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Women's International Issues

Women's Rights as a General Principle and a Priority of US Policy

Support for the principle of gender equality has grown steadily over the last three decades and now comes from an overwhelming majority. An overwhelming majority agrees that women in the world's rich countries should work for the rights of women in developing countries. The public is cautious about the US applying direct pressure for more women's rights in Muslim countries.

Support for the principle of gender equality has grown steadily over the last three decades. We will not attempt to be comprehensive (as this would involve the review of much data on domestic issues), but will provide two examples. Beginning in 1972 and every two years subsequently (except 1986 and 2002), the National Election Studies have asked a question that was meant to determine the extent to which Americans support the principle of gender equality as opposed to a more traditional concept of a woman's role. The question was:

Recently there has been a lot of talk about women's rights. Some people feel that women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry and government. (Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1.) Others feel that a woman's place is in the home. (Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.) And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Where would you place YOURSELF on this scale, or haven't you thought much about this?

In 1972, 47% gave a rating in the 1-3 range, meaning that they favored gender equality to some degree, - while 29% gave a rating of 5-7, meaning that they believed to some extent that the woman's role was in the home. By 1978 the number favoring gender equality became a majority of 56%. By 1998 it had grown to 74%, with 54% giving the strongest possible response of 1. Only 8% believed a woman's role was in the home. By 2004, the number favoring gender equality had reached 80%, with 59% giving the strongest possible response of 1. Those who believed a woman's role was in the home had dropped to 6%, with only 2% giving the strongest possible response of 7. [link to NES]


In the Gallup International Millennium Survey 2000, conducted in September 1999:
- 93% rejected the idea that "Education is more important for boys than for girls."
- 76% rejected the idea that "On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do."
- 82% rejected the idea that "When jobs are scarce, men should have more rights to a job than women."
- 80% rejected the idea that "A woman needs to have children to be really fulfilled." [2]

Improving the Status and Rights of Women in the Developing World

Strong majorities feel that women of the developed countries should make concerted efforts to promote the rights of women in the developing world and that improving women's lives in other countries should be a priority.

In a poll conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Women in December 2002 and January 2003, 64% of respondents (only American women were polled) said improving women's lives in other parts of the world should be a "top priority," virtually unchanged from the 66% who gave the same answer in a poll two years earlier. Only 9% in the later poll said it should not be a priority. [3]

In the Gallup International Millennium Survey 2000, 73% (of the full sample) agreed that "Women in advanced countries must insist for the rights of women in the developing world." [4]

There is also strong support for making such a goal a priority in US policy, yet the public is divided when asked about whether the US should "use its influence" to improve conditions for women in other countries, considering that some countries have values about women that differ from US values.

The Center for the Advancement of Women's December 2002-January 2003 poll found that when asked if the US should use its influence to improve conditions for women in other countries, respondents (only American women were polled) were split - 47% said yes, while 46% said no. [5]

In a February 2000 poll by Belden, Russonello and Stewart, respondents were asked to rate a number of policy priorities for the next US president on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the very lowest priority and 10 being an extremely high priority. Asked about the goal of "helping women in other countries obtain basic human rights," the mean response was 6.47 with 21% giving it a priority of 10. [6]

Despite that most American women consider improving women's lives in other countries a priority, most do not devote a lot of attention to news stories about women's issues or rights in other countries. Seventy percent of the American women polled by the Center for the Advancement of Women in December 2002 and January 2003 said they pay a little, hardly any or no attention to news stories about women's issues or rights in other countries around the world. Thirty percent said they pay a lot of attention to such news items. [7]

In 1995, only about one-third of those polled followed the story of the UN conference held in Beijing on women's rights. According to a Times Mirror survey of October 1995, 34% said that they followed the story very (8%) or fairly (26%) closely, while 65% said they followed it not too closely (26%) or not at all closely (39%). [8]


Women's Rights in Islamic Countries

An issue of particular interest lately has been the rights of women in Muslim countries. According to poll results, a majority wants the US to support greater rights for Muslim women, and to press for change where it can, but not necessarily be too forceful in trying to impose its views on the Islamic world more generally.

For example, when asked in September 2005 whether the U.S. government should insist that a new Iraqi government provide equal rights for women, or encourage equal rights for women but leave it up to the Iraqis to decide, or not get involved in the issue, a plurality of 49% chose "Encourage equal rights for women, but leave it up to the Iraqis to decide." Only one-fifth (20%) of respondents chose "Insist that a new Iraqi government provide equal rights for women." More - 29% - chose the response that the US should "Not get involved in the issue." [9]

Men and women expressed nearly identical opinions on this question. Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to say the US should not get involved.

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, where the United States had a significant role in helping establish a new government, a modest majority (54%) said the US "should take active steps to make certain that the new government in Afghanistan gives women the same basic rights that men in that country have"; 43% preferred to "allow the new government in Afghanistan to make its own rules" about the rights of women (CNN/USA Today/Gallup, March 2002). [10]

Americans also strongly support using foreign aid dollars to strengthen women's rights in Islamic countries [see "Aid Programs for Women and Girls"]. However, when asked about Muslim countries in general, only 44% wanted the US to take active steps to ensure equal basic rights for women, while 54% felt the US "should not involve itself in Muslim countries' decisions about how to treat their people" (CNN/USA Today, Gallup, December 2001). [11]

It is important to note that while the public shows some caution in using the muscle of US policy to further women's rights in Islamic countries, an overwhelming majority supports directing foreign aid money toward this purpose (see "Aid Programs for Women and Girls").

Also, a strong majority (77%) said in a poll conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation in June 2005 that creating policies that support equal rights and better educational opportunities for women in Muslim countries would enhance U.S. security to some degree. [12]

A majority (54%) of respondents in a February 2002 survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research said there is "a great deal of truth" in this statement:

We need strong alliances and cooperation with other countries and we need to help improve literacy, health care and women's rights in many countries around the world. An effective war on terrorism requires all of those things. [13]

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Women's International Issues - August 2008 (PDF)