Last year, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was amended and reauthorized. This past month, a group of senators began setting their sights on broadening protection to women around the world.
With S.2307, also known as the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), preventing and responding to violence against women abroad would become a top priority of American foreign policy. When he was in the Senate, Secretary of State John Kerry first proposed the bill in 2010. It has failed a few times with several other sponsors since then.
This time, sponsors are hoping for a different outcome.
“Violence against women and girls impedes progress in meeting many United States global development goals,” the bill reads. “It is the policy of the United States to take effective action to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls around the world, as a matter of basic human rights as well as to promote gender equality, economic growth, and improved public health.”
While many applaud the measure – including 300 humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International – there are important questions to consider. With the United States’ track record on the subject within its own borders, and its litany of controversial international interventions, is it reasonable to attempt such a global endeavor?
“Once [the bill] develops more teeth, we’ll see how it interacts with [communities abroad],” says Caroline Kouassiaman, program officer for sub-Saharan Africa for the Global Fund for Women. The advocacy and grantmaking organization collects private funding and redistributes it as grants to independent, community-based women’s organizations abroad.
“The United States is a large player in international assistance, and that plays a role in sub-Saharan Africa in the way funding is allocated for resources,” says Kouassiaman, citing Uganda as an example. There, 40 percent of the national budget is funded through aid from the U.S. and other nations. As a result, the American policies attached to aid guide how Uganda allocates those funds to the community organizations and government agencies that need it.
The bill offers an extensive, but slightly vague outline for implementation. First, it makes the (existing) State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues a legally required entity, and charges the (also existing) ambassador with orchestrating all women-related efforts. The ambassador would also continue to be responsible for creating the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (devised in 2012 via executive order). As part of this strategy, five to 20 developing nations with “significant levels” of gender-based violence would have individualized response plans.
“I think the grantees we work with would welcome the strong statement. It mirrors the language that exists in a lot of other policies [around the world], and we’re actually in alignment with the rest of the world, which is exciting to see,” says Kouassiaman.
Other directives in the bill include fostering economic, educational, health, and legal activities to combat gendered violence; preventing early and forced marriage; and using “U.S. personnel” to train foreign police and military forces to respond to and prevent violence against women and girls.
For Lauren Chief Elk, activist and cofounder of the Save Wiyabi Project, an advocacy group that addresses violence against indigenous women, that last point is a red flag in an already dubious policy.
“Do I think gender violence is a problem in these countries, yes. But I also think the United States is a root of those causes,” she explains. “What I find problematic is that – and it’s not that thinly veiled – this is very much like what we used to fuel the Iraq-Iran invasion…we’re ‘liberating women.’ It’s not ultimately about helping with gender violence, it’s more about occupation.”
Elk also points out that law enforcement and military are often perpetrators of violence against women, within their own ranks and among those they are supposed to protect. In 2006, a Philippine court convicted an American soldier of raping a woman who lived near the base. In 2011, soldiers based in South Korea were all put under curfew after two soldiers were accused of raping South Korean women on separate instances. Last year, the then-chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office for the Air Force was arrested in Virginia for sexually assaulting a civilian.
“The United States is global violence against women,” Elk says. “We can barely go a day without hearing about sexual assault against women in our own military forces, and these are the people who are going to be solving the problem?”
Kouassiaman is a bit more optimistic, but also remains critical until more details are given.
“[I-VAWA] is very comprehensive legislation…. But there are still a lot of questions in accountability. Who is responsible for enforcing this? One aspect is training military and police to respond, but how, and who’s doing this?” she asks, adding that women themselves should be part of the process. “We also need to address the issue of violence here in our own country.”
One aspect of the bill she and others find promising, is that it shows deference to the women, community systems, and organizations that are already engaged in this work, for and with their own people.
According to the bill, “building local capacity” is a mandatory part of the strategy. Further, “Not less than 10 percent of the amount of assistance provided…should be provided to community-based nongovernmental organizations, with priority given to [those] led by women.”
The bill also mandates “engaging men and boys as partners,” though it doesn’t say how.
Currently, I-VAWA is being reviewed in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. If it passes muster there, it will be put to vote on the Senate floor. From there it must pass a vote in the House, survive any amendments, and then be signed by the president. If the past is any indication, the legislation will likely face an uphill battle.
On the other hand, as Elk points out, the wake of the Nigerian girls’ kidnapping, gang rapes in India, and the Isla Vista, California killings may provide ripe conditions.
“It gets tricky when you frame invasions with aid and help and humanitarianism. It gets people’s emotions going,” Elk says. She offers an alternative to I-VAWA:
“A great first step to addressing gender violence worldwide would be to get military forces out of these countries, including private forces employed by U.S. companies,” Elk recommends, “and then work on getting those companies out.”