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Clinton’s agenda makes women’s issues a priority

Will seek rights, target sex abuse

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post / August 14, 2009

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ABUJA, Nigeria - She talked chickens with female farmers in Kenya. She listened to the excruciating stories of rape victims in war-torn eastern Congo. And in South Africa, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a housing project built by poor women, where she danced with a choir that was singing her name.

Clinton’s seven-country trip to Africa, which ends today, has sent the clearest signal yet that she intends to make women’s rights one of her signature issues and a higher priority than ever before in American diplomacy.

Clinton’s goals include pressing governments to crack down on sexual abuse and retooling US aid programs to put more emphasis on women.

But her efforts go beyond the marble halls of government and show how she is redefining the role of secretary of state. Her trips are packed with town hall meetings, visits to microcredit projects and women’s dinners. Ever the politician, Clinton is using her star power to boost women at the grass-roots who could be her allies.

“It’s just a constant effort to elevate people who, in their societies, may not even be known by their own leaders,’’ Clinton said in an interview. “My coming gives them a platform, which then gives us the chance to try and change the priorities of the governments.’’

Clinton’s agenda faces numerous obstacles. The US aid system is an unwieldy jumble of programs, many of them outside the State Department. Authorities in socially conservative countries in the Middle East and elsewhere might take umbrage at her message. And improving the lot of women in such places as Congo is complicated by deeply rooted social problems.

“It’s great she’s mentioning the issue,’’ said Brett Schaefer, an Africa scholar at The Heritage Foundation. “As to whether her bringing it up will substantially improve the situation or treatment of women in Africa - frankly, I doubt it.’’

Clinton isn’t the first female secretary of state, but neither of her predecessors had her impact abroad as a sort of pop feminist icon. On almost every foreign trip, Clinton has met with women: South Korean students, Israeli entrepreneurs, Iraqi war widows, Chinese civic activists.

Clinton mentioned “women’’ or “woman’’ at least 450 times in public comments in her first five months, twice as much as her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

Clinton’s interest in global women’s issues is deeply personal, a mission she adopted when her husband was in the White House after the stinging defeat of her health care policy forced her to take a lower profile.

Then, in 1995, she addressed the UN women’s conference in Beijing, strongly denouncing abuses of women’s rights. Delegates leapt to their feet in wild applause. The speech was splashed on front pages worldwide.

Clinton began traveling the world, highlighting women’s issues. If she was regarded by some Americans as cold and self-righteous, she was greeted as a heroine overseas.