There I sat, five hours after leaving home, sunburned and wind chapped. I was hungry and thirsty and had spoken about engineering and women’s rights and weddings and which city in South Africa was the best. I had travelled thousands of kilometres the day before, and despite the anticipated excitement, at that moment I just wanted to get back to the love of my life who was sharing nine of our forty hours together this month with this event. But, as it is when your heart and imagination are so desperate for a political leader that can inspire, as soon as Barack Obama walked in I was in awe. I felt hope.
He is a man that walks onto the stage with confidence, and at the same time seems to invite you to challenge him. His body language says “I’m doing a great job, but dare me to do better and I’ll accept the challenge”. He is a leader that speaks with such obvious love and affection for his family that it is heart-warming. He makes you imagine dinner conversations around the table that are heated and passionate and aimed at making a better man and president out of him. He has the privilege of being surrounded by three strong women before he has even left the house.
He spoke with compassion and kindness of Mandela, with pride in the economy in America (he is obviously a big Apple fan), with honesty about ending wars and the damaging impact of colonialism. The questions people asked gave him the opportunity to appear as though he had things under control. I was glad that the last question focused on something a bit more difficult — the US’s environmental policy.
We know the US has a poor track record environmentally — a perfect example of how legislation protecting the environment is not nearly as good as not polluting it in the first place. Recently Obama has changed his tune, saying he’d stop dangerous and environmentally disastrous projects like the Keystone pipeline if they showed the environmental impact would be negative.
In South Africa, the Constitution provides the right for all of us to live in an environment that is not bad for our health. Yet we see so often that environmental impact assessments just make sure that companies meet the bare minimum rather than actively going out of their way to protect the land and environment that belongs to all of us. I hope that when President Obama evaluates the impact of Keystone on the environment, he does so in broad strokes, not in a narrowly defined minimum norms and standards type of way. I think the question should be simple — will the innately valuable biodiversity, beauty, and sanctity of the land be improved by Keystone? As someone who grew up in Hawaai, I know he knows the answer to this question in his heart.
As a feminist South African, I know that the environment I live in affects women’s lives most tangibly. I know that times of scarcity will surely follow if we do not address climate change (something Obama readily admits is the biggest environmental challenge we have ever faced in history) and that in times of scarcity violence against women escalates. I have hope that Obama will begin to lead the world in making the right decisions about the environment — I hope too that the South African government will also evaluate the real impact on its people of treating the planet as something expendable in the path to economic growth.
If I had been given the chance I would have asked something even closer to home. I wanted to ask how as president, he would ensure that the rollback of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in the US came to a stop so that when Malia and Sasha are grown up, they will know that they have a right to make decisions about their own sexual health. But this question of course impacts many women around the world who are dependent on US aid in order to access these rights in their own countries. If the anti-abortion movement in the US gains strength, how will it affect the conditions of our own sexual rights?
We all know that abstinence-only programmes are a slap in the face to many women who cannot negotiate safe sexual interactions because of a patriarchal system that says men have a right to have sex, or because they face physical and sexual violence when they refuse a partner’s sexual advances. We know that most men who will ever go on to rape do so for the first time in their teens, and that as much as 30% of all girls at school have already been the victim of sexual violence. We know that early pregnancy has a profound impact on young girls’ lives — they are more likely to be stigmatised by the education system than supported by it, less likely to complete schooling and further qualifications that can allow them to succeed, escape poverty, or exit violent relationships. Nobody is advocating for abortion as contraception — what feminists and sexual and reproductive health-rights activists are saying is that women are best placed to gage their readiness and ability to raise a child, and that they deserve the right to make decisions about their own bodies. How does he feel knowing that when he leaves office, Sasha and Malia may have fewer sexual rights than when he went in?
I don’t doubt that Obama is a good man — perhaps that’s naive, but he is a man that inspires hope. I believe that he wants the best for his daughters — that he feels delighted that they are strong-willed. I believe that he is aware that women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are something that makes democracy stronger. I hope that when or if he gets the chance to make decisions about how best to consider these rights, he makes the decision to advance them rather than restrict them. Because, President Obama, it is your responsibility as a father and a leader to make sure women are supported.
I may never get the opportunity to ask that question, but I hope that it is one that he has asked himself.