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A New Era for Global Women’s Rights?

The United Nations and the U.S. Senate are starting to move toward doing something about gender-based violence abroad, but will they follow through?

Nick Kristoff and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn wrote in the New York Times Magazine in August that “in India, a ‘bride burning’ takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry.” Practices like bride burning and “honor” killings, in which families kill their daughters for real or perceived acts of immorality (the United Nations estimates there are five thousand a year), are common in cultures where women are often regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls around the world have been kidnapped and enslaved in brothels.

The Times magazine article reflected that, “traditionally, the status of women was seen as a “soft” issue—worthy, but marginal …. Journalists preferred to focus instead on the ‘serious’ international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation.” Not anymore.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate held a landmark hearing addressing the brutal epidemic of global women’s rights violations. An audience filled the chamber in the Dirksen Senate building and many attendees were only able to stand, thanks in part to the diligent organizing efforts of global human rights groups like Amnesty International. Advocacy organizations avidly supported this momentous event, in which members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, including Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), re-examined the proposal for an International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA).

The proposed legislation would begin to curb the global scourge of gender-based violence using our aid programs and international influence. A summary by Amnesty International [PDF] shows that IVAWA would increase aid money to foreign organizations that work to eradicate gender violence and the cultural conditions that foster it. It would also direct our military to offer strategies and education to forces in afflicted countries to help them protect women’s status and safety. Additionally, it would work to support women’s economic independence, highlighting the fact that financial autonomy is a key component in personal empowerment.

The hearing came just one day after the United Nations Security Council, under the leadership of Chairwomen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, passed a unanimous resolution to end gender-based violence as a weapon of war. Such efforts may mean that developed nations are finally taking notice of the atrocious worldwide trend of violence against women. The hearing, along with the UN resolution and the new administration’s creation of the Office of Global Women’s Initiatives and the Office of Global Women’s Development, hopefully portends a shift in thinking about the prioritization of women’s rights. It is just heartbreaking and unbelievable that it has taken this long.

Most people have heard about the sex trafficking and the rapes of women and girls that occur in impoverished and conflict-ravaged nations, but these issues get insufficient media coverage. Other common types of violent crimes against women, such as such as acid attacks and infanticide, are reported in mainstream media even less.

The truth about violence targeted at women is brutally unpublicized, especially in the developed countries that have the most potential influence in stopping it. Citizens in Westernized countries often don’t realize that for so many women and girls around the world, every single day is a living hell.

During the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the testimony of Melanne Verveer [PDF], ambassador-at-large for the new Office of Global Women’s Issues, revealed that an average of 36 women are raped each day in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. Rape is widely used as a weapon of war in conflict-ravaged countries across Africa and Asia, further devastating individual women as well as the social and moral fabric of their communities. Women in several countries have to contend with child and forced marriages, the ostracism of widows and sick women, genital mutilation, and a slew of other practices.

As Verveer highlighted, the global status of women is undeniably interwoven with our struggle for international peace and stability.

The scale and the scope of the problem make it simultaneously one of the largest and most entrenched humanitarian and development issues before us; they also make it a security issue. When women are attacked as part of a deliberate and coordinated strategy, as they are in Sudan, the DRC, and Burma, and as they have been in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere around the world, the glue that holds together communities dissolves. Large populations become not only displaced, but destabilized. Around the world, the places that are the most dangerous for women also pose the greatest threats to international peace and security. The correlation is clear: where women are oppressed, governance is weak and terrorists are more likely to take hold. As Secretary [Clinton] has said, you cannot have vibrant civil societies if half the population is left behind. Women’s participation is a prerequisite for good governance, for rule of law, and for economic prosperity…. [This violence] is every nation’s problem and it is the cause of mass destruction around the globe. We need a response that is commensurate with the seriousness of these crimes.

It is horrifying that it has taken us this long to give such suffering the attention it deserves. That is why Kerry must swiftly follow through on his promise to re-introduce the IVAWA, which was first introduced last year by then-Sen. Joe Biden (who also shepherded the domestic Violence Against Women Act through Congress) but never passed.

By holding this hearing, Kerry brought international gender-based violence into the public spotlight; but he did not really commit to a time frame to move forward with the IVAWA. Although the Senate has held a hearing on the bill, it could go nowhere without a push from the chairman.

Thankfully, other corners of government are beginning to be more vocal about this issue; as mentioned above, Clinton in particular has begun to focus heavily on eradicating worldwide violence against women. But without our support, this critical movement could lose momentum. Amnesty International has organized initiatives to raise awareness about the misery inflicted upon women and girls, but we must step up to pressure our leaders to take global responsibility seriously. After learning the extent of the brutal human rights violations committed against women every day, every hour, every minute, it is evident that this issue is too urgent and too widespread to wait any longer for a solution. IVAWA is the United States’ chance to have a real, effective impact on alleviating the suffering of hundreds of millions of women, and we cannot let that chance pass us by.

Carly Groff is an advocacy intern with Campus Progress.

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