UNITED STATES: Is the U.S. Better on Gender-Based Violence Abroad than at Home?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The Huffington Post
North America
United States of America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

As they gather in Tampa for their 2012 Convention, Republican politicians and party operatives continue to be plagued by questions about the horrific comments on rape by Missouri Congressman Todd Akin. While they insist that Akin's comments won't affect the Romney presidential campaign, Republicans can't deny that this appears to be another salvo in the party's ongoing war on women. In fact, many of those same politicians who have denounced Akin's remarks are guilty of participating in another front in that war -- holding up the passage of the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act in the House.

The Violence Against Women Act, the landmark 1994 law originally drafted by then Senator Joe Biden, provided critical federal funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, imposed automatic restitution on those convicted, and allowed for civil redress in cases left unprosecuted. In addition, it funded community violence prevention programs, victim assistance services like rape crisis centers and hotlines, and legal aid for survivors.

This May, 15 Republicans joined with the Senate Democrats to reauthorize the bill. Shortly thereafter, House Republicans passed their version -- one without new protections for gay, American Indian and student victims contained in the Senate bill. The House version also rolled back protections for immigrant women, including for undocumented immigrants who report abuse and cooperate with law enforcement. Negotiations on a final bill are stalled, primarily hung up over the cost of special visas for immigrant victims.

While these anti-woman stances have captured the spotlight, relatively less attention has been paid to the Obama Administration's early August release of the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally. This remarkable document and accompanying Executive Order reflect President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton's commitment to advancing the rights of women and girls and improving their status around the world. The document recognizes that gender-based violence not only undermines the safety, dignity, health and human rights of its victims, but also the public health, economic stability, and security of nations. Thus, fighting gender-based violence is critical to our national security.

The strategy's primary objective is to enhance or expand U.S. government programming that addresses gender-based violence. The accompanying Executive Order mandates the creation of an interagency working group, co-chaired by Secretary Clinton and USAID Administrator Raj Shah, promoting a coordinated, government-wide approach. The strategy also emphasizes collaboration with communities, police and judges, religious leaders, and boys and men and recognizes that boys and men -- as well as members of the LGBT community -- are also subject to gender-based violence. Additionally, it emphasizes data collection and provides for metrics to measure the progress of the strategy's implementation.

The strategy builds on an impressive array of existing efforts to promote gender equality in our foreign policy including the State Department's Policy Guidance on Promoting Gender Equality; USAID's policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment; the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security; PEPFAR's Gender-based Violence Scale-Up Initiative and Evaluation; the work of the President's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons; and efforts to incorporate gender-based violence programming into humanitarian response activities.

On this base, the State Department pledges to enhance the critical work of its bureaus and offices to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs designs and implements global criminal justice programs across the police, justice, and corrections sectors. In Afghanistan, the State Department supports an Afghan Violence against Women Unit in Kabul. Since its opening in March 2010, the Kabul VAW Unit has initiated over 750 cases, resulting in 26 convictions, including one for murder. Recognizing that women and girls represent the vast majority of sex trafficking survivors and a significant percentage of forced labor survivors globally, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons leads diplomatic engagement focused on eradicating modern slavery. The State Department also pledges renewed diplomatic engagement by continuing to exercise leadership on women's rights at the UN Security Council where the U.S. has introduced numerous resolutions on sexual violence as a threat to peace and security.

For its part, USAID commits to scaling up its most successful interventions. For example, USAID's Safe Schools Pilot Program was originally implemented in 60 communities in Ghana and Malawi with the objective of reducing school-related gender-based violence. After its proven success, the Safe Schools pilot was recently scaled up to include activities in the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Yemen, Tajikistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Cambodia, USAID-supported trainings on the penal code helped to double the rate of gender-based violence prosecutions clearance rate in Cambodia from 2010 to 2011.

Given its ambitious objectives and detailed design, the new strategy, in addition to the many initiatives already in progress, begs the question whether the U.S. does more to prevent gender violence abroad than it does at home. Similarly puzzling on the domestic front is why one party has chosen to alienate women voters in a critical election year. Regardless of the answers to those questions, those who oppose gender equality at home threaten to undermine the moral authority that the U.S. needs to institute this new policy abroad. Their ignorance and intransigence expose the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy and accusations that the U.S. is more interested in being the world's policeman than keeping its own women and children safe. For the sake of the victims of gender-based violence at home and around the world, let's hope this is not the case.