NEW YEAR'S FORUM: A Conversation with Kavita

January 6, 2009 posted by  Linda Basch As we start off with our New Year’s Resolutions for the nation, I begin with an inspiring conversation I recently had with Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. We were musing about the future, particularly with regard to women’s human rights at this optimistic moment for the country, with a new administration about to take charge in Washington. But as Kavita pointed out, as we begin to look forward, we also need to be self reflective as a nation. We need to develop a sense of collective responsibility. A number of problems have grown up over the past several years that we can’t sweep away, that we must address as a country and hold ourselves accountable for. I couldn’t agree more. I love conversations that are as wide-ranging as this one was.  We covered a lot of ground.  Some highlights:  As someone who works on global women's rights, Kavita hopes that the new administration will place a high priority on advancing women's rights worldwide. This can only be achieved by the US decreasing its emphasis on militarism and violence as the primary means to resolve conflict and re-focusing its efforts away from the so called "war on terror" towards efforts to eradicate global poverty, inequality, and injustice. Yet, she insisted, that much of the US's ability to achieve such results globally will depend on the choices it makes inside its own borders. So, I asked Kavita what she would like to see in terms of change right here at home….

High on Kavita’s list are women’s health, the US prison system, immigration, and the nation’s children, all of which she believes require fresh thinking and solutions, and a human rights lens.  As Kavita points out, the US has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the developed world, which she sees linked to our failure to provide adequate sex education and access to safe, legal abortions. These and other health inequities magnify cleavages of race and class, and particularly afflict African American and immigrant women. When rape and HIV/AIDS are added to the equation, the resulting health disparities produce a silent genocide in which thousands of women --  especially poor and immigrant women of color -- die unnecessarily every year. The US prison system is similarly flawed. The US has one of the highest numbers of prisoners and parolees in the world, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of its total population. To Kavita, the result is a system of institutionalized discrimination in which racial and class inequalities are exacerbated. The prisons in the US are also well known for failing to protect the basic human rights of prisoners and for condoning various forms of torture. These patterns have unfortunately been exported into places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo over the past years.  Kavita hopes that in the wake of the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, celebrated in December 2008, the US will recommit itself to upholding the rule of law at home as well as abroad. For too long the US has held other countries, and particularly developing nations, to standards to which it often does not hold itself accountable. At the present moment, following on our election of Obama as president, the world is looking to the US to be part of a community of nations, and to be willing to lead by example rather than by dint of its superior military or economic power. According to Kavita, this will require a certain humility on our part, a sentiment I think we’re hearing many Americans now express. It will also require that we begin to recognize the many ways the local and the global are connected. And as Kavita points out, immigrants, and immigrant rights, are especially important connectors. In thinking about immigration, Kavita urges that we acknowledge the inequities created and exacerbated by a global economy in which the wealthiest nations benefit, while the poor from the least resourced countries are often forced to migrate in search of better opportunities.  Economic insecurity is further heightened in times of war, making migrants, particularly women, vulnerable to exploitation, including trafficking.  I fully agree with Kavita that the United States must be willing to rethink the parameters of trade, economic growth and development as well as meet our obligation to treat all immigrants with dignity and respect. Only then can we hope to find just solutions to a complex situation that has led to over 12 million people being termed illegal aliens in the US today. Being part of a community of nations will also involve learning from successful models in other parts of the world.  Kavita pointed to some European countries that have managed to balance a commitment to free markets while simultaneously making significant investments in the health and well being of their citizens through benefits such as universal health care, unemployment support, child care, and guaranteed adequate pensions. In contrast, the US currently has one of the highest rates of poverty for women and children in the developed world, in part due to its failure to invest in social services and human capital.  Like Kavita, I hope that the Obama administration finds a way to increase the compensation and training packages for health workers, child care workers, and teachers, all of whom are paid relatively poorly. We believe that it is time to prioritize these workers and issues in any new economic stimulus package. The new administration in Washington provides an opportunity to address these areas of neglect, to bring a human rights lens to many areas of inequity, and to heal wounds from our economic and military excesses -- in other words, to model democracy in action. Kavita is putting many aspirations on the table of New Year’s Resolutions for the nation, and I think she’s right on the button in her priorities.  I’m cautiously optimistic, however. Given the current mood of reflection that we saw in the election, and the goals we’re seeing expressed by the new administration and many in the country, I’m hopeful that we’re ready to embark on a new path of reflection and openness to other nations and cultures and to the many parts of our own society we’ve too long allowed to be overlooked.  I wonder if many of you share my view? I wish you a good 2009 and look forward to working together with many of you to make Kavita’s resolutions our new reality.  I’d also welcome hearing your thoughts on Kavita’s priorities. This post is part of a forum

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