By Rekha Basu
Six months after Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, female survivors living in camps for the displaced fall prey to rapists. In India’s northern states, “honor killings” have seen an uptick. People are killed under edicts issued by religious councils as punishment for marrying outside their caste or religion, or within a kinship group. In Congo, where mass rapes of women occur in front of their children, there is no word for rape. It’s just called sex.
Atrocities against women are often carried out with impunity, either because they are legal or because they’re perpetrated in the name of culture or religion and approved by those who enforce the laws. For the most part, Americans have had to be helpless bystanders because there was no clear-cut role for us to play. We might join in an international letter-writing campaign when a brutal sentence is about to be carried out, such as recently with the planned stoning death of an Iranian woman for adultery. (It was called off, but a decision has yet to be made on her fate.)
So anyone who cares about women has reason to be excited about the International Violence Against Women Act (Senate Bill 2982, House Bill 4594), which creates a comprehensive strategy to help combat gender-based violence abroad. It would provide aid to governments and community-based organizations to develop health programs, survivor services and legal protections as well as to promote changes in attitudes and access to economic and educational opportunities for women and girls. There would be training assistance for foreign military and police forces.
Introduced in February, the act has bipartisan sponsorship by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Representatives Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
The act would appropriate $10 million a year for five years to create an office for global women’s issues within the State Department and an office of global women’s development within the U.S. Agency for International Development. They would collaborate with other agencies to evaluate and monitor women’s empowerment programs and integrate gender into foreign aid policies. Between five and 20 developing countries that receive U.S. aid and have high levels of violence against women and girls would be identified for help.
But what if a government were unwilling to address the issue? According to Ritu Sharma, president of the nongovernmental organization Women Thrive Worldwide, it would see diplomatic pressure and would be included as a violator in annual human rights reports. Local organizations could get funding, even if banned by their governments.
Women Thrive developed the legislation along with Amnesty International USA and the Family Violence Prevention Fund after surveying 40 women’s organizations worldwide. The act doesn’t use economic sanctions because some foreign aid is critical to people’s survival. I asked Sharma how our government avoids appearing to meddle in the internal affairs of other peoples. She stresses we would act as a facilitator, supporting local movements rather than calling the shots: “We identify best practices and help them link to each other.”
With Congress scheduled to recess soon, supporters are urging people to contact their representatives and press for a vote. The fact that sponsors range from the liberal Boxer to Poe, a pro-life Republican, shows just how critical a need the act fills. Congress should make swift passage a priority.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
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