Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), surveying the chamber before her, a room packed with senators, diplomats, feminist leaders, scholars and activists, proudly proclaimed, “I’m looking at an iconic picture here.”
At last week’s U.S. Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women’s Issues hearing on Combating Violence and Discrimination Against Women: A Global Call to Action, a sense of urgency and hope prevailed amid calls for increased U.S. diplomatic action and participation in international legislation. The hearing marked the beginning of a new campaign to finally pass the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA).
Boxer, as chair of the subcommittee, set a pressing tone by using her opening comments to declare that the global position of women is now, more than ever, a “precarious” one. The United States has to use its immense capacity for international influence to help solve what Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called the “global epidemic” of violence and discrimination against women. Boxer explained:
I hope this hearing builds momentum for action in the Senate on both I-VAWA and CEDAW because we have to do more than make our speeches and call for the end of violence—we have to act.
The first panel of the hearing was comprised of seven women senators, each of whom used their time to speak about a different, unique dimension of the struggles that women around the world face in their daily lives. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) recounted the story of the recent sexist heckling suffered by Tokyo assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura as evidence of the blatant sexism in politics. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) focused on sex trafficking, the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world after guns and drugs. With a particularly harrowing statistic, she reminded everyone:
The average age of girls who become victims is 13—not old enough to drive a car, not old enough to go to a high school prom.
For Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), experience with rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo has shown her that international responses such as providing firewood or fuel-efficient stoves so that women can avoid venturing into dangerous forests are simply “not sustainable, and it doesn’t solve the real problem.” Stabenow explained to Boxer how we can solve the real problem:
I’m proud to join with you as a co-sponsor of the I-VAWA. We need to put the full weight of the United States of America, our diplomacy, behind this basic human right: that no woman in any country should have to live every day of their lives in fear of being attacked or raped.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) used her time to emphasize the additional threat faced by members of the LGBTQ community, who have been the victims of hate all over the world:
… headlines often forget to mention the violence carried out against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. Violence directed at individuals perceived to be LGBTI has steadily increased, yet their has been a consistent failure of police authorities to address these acts of targeted violence.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) reminded the subcommittee that women are not merely victims; they are activists and advocates as well. Speaking about activists in Mexico that helped build a program for prosecuting sex trafficking and violence against women and children, Heitkamp urged her fellow legislators to remember that “[activists] expect one thing from us: They expect leadership.” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke on barriers that prevent girls from entering school but offered a simple solution: “invest in quality basic education.” Doing so means improving health and welfare worldwide, reducing child marriage and reducing violence. Finally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) re-emphasized the need to pass I-VAWA after describing the efforts of a Haitian-Dominican activist who fought her whole life for equality, starting when she was only 13 years old.
The second panel of the hearing featured the collective witnesses called to speak by both parties on the subcommittee. The Department of State’s Ambassador At Large For Global Women’s Issues, Catherine M. Russell, identified the importance of confronting gender-based violence:
Gender-based violence is on the agenda of every trip I take, from encouraging the Afghan government to fully implement the elimination of violence against women law, to meeting with survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan. … This issue is a top priority for Secretary Kerry as well. Our voices, joined with yours, must ring loud and clear: This violence is unacceptable.
Beyond diplomacy, Russell also called for increased policy action and programming to reflect the United States’ hard stance on violence against women. Though she recognized that recent initiatives like Safe From the Start and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) reflect an important emphasis on combating violence against women worldwide, Russell knows that “a tremendous amount of work remains to be done.”
The second federal official to testify was Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Like Russell, Markham emphasized that “gender equality and and the advancement of women and girls” has become a U.S. priority under President Obama. She argued that USAID programs can do four major things to help the global movement to end gender-based violence: 1) Address its root causes while increasing awareness of its scope and impact; 2) Improve prevention and protection services; 3) Respond to health and economic needs; and 4) Support legal frameworks to mitigate gender-based violence.
Before the final three witnesses came to speak, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) commented briefly on the absurdity of the U.S. failure to ratify CEDAW, recounting then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s assertion that asking a developing nation, “How do you treat your women?” is perhaps the best way to predict its future progress.
Dr. Gary Barker, International Director of Promundo, a Brazil-based NGO that “works internationally to engage men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women,” spoke about how boys become systematically socialized into violence against women by their families and their communities:
Men who have seen their father carry this violence out against their mother are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to carry it out. Men themselves who experience violence in the home, or in the school or in the community are more likely to carry it out—and what we see again and again and again is that about two-thirds of those men believe that other men around them think this violence is ok. … We have something that is really ingrained in the silence of other men, how our systems don’t react to it, how family members, as well as courts, and teachers and everyone around is watching this violence but not speaking out.
The testimony from Nigerian lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim was particularly moving as she described her efforts to save the kidnapped Chibok girls in her home country. She emphasized the international optimism many feel towards U.S. intervention in these issues, insisting, “You are indeed a beacon of hope and a city on a hill” before underscoring the need for I-VAWA and CEDAW to pass:
There is a powerful force that binds us, and that is our common humanity. That is the dignity of all of us. And with that, we hope, with the passage of CEDAW and I-VAWA in the United States, the world will be a better place for a generation yet unborn.
As the final speaker, the director of the Institute for Inclusive Security, Jacqueline O’Neill, addressed two major issues: the lack of women in peace talks and the lack of women in security forces, such as police departments. One major dimension of women’s value in these groups is their ability to adequately address issues like sexual assault that disproportionately affect women. Beyond this, women play an important role in legitimizing these forces, helping to build credibility while increasing integrity and reporting.
It’s not surprising that the topic of global violence and discrimination against women could generate such diverse testimony. It is surprising, however, that political forces in the United States continue to make global action towards guaranteeing these fundamental human rights a partisan issue. As the speakers reminded American legislators, the United States is in a critical position to influence global development in a way that speeds progress, improves security and perhaps most importantly, saves the lives of women worldwide. With this in mind, let’s hope they finally get it right this time.
And meanwhile, you can thank the senators who made this hearing a success by following this link.
Image of Hauwa Ibrahim testifying courtesy of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.