Will fourth time be the charm for a piece of legislation seeking to eradicate violence against the estimated one-third of women suffering from abuse worldwide?
On Thursday, the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) is set to be reintroduced to the House by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat representing Illinois’s 9th district. Since being introduced by Senator Joe Biden in 2007, the act has been through numerous reintroductions in four different Congresses, but advocates hope this year will be the one it makes it into the books.
I-VAWA would make preventative measures against gender-based violence a permanent addition to U.S. foreign policy. It would also seek to solidify and uniform research and reporting standards; strengthen prevention and response to violence; and nurture effective local organizations offering programs and services to women in matters of health, law, education, and other issues.
This year, advocates believe that the galvanizing number of high-profile stories about violence against women in places like India and South Africa—which have dominated the news cycle—and the recent, though embattled, passage of the domestic Violence Against Women Act might be key to finally pushing I-VAWA through. But they face a notoriously stubborn set of lawmakers.
“It’s a Republican-held Congress and they’re dead set on shooting down anything we introduce,” says Sabrina Singh, the Congresswoman’s communications director. (UPDATE: As of Thursday morning, two Republican congressmen from New York have signed on in support of the bill, and Singh says she's hopeful the bipartisan support will aid its passage.) It’s the second time Rep. Schakowsky has taken the International Violence Against Women Act to the floor of the House, and it’s an issue she’s thrown herself into after an eye-opening trip to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo two years ago. (In the Senate, the act will be introduced by California Senator Barbara Boxer in the near future.)
But the members of Congress aren't the only roadblock. A difficult hurdle will be the misconception that the piece of legislation isn’t critical and it isn’t critical right this instant, says Cristina Finch, head of women’s human rights at Amnesty International USA, an organization supporting the act. But advocates say the sooner the better. Even after the brutal gang rape that led to the death of a young medical student in India last December, horrific stories continue to emerge from across the globe. The urgency of this act, Finch says, is dire.
Under President Obama’s administration, the country has made strides against gender-based violence, including the “Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally” executive order—which formed a cross-section of government representatives to combat the issue—and the accompanying, “U.S Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally” in 2012. Along with that, the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department as well as the position of the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues were created in 2009 under the guidance of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
These are positive steps, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be there under future administrations, says Esta Soler, president and founder of one of the legislation’s key partners, Futures Without Violence.
Under I-VAWA, both the ambassadorship and the State Department office would become permanent, and the act would implement Obama’s strategy in five at-need countries—factors which are paramount, Soler says. Gender-based programs would also be implemented in the U.S. foreign assistance programs. The key components of the legislation, according to Soler, target local organizations on the ground dealing with gender-based violence, and engage men and boys to do their part in ending violence. “It’s not all about, 'Let’s find bad folks and do something about it after something bad has happened,'” she says. The proven positive domino effect of investing in girls and women would make other U.S. foreign policy goals, like fostering economic and civil society development, easier, Soler says.
“Getting any piece of legislation through Congress is a long road,” Finch says. Neither woman expects it to go to a vote immediately, especially not with the upcoming holidays. In the meantime, they’ll be pushing a letter-writing campaign in the hopes of showing Congress that constituents are in support of the act.
Problems plagued the domestic Violence Against Women Act after the House allowed it to expire earlier this year. But Finch says “their reputation suffered in how long it took them to act” after the the mounted pressure for Congress to finally re-approve the legislation. “We would look to that and say: the people of the United States care deeply against violence against women and any delay in passing this bill is very unwarranted.”
“When we see something wrong, as a nation, when we see the horrific violence affecting women, we can’t just stand by,” says Soler. She later adds: “It’s time we said these are things the government needs to do.”