Safe from the Start Act: A Commonsense Bill to Address Gender-Based Violence Around the World

Leah H. Keller, Guttmacher Institute
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Gender-based violence is one of the most harmful and dehumanizing consequences of gender inequity, and over the last year it has become even more widespread. In 2019, 243 million women and girls aged 15–49 were subject to sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner. This number likely rose as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in 2020, and women and girls found themselves isolated with their abusers and blocked off from medical and social supports.

Large-scale crises are often accompanied by an increase in gender-based violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different, although its global scale is unprecedented. With many countries’ economies thrown into disarray, lockdowns leading to increased exposure to domestic violence, and difficulties in implementing violence prevention and mitigation programs, gender-based violence has become more widespread.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that in spring and summer 2020, there were an additional 31 million cases of such violence. Further, for every three months of continued lockdowns, there would be an additional 15 million cases. UNFPA researchers also estimated that in the next decade, an additional two million people may undergo female genital mutilation and 13 million more child marriages may take place because programs to prevent these outcomes will have been disrupted by the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, gender-based violence was already a widespread issue, with more than one in three women around the world experiencing intimate partner violence or sexual violence in their lifetime. It can come in a variety of forms, including sexual assault, physical violence, mental abuse, child marriage, sex trafficking, honor killing, sex-selective abortion and sexual harassment. Experts note that gender-based violence "is often used as a tactic to dominate, humiliate, terrorize, and displace communities."

Legislation to Address the Crisis

The United States has an opportunity and responsibility to address gender-based violence during the pandemic and other emergencies through the Safe from the Start Act. The bill, which was recently reintroduced in the House by Rep. Grace Meng, would ensure that the United States prioritizes the health, safety and dignity of women and girls in its response to humanitarian emergencies internationally, such as natural disasters, war and public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to prevent gender-based violence at the beginning of these incidents and address the effects of violence on survivors once it has occurred.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Makes permanent the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development’s existing Safe from the Start program, which dedicates resources to prevent and address gender-based violence in emergencies globally, as well as provide high-quality services to survivors.
  • Revises the objectives of the Safe from the Start program to support the protection and empowerment of women and girls. Also revises the objectives to strengthen partnerships with local governments at all levels and women-led nongovernmental organizations in order to support these entities’ efforts to prevent, mitigate and respond to gender-based violence.
  • Ensures accountability by requiring program implementers to submit an annual activity report to Congress.

President Biden and Congress’s Role

President Biden’s track record as a senator and priorities as president coincide with this bill. He was the architect of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which is credited with significantly decreasing rates of intimate partner violence in the United States and shifting cultural attitudes around violence against women. During the 2020 campaign, he promised to build on this work as president, including by "leading the global effort to address gender-based violence."

This goal conforms with the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities to reengage the United States on the world stage and restore the country as an international champion for women and girls. To that end, the new administration has already halted the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and issued a presidential memorandum that rescinded the "global gag rule" and directed the State Department to restore funding to UNFPA and withdraw from the antiabortion Geneva Consensus Declaration. The Safe from the Start Act is a natural fit with this pro–global engagement, pro–gender equality agenda.

Congress is also well situated to pass the Safe from the Start Act. Given that the program already exists and has had a demonstrable impact, passing this bill would be a win on a nonpartisan issue. In a session already bitterly divided over President Trump’s second impeachment, pandemic response and economic recovery, this is a clear-cut bill with a history of bipartisan support. House and Senate leaders must prioritize bringing it to the floor for a vote.

Now Is the Time to Act

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated national economies, stretched many public health systems dangerously thin, and widened existing disparities around the world. One of the most insidious effects of these events has been an uptick in gender-based violence and increased barriers to addressing ongoing humanitarian crises.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, other crises have continued to unfold. There were already a record 80 million people worldwide displaced from their homes at the end of 2019, and  armed conflicts, food insecurity, political unrest and economic turmoil around the world continue to place millions of people in peril. Their right to live a life free from all forms of violence cannot be forgotten, even as the world struggles to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The demand and potential for passing the Safe from the Start Act have never been higher. President Biden and members of Congress must act now to ensure that the United States is providing much-needed resources and expertise to address gender-based violence during emergencies.