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Passing the International Violence Against Women Act: A Live Chat with CARE

One of the greatest challenges to empowering women as agents of change is the gender-based violence women face worldwide. In some countries, gender-based violence impacts as many as 70 percent of women. According to the United Nations, “one out of three women throughout the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.”

Gender-based violence occurs in many forms and can be physical, sexual, or cultural. It is in the home in the form of domestic violence. It is rampant in conflict situations where women are violated and exploited as weapons of war. In the sex trade, women are bought, sold, and abused as cheap, expendable goods. And in some cultures, women are mutilated, forced into child marriages, and denied access to basic rights such as healthcare and education.

On Thursday, August 5 The WIP community had the unique opportunity to participate in a live internet chat with CARE, a leading humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO) that is working to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) – a landmark piece of bi-partisan U.S. legislation.

John Kerry (D-MA), a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, recently commented, “[I-VAWA] builds on the [Obama] Administration’s focus on women as peace-makers, change-agents, and a crucial investment in the future.”

In their efforts to effect permanent social-change, CARE prioritizes empowering women. As part of their commitment to greater independence and safety for women and girls, CARE is working to ensure I-VAWA 2010 passes in both the House and Senate.

CARE policy analyst Milkah Kihunah joined The WIP for a community chat. Prior to CARE, Ms. Kihunah worked for several years as a human rights lawyer, advocate, and researcher focused on issues of gender, armed conflict, and governance in Eastern Africa. Ms. Kihunah holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from Yale University and a Law degree from the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Our live chat with CARE was the first of a series The WIP is hosting prior to the September theatrical release of the film Tapestries of Hope, the story of Betty Makoni’s Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe. Girls in Zimbabwe face an unspeakable violence – rape at the hands of men who believe that sex with a virgin cures AIDS.

The WIP readers and contributors from around the world weighed in, asked questions, and got answers from a woman on the forefront of the I-VAWA movement, CARE policy analyst Milkah Kihunah. Here is a transcript of Milkah’s answers to the questions from The WIP community members:

Kate Daniels (USA): Tapestries of Hope is a film about an unspeakable violence committed against women in Zimbabwe – the rape of young girls because of a belief that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Can you provide us with any context for how the passage of I-VAWA will make a difference in the lives of women who encounter gender-based violence (GBV) such as this?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): While I have unfortunately not yet had a chance to watch Tapestries of Hope, I am sure it reflects many of the grim realities of violence and risk facing girls in Zimbabwe and other countries. I-VAWA (H.R. 4594/S. 2982) seeks to elevate the issue of violence against women and girls as a U.S. foreign policy priority and to make foreign assistance programs to address violence against women more effective and efficient, transparent and accountable. Specifically it would direct the State Department, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to develop a 5-year strategy for addressing violence against women and girls, coordinated across relevant sectors and agencies, and informed by research and best practices. This strategy would ensure that GBV prevention and response is integrated across relevant U.S. foreign assistance programs so that, for example, programs to build schools include efforts to ensure girls arrive safely and remain safe while at school; health service providers are trained to recognize signs of violence and support women and girls who face violence; and officers who train foreign security personnel include instruction on addressing violence against women. The strategy would identify a few select countries experiencing significant levels of violence against women and work with local partners to develop prevention and response programs, including efforts to build the capacity of the health sector to respond to violence, strengthening for legal and judicial responses and support for efforts to change social norms and attitudes that fuel violence against women and girls.

Phillipa Lockwood (USA): How will I-VAWA help the average American care about the rights of women halfway around the world?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): I-VAWA will make ending violence against women and girls globally a priority for U.S. foreign policy and assistance, focusing greater diplomatic and policy attention to this widespread human rights, health, and development issue. I-VAWA is an important opportunity for American citizens to become aware of the pervasiveness of violence against women and girls and its grave implications for individuals, families, and societies globally. It is also an opportunity for Americans to take a stand in support of effective U.S. solutions to this problem.

Violence against women and girls takes many forms around the world, including domestic abuse, rape, sexual exploitation and abuse, forced marriages, crimes of “honor,” female genital cutting, and other harmful practices. Such violence is not only morally repugnant, but is also a huge barrier to addressing global development challenges such as extreme poverty and improved health. This is because violence and threats of violence undermine women’s and girls’ contributions to community and national development. For example sexual harassment and abuse in schools is a key challenge to girls’ school attendance and achievement, undermining their social and economic advancement. Violence against women and girls also compromises efforts to combat HIV/AIDS by undermining their ability to protect themselves in intimate relationships.

