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the Women's International Perspective

The International Violence Against Women Act: What Are We Waiting For?

Patricia T. Morris

“After the abuse I suffered during the genocide in 1994, I was 16 years old, hopeless and traumatized,” says Marie Chantal Nimugire of Kigali, Rwanda. “I asked God, ‘Why was I left?’ And because God rescued my life, I had a choice: to become a survivor, not a killer or a victim. My choice was not to wait for a man to rescue me, but to accept responsibility for myself and other women.”

According to the United Nations at least one in three women and girls around the world is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime and some four million women and girls are trafficked annually into forced marriage, prostitution, or slavery. At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be alive are missing, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide, or neglect. According to the World Health Organization, between 10-52% of women report having been assaulted by an intimate partner. The UNFPA estimates that 130 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital cutting (FGC) and at least 2 million girls every year - nearly 6,000 per day - are at risk of undergoing FGC. Despite increased public awareness and two recent UN Security Council Resolutions (1820 and 1888), rape is increasingly used as a weapon of war in armed conflicts. The UN reports that during the Rwanda genocide between 200,000 and 500,000 women were raped, and in Bosnia during the conflict there between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped.

Violence against women is a global pandemic and the facts are staggering. Though the United States has an important vehicle to combat it - the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) - the Act lies dormant. I-VAWA was introduced in the US Congress in 2007, but never came to a vote before Congress adjourned. It was re-introduced in 2008, but has not been introduced in 2009, although a strong coalition of organizations has circulated petitions.

Women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are leading the global movement to end violence and rebuild their lives in ways that promote sustainable peace and security for all. I have witnessed firsthand women’s resilience in the face of horrific acts of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. My organization, Peace X Peace, highlights stories and solutions to this global pandemic from women like Suraya Pakzad, whose organization, Voice of Women, provides advocacy, counseling, protection, and opportunities for Afghan women and girls.

“Girls who run away from domestic violence, from forced marriages, from too-early and abusive marriages are placed in correctional centers,” she explains. “Recently, two girls were raped in one of these places by the head of the center, the person who is supposed to be protecting them. Within two weeks we have had four rapes in this place involving a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 14-year-old girl.”

Despite receiving numerous death threats from the Taliban for her work defending women, Suraya remains undaunted. She continues to raise awareness, sensitizing both the police and communities to violence against women and girls.

The truth is, until the violence ends everywhere, women are not safe anywhere. The US Congress has an opportunity now to add its voice, its leadership, and America’s resources to the global effort to end violence against women. Here are some things the US Congress can and should do:

• Support survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent the violence.

• Establish one central State Department Office for Global Women’s Issues to coordinate US policies, programs, and resources that deal with women’s issues.

• Establish an office of Women's Global Development in the US Agency for International Development to integrate gender equality into all policies, programs, and activities of the Agency.

• Create a five-year strategy to fight violence against women in 10-20 selected countries.

• Authorize $175 million to incorporate best practices on addressing violence against women into programs that prevent violence, encourage legal reform and changes in public attitudes, promote access to economic opportunity projects and safe schools, and support healthcare.

• Enable the US government to develop a faster and more efficient response to violence against women in humanitarian emergencies and conflict-related situations and require training and reporting mechanisms for humanitarian workers and other workers.

• Enhance the capacity of the US government to develop emergency measures to respond to mass rape, including direct services to victims and holding perpetrators accountable.

• Build the effectiveness of overseas non-governmental organizations―particularly women’s nongovernmental organizations―in addressing violence against women.

The good news is all these actions are included in I-VAWA. Some say the bill has not yet passed because the legislative process takes time. On October 1, 2009 the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held the first ever hearing on the global costs and consequences of violence against women. Senator John Kerry announced his plan to introduce the bill in his opening statement.

Last summer at the height of the recent unrest in Zimbabwe, Peace X Peace members there sent this dispatch: “Yesterday, the wife of a man running for mayor was abducted with her 4-year-old son and beaten to death in front of the child. Two days ago, a woman activist was forced to go to a meeting orchestrated by the government, was taken to a side room and beaten severely on the back from shoulders to bum. She is now in the hospital and is expected to recover.” Our sisters in Zimbabwe say people there need two things: an end to the violence and the support of US lawmakers to make it a reality.

After four years of extensive review―unquestionably showing that violence against women is a pervasive problem in the US―the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994 with provisions dedicated to preventing sexual and domestic violence here at home. There can be no legislative act more honorable than enshrining in law the responsibility to protect the world’s women from the inhuman horrors of sexual and gender based violence.

Do women around the world have to wait four more years for what needs to be done now? Let’s tell our elected representatives that this is unacceptable.

Survivor Marie Chantal Nimugire’s experiences have led her to the same conclusion. “We all have to take responsibility for each other. Women are the heart of the family, and the heart of the nation.”

The evidence is in: Every victim and every survivor is a daughter, mother, sister, cousin, or best friend. Every victim, every traumatized survivor is one too many. What are we waiting for?

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Patricia T. Morris, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Peace X Peace and an internationally known leader in women's rights and development. She has also designed and directed programs for women survivors of conflict and war in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe at Women for Women International. Earlier, she served as Deputy Director of the Commission on the Advancement of Women at InterAction - a coalition of over 170 US-based relief and development organizations - where she developed and refined the InterAction Gender Audit that is now used worldwide. She is the author of several gender mainstreaming publications including Gender in Disaster and Refugee Assistance and The Gender Audit Handbook. She is the editor of Stories of Equitable Development: Innovative Practices from Africa and Gender Mainstreaming in Action: Successful Innovations from Asia and the Pacific. Dr. Morris holds a Ph.D. in International Politics from Florida State University, an MA in Comparative Politics with an emphasis on Economic Development from Bowling Green State University, and a BA in International Affairs from Jacksonville University.

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