Tara D. Sonenshine

Tara Sonenshine was Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from April 2012 to July 2013, a task that included outreach to women and girls on behalf of the U.S. government. She is currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC.

My mother was a working mom back when that was unusual, but she was even more than that. She was a criminal lawyer with a PhD, and she worked for the Legal Aid Society of New York. Thanks to her, I grew up thinking a lifetime commitment to equality and justice was normal, along with public service, giving back, being outspoken and determined, and breaking glass ceilings. For me, that was just what women did.

Reproductive rights, health rights, women’s rights and human rights should be woven together into one seamless fabric of U.S. diplomatic efforts and international policy as the basis upon which we make the case for inclusive democracies.

But I am constantly reminded, in working around the world, that there is a gap between what women “are” and what women “ought to be.” In my work at the U.S. State Department I often visited countries where the talents of women–half the talents of the population– remain untapped and glass ceilings remain unshattered. And even in my own country, there is still progress to be made in the struggle for equality and justice, and in fostering a sense of public service.

Women and girls must remain a key focus of our national and international policy. Women are the barometer, and the building blocks of strong economies, functioning democracies and stable countries. They hold keys to peace and prosperity—if they have the rights and power to use their talents. It is why, as a leader in the world, we have to fight so hard for inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.

Women must be decision-makers–especially when it comes to their reproductive health care and rights. More than 222 million women worldwide now lack access to any modern contraceptives. This is unacceptable and undeniably an issue with resonance not just for some people but for all of us who care about a just world.

It is tempting to cordon off reproductive rights and health care issues for women as if they are distinct from basic human rights, much as we did for years with civil rights for gays and lesbians. But these are not corners of people’s lives, or separate “soft” issues that can be placed in a box; they are the center lanes of human existence, the main road to a nation’s prosperity and stability. When women can decide for themselves their sexual options and the timing and number of their children, they can be fully engaged in their societies with options for their lives beyond motherhood. They can begin to gather strength to fight those persistent glass ceilings.

For example, 38,000 girls under 18 become child brides every day, as laws against the practice routinely go unenforced. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 in developing countries – most of whom are married. With access to reproductive health care and family planning, child brides can postpone the pregnancies that usually take them out of school. They can avoid HIV infections their older and more experienced husbands may bring home; they can learn of their rights and be trained for productive livelihoods. Their countries retain their earning and creative potential.

We need role models for young girls in health care, political participation and activism. We need women in office to fight for women who are not in office. We need women in parliaments to pass laws that protect women not in parliaments. We need women religious leaders to ensure that religious texts are not distorted to deny women their rights.

The most basic of those rights – and key to the others – is a woman’s right to decide on her own reproductive life. Respect for a woman’s reproductive autonomy is akin to respect for the right to vote, or to run for political office, or to have children. It is a human rights issue.

Women are fighting now worldwide in the trenches of pushback, hostility and institutionalized repression. The Arab Spring is a good illustration. These citizen uprisings are not commonly associated with reproductive rights or health issues, only with political and economic freedom. But women’s freedom is also at stake – the freedom to take part in public life, to make decisions about their own lives and to be free from fear of assaults and rapes that go unpunished. Women are needed in those budding governments’ decision-making circles, but until women have the control over their reproductive lives that gives them power to change these attitudes, they will rarely attain influential positions in those circles.

America must keep talking about women and their rights in every aspect of our diplomatic and international relations, because when we do not, governments and economies backslide. If we sideline women as having no stake in the outcome, what follows are failed expectations, violence and the old habits of suppression – of men and women alike.

Reproductive rights, health rights, women’s rights and human rights should be woven together into one seamless fabric of U.S. diplomatic efforts and international policy as the basis upon which we make the case for inclusive democracies. My mother would understand the connection without a second thought. It is time everyone else did too.