I-VAWA seeks to provide a comprehensive U.S. response to this global problem by integrating prevention and response activities across U.S. foreign assistance, including programs that support education, health, and humanitarian assistance. For example, I-VAWA would support efforts to ensure girls remain safe while at school, ensure health providers are trained to recognize and respond to signs of violence, and support training of foreign security personnel in violence prevention and response.

Grace Humphries (USA): Which countries will be the beneficiaries of I-VAWA and how will they be chosen? How much input will each selected country have in its 5-year plan and any new initiatives, and will the 5-year plans include work with indigenous organizations? What is the balance between instituting new initiatives and supporting ongoing indigenous NGOs according to I-VAWA?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): Great question on supporting indigenous organizations. Community based organizations and women’s groups are the key to many of these efforts. I-VAWA highlights the important role of such organizations and requires all actors involved in violence prevention and response to consult and coordinate closely with such groups, including by providing capacity building and technical assistance.

I-VAWA will mandate the U.S. government to develop a comprehensive, 5-year strategy to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls internationally. Among other things, the strategy will support the development of a comprehensive plan to end violence in a select 5-20 countries. Countries will be selected based on their experience with significant levels of violence against women and girls and the capacity of their governments or non-government organizations to manage and implement violence prevention and response programs.

The bill recognizes the central role of indigenous NGOs that work to empower women and prevent and respond to violence against women. As such the bill stipulates that a specific percentage of the assistance provided to an eligible country under the strategy be provided to community-based organizations, including community-based women’s NGOs.

Suad Hamada (Bahrain): In the Arab world, violence against women can only be proven by doctors for the police or court, so most of the time verbal and psychological violence goes unnoticed. Also, only those who rape virgins and minors get tough punishments – here it isn’t considered rape but harassment if the victim is a married or widowed woman. How will I-VAWA address these forms of violence for the Arab world?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): The way violence against women is understood and defined varies across countries and contexts, but research indicates that in many societies there exist common attitudes and norms that promote the acceptability of violence against women and girls and encourage their subordination in the home and wider society.

I-VAWA uses an internationally accepted definition of violence against women and girls, which includes all forms of sexual, physical, and psychological harm, whether occurring in public or private life. This encompasses violence committed against women within marriage and includes psychological and sexual violence against married or widowed women.

I-VAWA promotes effective solutions to such violence through the strengthening of reporting and referral systems to support survivors’ needs. Recognizing the impact of violence on women’s health outcomes, emphasis is placed on capacity building and training of health care providers to safely assess and respond to the needs of affected women and girls. Also critical is integrating health care services with legal and social support services to ensure survivors receive holistic care and to ensure evidence is collected in ways that help hold perpetrators accountable.

I-VAWA also recognizes that violence against women is a social problem that requires social solutions. In order to address some of the underlying social and cultural drivers of such violence and reduce its acceptability within society, the bill supports community-based efforts to promote positive and equitable social attitudes toward women and girls.

Constance Manika (Zimbabwe): Recently AIDS-Free World published Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – a report that presents evidence of the rape campaign waged by president Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party during the 2008 election period. Over the course of six field visits, AIDS-Free World lawyers interviewed rape survivors and witnesses, resulting in 70 sworn affidavits from rape survivors (mostly members of the then-opposition party MDC) describing brutal beatings, abduction, gang rape and torture. In terms of seeking recourse, how will U.S. legislation like I-VAWA help women in Zimbabwe to bring their abusers to justice in light of reluctance by the local authorities here to investigate and persecute these abuses? Do you think this is an issue that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should take up and how will I-VAWA support the ICC’s efforts?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): I-VAWA does not explicitly reference the ICC. However, the bill recognizes the important role of judicial and law enforcement systems in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls. I-VAWA seeks to support political, legal, and institutional reforms that recognize violence against women and girls as a distinct crime. The bill will buttress programs to help women and girl survivors of violence gain access to the legal system, ensure safety and support throughout the legal process, develop confidential mechanisms for reporting violence, and improve coordination between the health, legal, and other sectors. It will encourage programs to provide personnel training across the legal and judicial sector, including police, lawyers, corrections officers, court advocates, judges, and judicial officials, about violence against women and girls.

