At day two of the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to blame Hillary Clinton for the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in 2014 — when she was no longer secretary of state. He referred mockingly to Clinton as the “self-proclaimed champion of women around the world,” and added: “She fights for the wrong people.”
Clinton has been attacked on everything from her character to her clothes. But Christie’s chutzpah in trying to attack her record on helping women and children abroad was colossal. That record is unassailable and lengthy, and Clinton should put it on display this week in Philadelphia.
Win over younger women
The Democratic National Convention will naturally focus on her becoming the first female U.S. presidential candidate from a major party. But much of what is left for her to do is win over undecided, younger women. And if she wants Millennials who backed her rival Bernie Sanders to support her, she shouldn’t tell them to vote for her because she is a woman, but rather because of what she’s done for women.
It’s impressive. I know, because I’ve watched her try to help them.
In summer 2009, I accompanied Clinton as Bloomberg News’ diplomatic correspondent on a 12-day, seven-country swing through Africa where she negotiated trade deals, lectured dictators on corruption and sought to shine a spotlight on rape. She insisted on going to Goma, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where no secretary of state had ever been.
She toured the muddy Mugunga camp where women and children displaced by war were routinely assaulted as they fetched firewood in nearby groves. Clinton wondered why they couldn’t implement a buddy system as a form of protection. Just days before our arrival, an 8-year-old boy had been raped. And she met for two hours with women who had been brutalized, including one woman who had had her stomach ripped open with a razor blade in her eighth month of pregnancy, killing her baby.
This kind of encounter was not unusual for Clinton. As first lady, she traveled to a center in Thailand that cared for girls who had been sexually exploited. “There were several girls in very bad shape,” Melanne Verveer, then Clinton’s chief of staff who accompanied her on the trip, recalled to me recently. “I remember Hillary holding one of them in her arms. It was like seeing a cadaver. We weren’t back at the White House very long when I got a note that that young girl had died.”
Shortly after her Africa trip, Clinton flew to New York to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting that created a special representative of the secretary-general to combat sexual violence. People involved in the effort said it would never have passed without her.
A global policy issue
“The monitoring, analysis and reporting mechanism that followed after that resolution — every day it’s bringing up more and more information on the depth of the problem,” Zainab Hawa Bangura, the special representative, told me. “It’s giving opportunities for the issues to be addressed,” and has made it a “global policy issue. It’s no longer on the back burner.”
Pushing for mobile courts to try sexual assault cases and creating mechanisms to hold abusers accountable — the kind of in-the-weeds work she did as secretary of state — aren’t headline grabbers. And diplomatic wins, unlike military victories, are sometimes incremental and almost always virtually invisible to the general public.
That could explain in part why, even if Clinton beats Donald Trump in foreign affairs aptitude polls, she is struggling running as a former secretary of state, and why Bernie Sanders, along with Trump proxies like Christie, have been able to push a false narrative that she is bad for women.
A few days before the California primary last month, I asked a Stanford University student of mine why she thought so many women her age backed Sanders instead of Clinton. “Bernie’s feminism aligns more with young women’s feminism,” she told me. “Hillary’s seems outdated.”
Clinton, she added, is only “gunning for women like her.”
I told my student about Clinton’s interventions for girls in Congo and she wasn’t impressed. Clinton’s support for regime change in Iraq, she said, “actually caused a lot more problems for women.”
Persuading Sanders die-hards otherwise over the next few months won’t be easy. And Christie and other Trump surrogates are unlikely to stop their attacks, given how little accountability there is for unfounded accusations like the one regarding the Boko Haram kidnapping. (Christie said the kidnapping happened because she fought designating the group as a terrorist group. As the Washington Post reported, Nigeria and top State Department officials vigorously opposed the designation at the time and there’s no evidence Clinton personally “fought” to keep Boko Haram off the list.)
‘She has been a champion’
But Clinton doesn’t have to work hard to counter the narrative. Her domestic record on advocating for women and children — from fighting for children’s health care, advocating pay equity, and pushing legislation to expand women’s reproductive rights — is well documented. “Hillary Clinton spent a lifetime working to improve the lives of women and girls,” the National Organization for Women said when it endorsed her for president. “More than just a vote, she has been a champion.”
What’s less known to the American public is her record on helping the world’s most persecuted women and girls abroad.
Sharing that record won’t sway Trump supporters. And it may not persuade all Sanders’ backers to vote for her in November either. But at least women who heard Christie try to link her to Boko Haram kidnappings or who believe Sanders’ feminism better reflects their own, will know how much Clinton actually has done for a cause they believe in.
Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.