No matter what country women around the world live in, no matter what religion they are, how much money they earn, or what age they are, they have at least one thing in common: They are potential victims of violence. Violence against women is endemic around the globe.
Violence can affect girls and women at every point in their lives, from sex-selective abortion and infanticide, to inadequate healthcare and nutrition given to girls, to genital mutilation, child marriage, rape as a weapon of war, trafficking, so-called “honor” killings, dowry-related murder, and the neglect and ostracism of widows -- and this is not an exhaustive list.
Far too often, these acts go unpunished. Even when countries have laws on their books to criminalize violence against women, these laws frequently go unenforced. Even when individual cases are seen as the individual tragedies that they are, connections are too seldom made to the larger pattern of women's global inequality and the worldwide lack of respect for their human rights.
Far too often, these acts are seen as family matters, and take place behind a veil of privacy. And far too often, efforts to punish these criminal acts are dismissed as being against national customs or traditions.
I want to make it clear: “culture” cannot justify the violation of human rights. Addressing violence against women is the responsibility and imperative of every nation. In terms of its moral, humanitarian, development, economic, and international security consequences, violence against women and girls is one of the major impediments to progress around the globe. We need the kind of serious and coordinated response to it that we give to other threats of this magnitude.
On February 4, the International Violence Against Women Act was introduced by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Boxer (D-CA), Snowe (R-ME), and Collins (R-ME) and Representatives Delahunt (D-MA) and Poe (R-TX). They and other members of Congress understand the severity of this global scourge. We share Congress' view that ending violence against women must be a policy priority of the United States. While we continue to push this issue at all levels of our foreign policy engagement, we know that more work can and should be done to support effective coordination across the entire U.S. government to address international violence against women.
The proposed legislation calls for a five-year strategy to support programs to combat violence against women around the world. It would authorize a specialized office in the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand and modify emergency and humanitarian relief programs to address violence, and would support prevention strategies across foreign policy and assistance programs.
Members of Congress rightfully seek to put the issue of of violence against women in its proper context, as one that's central to our foreign policy goals. As I've said on other occasions, no country can get ahead if half its population is left behind -- and ending violence against women is a prerequisite for women's social, economic, and political participation and progress. Girls in Afghanistan can't get an equal education if they're subject to acid attacks and their schools are burned down. Women can't succeed in the workplace if they are abused and traumatized, nor can they advance if legal systems continue to treat them as less than full citizens. And female politicians can't compete for office on an equal playing field when they receive threatening “night letters” or fear for their families' safety.
Our response to violence against women must include men and women working together to elevate the problem beyond “a domestic matter,” and beyond a “women's issue.” Ending violence against women around the world is a human rights issue, and a worldwide crisis that must be resolved if we are to make gains in global stability, security, and prosperity. It is long past time that ending violence against women became a priority for us all.