Lesley Biswas (INDIA): It’s clear that violence against women – including sexual, domestic violence, cultural exploitation and others – is rampant across the world, irrespective of whether a nation is developed or developing, whether the oppressor is educated or illiterate. It’s also a fact that women who are independent and have financial power also face violence in many of the above-mentioned forms. Most countries have passed legislation to empower women with laws against violence, rape and sexual harassment, yet too many women prefer not to fight for their rights. How will I-VAWA help change this situation?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): Violence against women and girls is often under-reported, even in countries where such violence is prohibited under law. This is because social attitudes and beliefs often condone such violence, and may stigmatize and blame the survivor. Many countries also lack appropriate and adequate health and psychosocial services for survivors and strong mechanisms for their protection and legal redress. As a result, acts of violence against women often go unreported and few survivors receive assistance.

I-VAWA takes a holistic approach to this challenge. It promotes efforts to strengthen support and referral mechanisms for survivors by increasing the capacity of health personnel, social workers, police, and judicial systems to provide appropriate support and a safe environment in which survivors can report violence. I-VAWA also promotes efforts to reduce women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence through programs aimed at improving their economic status and ensuring access to educational opportunities.

The bill also aims to support community level efforts to change harmful norms that lead to social tolerance of violence against women and girls.

These and other efforts are some of the holistic approaches promoted by I-VAWA to support the development of societies where women’s and girls’ rights are recognized and promoted, and the problem of violence against women is effectively reduced.

Aralena Malone-Leroy (FRANCE): I’d like to know how you respond to critics who claim that I-VAWA is a vehicle for “feminist agenda” abroad? I’ve seen this remark from conservative organizations, and wonder how CARE and other I-VAWA supporters address the criticism that USAID is imposing ideology on the rest of the world.

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): CARE’s response to such critics draws from more than 60 years of expereince working with communities to address poverty in more than 70 countries globally. What CARE has found is that empowering women and girls yields dramatic benefits for families and entire communities and nations. But we have also found that violence against women and girls is one of the key barriers to empowering women and addressing issues of poverty and inequality in many communities, including issues such as HIV/AIDs, girls education and democratic governance. So a bill such as I-VAWA that seeks to address violence is important not only because it will help to protect and empower women and girls but also because this will help to reduce poverty and support community development efforts.

Heidi Zirtzlaff (USA): What tangible changes will we see once I-VAWA passes?

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): I-VAWA would enhance the work of the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by creating a stronger institutional framework to tackle the problem and integrating this issue into existing international foreign assistance programs for a more effective approach. This kind of holistic approach is necessary because violence touches on so many facets of women’s and girls lives and therefore needs a comprehensive response. For example, violence against girls in schools is a big problem globally so projects focused on education must include a violence prevention and response component. Similarly girls and women are targets of systematic violence in humanitarian settings so all humanitarian programs must include a focus on addressing violence in humanitarian contexts.

Andrea Cole (USA): Support from the American public is strong. A 2009 poll found that sixty-one percent of voters across demographic and political lines thought global violence against women should be one of the top international priorities for the U.S. government, and eighty-two percent supported I-VAWA legislation when it was explained to them. But I-VAWA needs help – I would love to hear more about what it would take to get the legislation passed.

Lauren Axworthy (USA): I’m curious as to what I can personally do to help pass this act.

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): Recent public polling done by some groups indicates that there is indeed much public support for legislation to address violence against women globally. Indeed the bill has garnered a lot of bipartisan support in both the senate and the house. It currently has 118 cosponsors in the house and 31 in the senate. As a result of this momentum the bill is due to be marked up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early September. I would encourage all who can to call on their representatives and senators to co-sponsor the bill if they haven’t already. To find out if your member has sponsored the bill, check out the Library of Congress website (the source of legislative information): thomas.loc.gov and find more information about the progress of the bill at www.passIVAWA.org.

Milkah Kihunah (CARE): Please encourage your senators and members of congress to co-sponsor I-VAWA if they have not already. Check out the I-VAWA website www.passIVAWA.org for more information and CARE’s own website www.care.org.

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