opinionBy Virginia Blaser
Sixteen. This number has special meaning for young women in the United States who look forward to their 'sweet sixteen' birthday party. Many American parents see this milestone as the bittersweet moment when their little girl begins to move toward adulthood, with new responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges.
As of 2010, the number 16 has also become associated with a movement to combat violence against women known as '16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.'
The movement, which is bookended by November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW), and December 10, International Human Rights Day, offers all of us an opportunity to renew our commitment to free women and girls from violence, whether it happens behind closed doors or as a public tactic of intimidation.
Whether it occurs in our own neighbourhood or on distant shores, violence against women and girls damages us all - men and women alike. Gender-based violence is a global pandemic that cuts across ethnic, racial, socio-economic, and religious lines, and knows no borders.
Violence against women and girls affects Uganda just as it does the US and every other nation. It includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse; threats; coercion; arbitrary deprivation of liberty and economic deprivation.
Types of gender-based violence can include female infanticide; child sexual abuse; sex trafficking and forced labour; sexual coercion and abuse; neglect; domestic violence; and elder abuse.
I also call attention to and decry harmful traditional practices such as early and forced marriage, 'honour' killings, female genital mutilation and gender-biased sex selection.
One in three women around the world will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime, including intimate partner violence - the most common form of violence.
In a study by the Centre for Basic Research in July, 2012, seventy per cent of women interviewed in Eastern and Northern Uganda reported being beaten by their husbands. Of those women, 17% reported being raped.
Physical violence, including from an intimate partner, vastly increases a woman's risk for serious medical conditions - including reproductive health problems, miscarriages, and sexually-transmitted diseases.
Country studies indicate that the risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence may be up to three times higher than among those who have not.Violence against women and girls is not just a gender or economic issue but one encompassing international human rights and national security.
We need laws in place to criminalize such acts. These laws need to be enforced, since impunity too often helps to fuel the violence. We all need to work together ? the international community, governments, multilateral organizations, and grassroots-level advocates, to address and prevent violence from occurring.
Many nations, including Uganda, have passed legislation addressing gender-based violence. The next critical step is to work together to improve enforcement of those laws in order to increase accountability and address impunity.
We need to empower girls to speak up for themselves, and educate boys to speak up for their sisters. We must support the inclusion of men, boys and other critical community stakeholders - such as religious leaders - in addressing and preventing violence and changing gender attitudes.
I was inspired to learn that more than 30 organizations throughout Uganda are participating in this global campaign to end gender-based violence and I was impressed to see many of them organizing community events, such as plays and debates, to raise awareness on this issue.
The US has made gender equality and women's empowerment a core focus of our foreign policy. Evidence demonstrates that women's empowerment is critical to building stable, democratic societies; to supporting open and accountable governance; to further international peace and security; to growing vibrant market economies; and to addressing pressing health and educational challenges.
When women and girls can live free from violence and are afforded equal opportunities in education, healthcare, employment and political participation, they lift up their families, their communities and their nations, and act as agents of change.
As Secretary Clinton has stated, "Investing in the potential of the world's women and girls is one of the surest ways to achieve global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for women - and men - the world over."
As a core principle, the US has made significant progress in its efforts to address gender-based violence around the world, through the development of the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security; the Gender-based Violence Scale-Up Initiative and evaluation of the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and efforts to incorporate gender-based violence programming into humanitarian response activities.
Most recently, in August 2012, the US was proud to release its first-ever Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, along with an executive order signed by President Obama directing its implementation.
As a representative of the U.S. government and a woman, I look forward to the time when all girls and women, the world over, are treated equally and fairly, when gender-based violence is an issue of the past.
As a mother, I personally look forward to the day when everyone's daughters have a 'sweet sixteen' birthday filled with joy and happiness, a day when 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence is no longer needed because every little girl has been given the opportunity to grow up to become a powerful, accomplished, intelligent woman.
The author is Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy.