Two weeks ago, Natalie sat across from me in a crowded camp of displaced earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince, wrapped her arms around her pregnant belly, and told me the world needed to do something about rape in Haiti. Eight and a half months after five men accosted her on the outskirts of the camp, covered her head with a plastic bag, dragged her into a tent and repeatedly raped her, she is about to give birth to the child of one of her rapists. Ten months after the earthquake, sexual violence in the camps has not abated and thousands more women and girls stand to suffer if Natalie's call for action is not heeded. Congress has a chance to take a stand. The rape of women and girls in Haiti is part of a global epidemic of violence against women. Right now a bipartisan bill, the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) is pending before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Slated for a committee vote next Tuesday, the bill proposes a comprehensive new strategy for US engagement in the fight to end violence against women worldwide.
The bill directs the State Department to create a five-year plan to reduce violence in up to 20 countries with high levels of violence against women. The bill identifies various facets of the problem that need to be tackled if we want real progress, including legal protections against violence, improved health services for survivors, better education and employment opportunities to empower women, and increasing the involvement of men and boys in the effort to end violence. Important for Haiti, the bill also calls for stepping up the US response to violence against women in the wake of humanitarian disasters, as well as post-conflict situations.
It is a smart plan and one that has the potential for tremendous impact. UN statistics show that at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Human Rights Watch's research has exposed many forms this violence takes, including female genital mutilation of girls in Iraqi Kurdistan; sexual violence against Somali refugees in northeastern Kenya; the trafficking of Nigerian women into Cote d'Ivoire for forced prostitution; abuse of migrant domestic workers in households in multiple countries in the Middle East; and, of course, the domestic violence that remains pervasive throughout the world.
The bill also presents an opportunity to address a huge drain on the world's economy. There is mounting evidence of the debilitating effect of violence against women on economic development. Violence and sexual harassment in schools can prevent women from getting an education and contributing fully to their communities. Healthcare costs and workplace absenteeism associated with injuries from domestic violence also take a significant financial toll.
To be sure, Congress has a lot to accomplish in the waning days of the lame duck session, but the opportunity presented in this bill is too significant to set aside. Amid a slew of partisan fights brewing in Congress, this could be a victory for all. More important, the problem it addresses is too urgent to postpone.