While Wednesday’s line in Washington befitted a movie premiere, with hundreds of well-dressed young people waiting to see an Academy Award-winning star, it turns out that ugly things can come in glamorous packages. The crowd—mainly Capitol Hill interns—had come to see Nicole Kidman deploy her celebrity to highlight the issue of violence against women.
Kidman testified before Congress as a United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) goodwill ambassador. "I am here just to be a voice,” she said. “I rely on the people I've met to make the case."
So does Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who held up a soft, baby-blue garment for everyone to see at a meeting earlier in the day. It was a burka she had found in Afghanistan on a trip there two weeks ago. Fingering the mesh netting that allows a woman wearing a burka to see, she looked grim. “This is their view of the world.”
"I am here just to be a voice,” Kidman said. “I rely on the people I've met to make the case."
Schakowsky, along with her colleagues Representatives Nita Lowey and Donna Edwards, were hosting reporters for breakfast to drum up attention for a piece of legislation called the International Violence Against Women Act. If enacted, the U.S. government would create a five-year strategy to reduce violence against women in 10 to 20 countries, using more than $1 billion in aid to support the plan. It would also create positions at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development focused on integrating violence prevention programs throughout U.S. foreign aid.
At a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Schakowsky, along with Kidman and several other advocates, recited a litany of stories to demonstrate the need for this effort: Barbara from Mexico who suffered from police abuse, Aisha from Darfur who was raped and beaten in her refugee camp, Lumo in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was attacked and raped by over 50 soldiers. Human trafficking, child marriage, and numerous other abuses peppered their statements.
The sickening stories underscore that the issue of violence against women is an undercurrent in every major foreign policy issue of the day: In Iran, women protestors were beaten and one, Neda Agha-Soltan, became an international symbol after she was murdered. In African conflicts, from the genocide in Darfur to civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea, rape is used as weapon, leading the commander of a U.N. peacekeeping force to opine, "It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict." Perhaps the strongest example is that of Afghanistan, where the rights of women began as a major justification for war. This trend, advocates for I-VAWA suggest, is no coincidence.
“Where women are oppressed, government is weak and extremism is likely to take hold,” Ambassador Melanne Verveer, head of the newly-created State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues, said in her testimony. Other studies were cited showing that economic development suffers where women are in danger and lack education, as do efforts to fight the spread of HIV/AIDs. Message: This isn’t just a problem for women, it’s a problem for the world.
I-VAWA has garnered bi-partisan support—a far cry from the days when Senator Jesse Helms had female lawmakers escorted out of a hearing on international women’s rights by police officers, telling them to “act like ladies.” But the bill’s introduction has been delayed for a few weeks because of concerns over funding; during an economic crisis and a record deficit, foreign aid bears the brunt of cuts, despite the fact that it makes up a very small percentage of the budget. Conversations are on-going between the sponsors in the House and those in the Senate, led by John Kerry, on how to flesh out the funding mechanisms, including plans to start small and scale up the program.
For now, the coalition is celebrating the momentum they’ve garnered. One young staffer at a global women’s organization credited Kidman’s presence with attracting more attention than the coalition had seen in a long time. Even the genial Boston-Irish Congressman Bill Delahunt, the lead sponsor of the bill in the House, seemed disappointed when the actress’ schedule didn’t allow her to attend the post-hearing press conference.
“I’m here substituting for Nicole Kidman,” he announced to groans and laughter. “I thought that’d be the response I’d receive.”
Get Involved: Nicole Kidman works with the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
Tim Fernholz is a writing fellow at The American Prospect. He has also written for The New Republic, The Nation, The Guardian, American Lawyer, and the Washington City Paper. He has been a commenter on MSNBC and C-SPAN.