Congress finally passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in February, despite massive opposition from House Republicans; and President Obama signed it into law in March. But the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) has yet to be passed. It is expected to be re-introduced in Congress in the next couple of weeks. But will it pass? And what does it do? To find out I called into a phone conference with three women working to raise awareness about I-VAWA: Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, who is helping spearhead passage of the bill, Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, and Rupsa Mallik, of CREA, a feminist human rights organization in New Delhi, India, which works to advance the rights of women and girls and the sexuality and reproductive rights of all people.
Messinger explained that Congress needs to pass, the International version of VAWA “so that women around the world, whether in India, or Congo, or Haiti, who are waiting for justice, have to wait no longer.” And Wasserman Schultz reflected on the advances women have made for themselves and each other, worldwide:
Over the last 15 years women have made great strides worldwide, strides that took perseverance, bravery, and women standing up for ourselves. Women saw the challenges their mothers and grandmothers faced and said, ‘We deserve better.’… Girls in Afghanistan said, “We deserve better,” staring down intimidation and exclusion from education, and the percentage of Afghan girls enrolled in primary schools climbed from zero to 35% in just 12 years. Mothers in Liberia said, “We deserve better,” refusing to be silenced during their own peace process as they protested relentlessly throughout their civil war.
At the same time, Wasserman Schultz emphasized how far we have to go:
Women are often the catalysts for change and liberation, yet too many women around the world are still enslaved and oppressed, including the victims of rape and violence, those who are denied an education, and those coerced into sex trafficking. The specter of violence against women looms large today. Millions of women in war-torn countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda don’t move freely from place to place for fear of being raped, a fear created and exacerbated by soldiers who purposely and disgracefully turn women’s bodies into casualties of war.
And the congresswoman connected the suffering of women anywhere to the suffering of women everywhere:
1 in 3 women will experience abuse in her lifetime….That is one billion women alive today, one billion of our sisters. This abuse can manifest itself in horrific ways, like human trafficking and forced sexual slavery….We must not rest until these women too are free. We must acknowledge that violence perpetrated against any woman anywhere impacts all women everywhere.
Rupsa Mallik, spoke on behalf of CREA, one of the many human rights and women’s rights organizations supported by the American Jewish World Service, and an organization doing the type of work that I-VAWA would support and fund. Mallik reflected on India’s response to the December gang rape and death of a young woman in Dehli. She explained that for the first time, the protests brought in people from outside of the women’s rights movement. Mallik also praised a governmental commission, which CREA worked with, for changing the conversation about women’s rights:
In the past whenever issues of violence and violence against women and sexual assault had been discussed, whether within legislative bodies or in other policy making spaces, it has always been for certain kind of women, women in families…,rights for good women…. what the Verma Committee did through widespread consultative process was start to look at rights for all women, which include the marginalized groups that included the LGBT community….issues around sex work and trafficking….
She also praised the committee because it went beyond paternalistic protectionism:
It moved from a discussion on protectionism to start talking about the right to protection. In the past, again, a lot of the discussions around violence and sexual assault in India have been always around protecting the women’s modesty and chastity. For the first time I think a body at that level, along with inputs from various groups, started talking about issues of choice and consent, about women’s sexual autonomy.
Mallik applauded several victories, like the criminalization of voyeurism and stalking, acid attacks, different definitions of rape. She lamented the fact that marital rape is still not included in the legal definition of rape, concluding,
So our battle is half won….We have to continue to struggle, both on the streets and in public spaces, and in legislative and policy making spaces, to continue to highlight these issues even as they fade from the public spotlight and ensure that all women have the right to a safe and dignified life, and that the next generation of children grow up not only with a sense of danger, but also with the right to exert their free will and choice and lead a healthy and safe life.
Okay, so what can we do in America, what can our global community do to support groups like these and to end violence against women and girls? Right now and most strongly we can push Congress each of our own individual members of Congress, to support and pass the International Violence Against Women Act. We will be working with our Congressional allies, led by Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, to make women and girls a priority, because they know, as all of us should understand, that our world will never be peaceful and secure until women and girls are safe enough to survive and thrive.
Based on the success of VAWA, Wasserman Schultz is hopeful, but realistic, knowing there’s much work ahead:
I’d like to be hopeful about the potential for us having thawed opposition to international VAWA …through the process of passing domestic VAWA and re-authorizing that….I think it’s likely that we will face similar opposition, given the deeply entrenched and widely held, very conservative views of the Republicans in the House of Representatives right now. And unfortunately that while domestically I think they saw the importance politically for them to take up VAWA and what the consequences would have been if they didn’t, I don’t think they’re going to feel the same political pressure to pass international VAWA. So it’s going to require some significant similar pressure from women around the country, and that’s going to require us to educate women in this country that it’s going to be important for all of us to embrace the notion that when women everywhere aren’t free none of us are free.
So let’s help raise awareness and apply the pressure.