By Elayne Clift, Womens Feature Service
Ever since her impassioned speech at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton has been recognised as an advocate for women worldwide. Now, as U.S. Secretary of State, she can do more than speak out. So at a United Nations Security Council meeting she chaired a few months ago, Secretary Clinton introduced a resolution to provide greater protection to women in conflict zones. The resolution was a pointed response to increasing sexual and physical violence against women, and a call to action for UN powerbrokers as war and conflict continue to take their toll on women around the world.
Clinton’s resolution preceded by a day hearings on violence against women convened by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October. The hearing was called in support of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), first introduced in the Senate in 2007 by then-Democratic Senator Joe Biden (now U.S. Vice President) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana). Presented in the House of Representatives last year, the Act will be re-introduced in the Senate this year by Senators Lugar and John Kerry (D-Mass.). The legislation calls for the U.S. government to develop and implement a strategy to reduce violence against women and girls in countries where it is most severe.
According to Amnesty International USA’s ‘Stop Violence Against Women Campaign’, violence and abuse, including beatings and rape, affect an estimated one of every three women worldwide. “Violence is a fact of life for millions of women,” says Meredith Larson, the campaign’s director. “It causes horrific suffering and leads to dire economic consequences in societies around the world as women struggle to provide for their families under painful and difficult circumstances.”
Larson and other advocates were encouraged by the unprecedented appointment of a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large on Global Women’s Issues at the State Department last March. In her testimony at the October Senate hearing, Ambassador Melanne Verveer noted, “The momentum is building for us to be able to make a clear and concrete difference in the lives of women and girls who are affected by gender-based violence or who are at risk of violence. … Violence against women cannot be relegated to the margins of foreign policy. It cannot be treated solely as a ‘women’s issue,’ as something that can wait until ‘more pressing’ issues are solved. The scale and scope of the problem make it simultaneously one of the largest and most entrenched humanitarian and development issues before us.”
The International Violence Against Women Act is a serious and unprecedented commitment by the U.S. government to address, and ultimately end, violence against women and girls globally. It represents a comprehensive first-time effort by the U.S. to apply substantial financial resources to the problem. The IVAWA directs the U.S. government to create a fully developed five-year strategy to reduce violence in ten to twenty diverse countries that have severe levels of violence against women and girls. More than $1 billion has been allocated to this priority.
The Act creates two high-level positions, one at the State Department and one at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – that will be headed by Indian-American Dr Rajiv Shah once he is confirmed by the Senate – to carry out this mandate. It also expands U.S. support for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to end violence against women. The IVAWA represents extensive research about what works; it was drafted in consultation with more than 150 groups. Key organisations include Amnesty International USA, Family Violence Prevention Fund, and Women Thrive Worldwide (formerly Women’s Edge Coalition). “For the first time,” says Amnesty International USA, “U.S. diplomatic work will address this problem in a coordinated, integrated way. In addition, it requires that in cases of armed conflict where the United States is aware of mass outbreaks of violence against women and girls, such as the mass rapes of women in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the U.S. government will have to act.”
In her testimony to the Senate, Ambassador Verveer stressed several key components of a successful strategy to end violence against women. First and foremost, she said, is to “define this violence not as a women’s issue but as one of international human rights and national security.” Further, she called on religious leaders of all faiths to become involved, and for men to be a part of the effort. She also cited empowering women economically, ensuring them access to high quality education, and law enforcement as fundamental to success. Referring to violence against women as a global pandemic, Verveer said, “This violence is not ‘cultural.’ It is criminal. It is every nation’s problem and it is the cause of mass destruction around the globe. We need a response that is commensurate with the seriousness of these crimes.”
In the interest of accountability, the IVAWA requires the Secretary of State to issue an annual progress report to Congress. Judging by her performance in Beijing nearly 15 years ago and her recent initiative at the UN, Clinton will surely have a good deal to say next year when, hopefully, she gives her first report.