President Obama Continues Tradition of Upholding Women’s Health and Rights in Cairo

In 1994, Cairo was the site of an unprecedented commitment by 179 governments to place women’s rights and access to reproductive health at the center of population policy.

And early yesterday, Cairo provided the backdrop for an impassioned call to world leaders to uphold the human rights of women everywhere. 

 What’s that you say? That I must be talking about President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, but that you’re pretty sure women’s rights took up only a few minutes of his 55-minute-long speech (and you were timing it)? That you didn’t hear him mention the term “sexual health” once (and you were listening for it)? That, as a matter of fact, you’re pretty sure the speech that YOU heard President Obama give in Cairo this morning was about relations with and among the Muslim world?

Well, it was- in part. But for all the attention Obama’s speech is getting for its frank discussion of Mideast issues, some of the main principles he emphasized- and their direct complement to the issues and rhetoric of the ongoing international women’s health and rights movement- are flying under the radar.

Probably some of the most effective moments of Obama’s speech- and there were many of them- came when he actively affirmed the humanity of the subjects of his speech, whether by acknowledging their sometimes marginalized experience, as he did when he mentioned the “daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation” for Palestinians, and when he explicitly described the 9/11 victims as “innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody.”

Well, this humanizing rhetoric was just as effective for an equally important issue- investment in women’s health and rights.

“Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential,”  Obama declared.

Obama’s explicit statement advocating for investment in women’s development is a nuanced point, and not one we should take for granted. The idea that all of humanity benefits from investment in the world’s girls and women often seems obvious, but this idea should have tangible implications for actions to be taken on behalf of women and girls that are too often left undone. Child marriage, access to education, and lack of attention to  sexual and reproductive rights and health threaten the health and well being of women everywhere. By extension of Obama’s logic, these phenomena threaten the very health and well being of humanity.

President Obama is not the first to stand in Egypt’s ancient capital to affirm the rigths of women worldwide. Fifteen years ago, IWHC stood strong with women’s rights organizations and governments for women’s rights at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to produce a Programme of Action recognizing that women’s empowerment is key to global development and prosperity.  

 But for now, let’s seize this opportunity to once again highlight Obama’s affirmation of the humanity of women and girls. Let’s follow through on the implications of his logic and never forget that investing in women and girls means investing in the future of all humanity. The symbolism of the site of President Obama’s speech yesterday in Cairo 15 years after the ground-breaking ICPD is not lost on me: Is it lost on you?



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