Legislative Insanity

07.26.134:45 AM ET

Protecting Our Sisters In Tahrir

Why does Congress keep quashing the International Violence Against Women Act?

You’ve seen the statistics—and they’re terrifying.

Thirty-five percent of women worldwide will experience some form of physical or sexual violence, according to a World Health Organization study released last month.

“Violence against women is one of the world’s most pervasive human rights abuses. The WHO statistic is one in three women globally will be beaten, raped, or coerced into sex in their lifetime, and we know that rates reach 70 percent in some countries. Frankly, I think the one in three is a gross understatement based on the work that I do on this issue,” says Cristina Finch, managing director for the women’s human rights program at Amnesty International USA.

In Egypt, 173 cases of mob sexual assaults were reported from June 30-July 9 during the Tahrir Square protests, resulting in only one arrest. Forty-six cases were reported on June 30 alone. In Jordan, Syrian refugees force their 13-year-old daughters to get married because of the constant fear of rape, which is “worse than death.” Syrian refugees in Lebanon—three-quarters of whom are women and children—aren’t faring any better: Living in constant fear of rape and with no options for earning money, women have turned to prostitution as “survival sex.” 

Governments are slow to respond—if they respond at all. Addressing sexual violence in Egypt and Syria has been largely absent at the policy level, writes Peter Blair at The Huffington Post. Not a peep has been heard from British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the topic. President Obama merely chided former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about the recurring violence while on a phone call before Morsi was ousted, according to Blair.

And in Egypt, laws against sexual harassment are not enforced, according to Janet Abdel Aleem of Fouada Watch, an activist group that distributes large darning needles to females for protection.

“The problem is, there’s no law against this. People know if they go into the square and touch women, they will not be punished,” Aleem says. “Also, us women are blamed for being harassed. We shouldn’t blame women for this.”

Since governments seem to be turning a blind eye to these situations, can anything be done at a policy level to stop this?

An answer may lie with the International Violence Against Women Act.

I-VAWA is set to be reintroduced before August 2, when the next congressional recess begins, or first thing in September, according to a representative from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s office who requested to not be named. Schakowsky, a Democrat who represents Illinois’s 9th district, is working on the bill’s finishing touches with California Senator Barbara Boxer.

“All women deserve to live a life free from violence, intimidation and fear, but violence against women is not just a women’s issue. It is a family issue, an economic security issue and a global issue. ... According to the United Nations, among women aged 15-44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined,” Schakowsky said in a statement.

I-VAWA—not to be confused with the U.S.’s similarly named Violence Against Women Act— “makes preventing gender-based violence a U.S. diplomatic priority,” according to Finch.

Among other initiatives, the bill would place gender-based violence protections at the forefront of U.S. foreign assistance programs, whether they are for education, women’s health, or HIV/AIDS, Finch says—a first for the United States. If passed, I-VAWA would implement a five-year strategy to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, headed by the Office for Global Women’s Issues and USAID’s Office for Women’s Global Development. 

A key part to I-VAWA’s implementation deals with training, because aid workers and governmental organizations already on the ground in areas of conflict cannot recognize certain gender-specific problems unless they are properly trained. Finch gave an example of a girl in Nicaragua who was raped by her father for years and prevented from attending school. Under I-VAWA, people in foreign education aid programs would be trained to look at why a girl is not enrolling in school.

I-VAWA’s focus would be on five countries initially, then would gradually expand based on what practices are working best, Finch says.

I-VAWA has been introduced to Congress numerous times, but never passed. It traces its origins way back to 2007, when then-Senator Joe Biden introduced it in the Senate. Components of the bill included allocation of $200 million in foreign assistance to support international programs and creation of one central office for global women’s issues. The bill was again introduced in the 110th, 111th (when it was sponsored by then-Senator John Kerry), and 112th Congress, but never made it up for a vote.

Rep. Schakowsky’s office said it faced hurdles in the last Congress because Republicans pulled support for the bill after abortion restrictions were not put into it. At a press conference on June 7, 2012, Schakowsky expressed her disappointment for the result. “My bill is not about abortion,” she said. “That is why I am extremely disappointed that, after over a year of negotiations with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, House Republicans refused to support I-VAWA unless it included the Global Gag Rule or other extremely restrictive abortion restrictions. I hope they will reconsider that position.”

Last August, Obama released a gender-based violence strategy that is the centerpiece to I-VAWA. It’s the U.S.’s first-ever global strategy of its kind, and one of its goals is to better integrate violence prevention into existing government programs.

“We’ve got the strategy in place, but what we need to do now is codify the strategy,” Finch says. It’s also why initiators of the bill—including Futures Without Violence, Women Thrive Worldwide, and Amnesty International USA, plus more than 150 groups of NGOs, U.N. agencies and 40 women’s groups—are crossing their fingers that now is finally the time for approval.

So why should the U.S. care about enforcing women’s protections on a global scale? Because it just makes sense, Finch says. Foreign aid programs make up only roughly one percent of the entire U.S. budget, she says, and components of I-VAWA would be implemented into these existing programs. In fact, I-VAWA’s strategy would make these programs even more effective, Finch argues, because protecting women’s rights is linked to the U.S.’s national interests.

“I-VAWA will make gender-based violence prevention a permanent U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy priority. This is not only the right thing for the US to do—it's the smart thing to do. Violence against women destabilizes countries and impedes economic progress, all of which has a global ripple effect,” Finch says.