Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

The Wrong Kind of American Exceptionalism (August 18, 2003)
"The Europeans are powerful enough to stand down the United States, but many other countries are not. They are left to fight lonely battles against a punitive American government that has already suspended military aid to several dozen countries."

Bush Close to Backing $1 Billion Loan to U.N. (August 11, 2003)
"U.N. headquarters was built for an organization of about 50 members. It now has 191 member nations. In some offices, there is barely room to push back a desk chair without hitting the next desk."

Equal Rights For Homosexuals Contentious at U.N. (August 6, 2003)
"Gay U.N. employees say that the organization not only will not recognize long-term relationships in providing benefits but also does not help a gay partner get a visa to accompany an employee to a new posting."

Ahead of Information Summit, U.N. Should Examine Itself (July 28, 2003)
"At headquarters, information specialists are constrained by the refusal of member nations to invest in bringing the United Nations fully into the age of electronic media."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | September 2, 2003
 
from U. N. Wire UNICEF in the Crosshairs

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—A couple of years ago, a conservative organization called the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute produced a very contentious report claiming that the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) was complicit in China's forced abortion policy. The report led directly to a White House decision in early 2002 to withhold the $34 million U.S. contribution to the fund that had already been appropriated by Congress. That a State Department investigative team went to China and decided the charges were unfounded didn't bother the Bush administration. The cut was made permanent, and efforts in Congress to restore some money this year were beaten back.

After succeeding in that campaign, the institute, which largely reflects Vatican policy, is now laying the groundwork for an attack on UNICEF. The agency, it argues in a new report— The United Nations Children's Fund: Women or Children First? has been taken over by radical feminists, led by Carol Bellamy, the executive director.

Let's not be ambiguous. For those of us who have watched UNICEF evolve to grapple with the ugly world of illiteracy, AIDS and abuse in which millions of children now live, this campaign against the agency is dangerous, intended to inflame and galvanize the lobby that opposes all abortions, preaches "abstinence-only" birth control and tries to block advances in women's rights at international conferences. That might not be much of a problem—since such thinking bucks world trends and modern development theory—were it not for the possibility that U.S. support for UNICEF could be put in jeopardy just as it was for the UNFPA.

UNICEF is arguably the best-known and most popular U.N. agency among Americans of all ages. It received more than $282 million from the United States last year in government and private money. Bellamy is herself American.

The threat is not hidden in this report, available in full on the institute's Web site, http://www.c-fam.org/. It concludes that "it will be necessary for donors, both individuals and nations, to demand changes at UNICEF. Donor nations, most especially the United States, must take a closer look at how their money is being spent by UNICEF." The report calls for "full investigations of the various, serious charges raised in this study."

There is no denying that under Bellamy—a former investment banker, politician, president of the New York City Council and later director of the Peace Corps—UNICEF has shifted gears and added a sharper edge to its image with reports on sexual abuse and other often taboo subjects. She has also joined with the heads of other U.N. agencies in advocating, for example, more help for refugee women who are sexually assaulted, including the provision of a "morning after" pill for rape victims.

While UNICEF still does monumental work in inoculating, feeding and otherwise caring for children's basic needs, it is also promoting children's rights and women's rights more insistently, arguing that without healthy, educated women, children will continue to suffer helplessly in the poorest nations on Earth. This has drawn criticism from several other quarters outside and inside the agency, where Bellamy's management style has not always been collegial, according to some staff members. Recently the British medical journal The Lancet published a series of articles on the growing number of preventable childhood deaths worldwide, which left the impression among some readers that UNICEF needs to redirect emphasis to its traditional mission of child survival.

Bellamy's appointment in 1995 by former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was itself surrounded by some controversy. Boutros-Ghali, seeking to fill the job after the death of the legendary James Grant, asked for female nominees. The Clinton administration nominated a man. The secretary general was on the verge of appointing a European woman when Washington suddenly produced five women's names, and Bellamy was chosen. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has praised her gutsy approach, reappointed her to a second five-year term in 2000.

Bellamy has said repeatedly that the world has changed, and so has thinking about why some countries seem predestined to fail. It is now accepted in most institutions, among them the World Bank and numerous private aid agencies, that without an improvement in women's lives, birth rates will continue to soar, children will not go to school, childhood disease will persist and younger and younger children, living in the most destructive poverty, will be vulnerable to abuses of all kinds, including slave labor and HIV-AIDS infection through forced sex. This is not conducive to either a healthier childhood or a stronger nation. Women with more schooling have fewer children.

In Cambodia, where I lived for part of this year, the police raided a Phnom Penh brothel in April and found girls as young as 5 to 10 years old. Such children, sometimes boys as well as girls, are victims of the myth that sex with a prepubescent child can prevent, or cure, AIDS. For millions of girls and boys like these in poor countries, there is no childhood.

The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, noting the appearance of frank and explicit educational materials about sex in UNICEF-supported programs around the world and a greater emphasis on the education of girls, who are least likely to go to school, worries that "UNICEF has moved beyond such simple, and universally acceptable, programs like the provision of iodized salt and immunizations." The report asks, "Are these new issues worthy of UNICEF?"

Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition in New York, an umbrella organization for women's health groups in the developing world, has an answer to that question. UNICEF's issues are new because there are new challenges. "What stuns me about this report is the utter lack of regard for women's reality and girls' reality, even to the extent of resenting UNICEF's effort to try to increase girls' access to schooling," she said in an interview.

"Increasingly what's been revealed is the extent to which young girls are exposed to sexual violence and coercion in any number of countries across sub-Saharan Africa and also South Asia," said Germain, a former Ford Foundation official in Bangladesh with long experience in South Asia as well as Africa and Latin America.

One form this coercion takes is child marriage, "where a girl is married off sometimes even before puberty and there is really no informed consent whatsoever," she said. "She goes into a household where she is totally controlled, knowing nothing about sexuality and certainly not about contraception, and being forced to produce as soon as possible, preferably a son. That whole dynamic affects millions of girls."

Often the death of an older husband turns the girl into family chattel to be given away to another male relative or sold into bonded labor or a brothel procurer. Many widowed or abandoned girls are just driven out to fend for themselves, possessing no property or skills.

"Another pattern is poverty, where either the parents sell the girl children into prostitution or girls themselves engage in transactional sex in order to get school fees or even the trinkets that they want, or a ride to school," Germain said. "In 1986 I first learned that at the universities in Nigeria, where it's really only the upper classes that go, the economy was in such a state that it had become a common practice for girls to have sugar daddies in order to get their tuition paid."

More than a decade of vicious civil ethnic conflict, where rape and other forms of sexual violence have become weapons of war, has added more tragedy to many overstressed, impoverished societies. "Everywhere you look, you see this," Germain said. She added that the World Health Organization now estimates that one out of every three women will experience physical and usually sexual violence in her lifetime. "This pervasive setting of coercion, of violence, of poverty leads men to prey on girls," she said.

When the UNFPA lost its $34 million in U.S. contributions last year, two women decided that the campaign to undercut the work of the United Nations in the third world in the name of an ill-informed moral posture had to be countered. The two, Lois Abraham, a lawyer from Arizona, and Jane Roberts, a French linguist and teacher in California, decided to find 34 million Americans willing to give $1 each. Within months, they had raised the first $1 million, and money is still coming in, though $34 million is still far away.

It's the thought that counts, said UNFPA head Thoraya Obaid. For her, it was comforting news that at the grassroots, Americans did care. UNICEF, with a large American support group, may find itself having to make the same point.


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.