Just a few weeks ago, as millions of families gathered in the United States to celebrate Thanksgiving, a lesser-known event went by unnoticed.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women kicked off 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign to end gender-based violence.
Although violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread human rights abuses in the world, it is severely under-reported. In countries such as the DRC, where according to a recent United Nations Population Fund report, 7,700 acts of sexual violence were reported during the first six months of 2010, social attitudes often condone violence against women, and stigmatize and blame the survivor. Survivors are ostracized from their families and communities, and in some situations, forced to marry their abusers. According to a CARE health worker helping victims of violence in the eastern Congo, "Women and girls who experience rape and sexual violence are punished three times: once by the violence itself, second by the community if they dare complain, and a third time when they see the culprit walking the street."
While the situation in the eastern DRC is dire and deserving of attention, the problem of violence against women is global. According to the U.N., one out of three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with rates reaching 70 percent in some countries. Beyond the immediate psychological and physical harm, violence against women has extensive health and social repercussions for individuals, families and communities. It reduces women's and girls' contributions to economic development and traps them in a life of poverty. Violence against women and girls strikes at the heart of an individual's self worth. At the very core, violence is a root cause for women's and girls' disempowerment and marginalization.
We gasp in horror as we read the headlines detailing violence against women, yet we quickly turn the page looking for happier news. We cannot turn away from the women of the Congo, or Afghanistan, or Nepal or Haiti. The list of countries bearing the brunt of this brutality goes on and on. World leaders are long overdue in their strong response to this epidemic of gender-based violence.
In the DRC and elsewhere, humanitarian organizations such as CARE are working with local groups and communities to find solutions to the root causes of violence. They are challenging community norms that devalue women, building and supporting community structures, delivering services to survivors, and advocating for policy changes that support gender equality. By empowering women and girls through increased access to quality comprehensive health services, education and other community-based services and resources, as well as educating men and boys to respect and value their female counterparts, entire communities can begin to break the cycle of violence. At the same time, in the DRC and in other countries in conflict, the government, regional and global leaders must redouble their efforts to address the larger drivers of conflict and insecurity so that women and their families have a real chance to rebuild their lives.
But even as we shine a spotlight on the plight of so many women and girls in the DRC and beyond, a stronger global response is needed. Governments must implement global commitments to protect women's rights during conflict, including U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 which calls for increased participation of women in peacebuilding efforts. Unfortunately, as UNSCR 1325 celebrated its 10th anniversary this past October, we learned that women are still largely absent from peace negotiations.
Congress can solidify the United States' commitment to combating violence against women and girls by passing the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). IVAWA, as introduced, has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and is backed by more than 150 humanitarian, faith-based, human rights, refugee and women's organizations. Its passage will make preventing violence against women a U.S. foreign policy priority by establishing a comprehensive strategy to address violence against women and girls globally and integrating a multi-sectoral approach to combat violence across U.S. foreign assistance programs. Thucydides once said, "Justice will come when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are." It is time to stop turning the page and become indignant about the brutal treatment of our mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.