat. Gender equality, she said, is critical both in itself and to achieve economic growth, security, health improvements and reduction of terrorism. 

A so-called feminist foreign policy? It’s an approach to foreign policy that many women hope she will bring into the Oval Office. Already, she’s promised that half her Cabinet will be women, as Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, did to great acclaim last year when taking office.

“If Hillary were elected, all the groundwork she laid for women would still be there. She could just turn the light switch back on,” Dr. Valerie Hudson, co-author of "Hillary Clinton, Sex and American Foreign Policy," told me. “No one in her inner circle would dare suggest gender be subordinated to more pressing issues — you’d see real commitment.”

Milllennials often say they find Clinton unlikeable. But her support is much stronger among older women, who recall the days when foreign policy was conducted in smoky, all-male rooms and dominated by discussion of weapons and territory. Issues around women and girls never came up. 

Rape and sexual abuse of women in war — widespread in the Balkans war and going back to the Holocaust, for example — wasn’t recognized as a crime until 1996. Laws were commonplace that restricted women from owning land, having bank accounts, getting a divorce, participating politically, attending school or seeking protection from a violent spouse. Those laws went unchallenged by US foreign policy.

However, with the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, and the calls for freedom ringing out from post-communist countries, Clinton demanded women have a place in the emerging human rights field, starting with her Beijing speech. She then launched a government-affiliated NGO, Vital Voices, which began researching and advocating around how oppression of women hurts societies. One milestone of this advocacy came in 2000, when the UN Security Council ratified Resolution 1325, which required women’s presence in peace and conflict resolution.

When she became secretary of state in 2009, Clinton accelerated this approach to foreign policy with “The Hillary Doctrine,” which argued in part that violence against women should be considered a matter of US national security. Observers credit her with not only steering program funding to issues that affect women, but to elevating recognition among State Department employees of the importance of including gender considerations in all their efforts. 

Nowadays, it’s common to see multimillion dollar programs for women and girls rolled out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and across Africa. Even if they do have mixed or uncertain results — many agree that it’s Clinton’s advocacy that got women’s issue on the agenda.

Promoting women is now considered integral to other goals such as establishing national security, promoting agricultural yields, increasing economic growth or stemming the spread of disease. Just last year, $70 million was dedicated to promoting adolescent girls in Pakistan. Another $27 million was just promised to promote literacy among girls in Africa. Nearly $30 million is being spent on increasing the ranks of women in security in places like Liberia, Afghanistan and Pakistan — where women make up less than 5 percent of the police force, according to The Institute for Inclusive Security. 

Earlier this year, the defense and security studies journal PRISM devoted an entire issue to analysing how women and girls status intersects with US security goals. It’s the kind of small moment of recognition by the male-dominated military establishment that women’s rights activists couldn’t have dreamed of a decade earlier. While these achievements are the result of much more than one person’s effort, Clinton is considered an ally and leader.

“She has set new standards of what a woman can do, not only in her role in foreign policy, but in general,” says Baroness Arminka Helic, a Bosnian-born conservative female Muslim peer in the UKs House of Lords. “It’s so heartening to see the strongest democracy and military in the world have its foreign policy led by a woman — and not just a figurehead but a woman with deep understanding of womens’ rights."

Clinton is not without her critics. While gains have been made for women and girls in health and education, they are nearly at a standstill in areas such as security and political participation.   And even with the millions in aid — women are proportionally still shortchanged. 

In 2014, for example, only 1 percent of all funding in fragile states went to women’s groups or ministries of women, according to the UN. Other complain that the State Department’s subcontracting process is so multilayered that efforts intended to promote women get watered down and forgotten by the implementation stage. Critics call her foreign policy hawkish — and blame her for conflict that ultimately hurt women and girls much more than aid programs help them. 

Nonetheless, most recognize at least the symbolic nature of having a female US president. (Disclosure: In 1993, I worked six weeks on an unpaid White House internship when I was 19. I look back now and realize how unusual it was to see a working first lady.)

Says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women: “People all over the world follow the US trends and this will have the same impact. It’s going to inspire women around the world to say, ‘I can do this.'”

Christina Asquith is director of the Across Women's Lives initiative and founder of the Fuller Project for International Reporting. 

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