Congress and the Trump Administration Must Support the International Violence Against Women Act

Zara Ahmed, Guttmacher Institute

On November 25, 2019, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) reintroduced the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), alongside 120 original cosponsors. The passage of this bill would demonstrate that the United States is finally serious about addressing the global pandemic of gender-based violence and willing to move beyond hollow pronouncements, including some recently issued by the Trump administration. This important legislation would at long last allow for the development of a holistic, evidence-based strategy to combat gender-based violence and request the resources needed to make that plan a reality.

Years of Missed Opportunities

The bill, which has been endorsed by numerous human rights, global development and reproductive health nongovernmental organizations, has been circulating in various forms since 2007, when it was first introduced by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE). Each iteration of IVAWA would have codified key positions at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development focused on issues affecting women and girls, called for a coordinated strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally, and authorized appropriations for development and humanitarian programs that support such a strategy.

The latest iteration of IVAWA would do all of this, but also goes further by:

  • recognizing the important role of reproductive health access in combatting gender-based violence;
  • promoting the integration of consent messages into comprehensive sexuality education curricula;
  • highlighting the link between gender-based violence and HIV; and
  • demonstrating support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as a leader in addressing gender-based violence.

These additions have strengthened the bill and made the case for its passage even more compelling and urgent.

Gender-Based Violence Is Far Too Common

Globally, nearly one in three women experience intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence at some point in their lives. In some countries, this rate is as high as 70%. Women who live in poverty are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence and are more likely to be forced into early marriage, which affects not only their economic and health outcomes but those of subsequent generations. Similarly, HIV risk can be up to three times higher among women who experience gender-based violence, while among women who are already HIV-positive, rates of gender-based violence are much higher than for HIV-negative women. Survivors of gender-based violence face immediate sexual and reproductive health consequences, including unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, as well as devastating longer term psychological, economic and social impacts.

The need to address the scourge of gender-based violence has long been recognized by the international community. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the world agreed that it should eliminate "all kinds of violence against women." Twenty-five years later, at the November 2019 ICPD25 meeting in Nairobi, that message was reaffirmed, as countries committed to stopping gender-based violence and other harmful practices against women and girls.

Lip Service or Action?

At ICPD25, among those calling for an end to gender-based violence was the U.S. government, which pledged to "combat gender-based violence by investing in programs that help build societies where the human rights of women and girls are respected, and by providing skills, and opportunities for women." While this sentiment is laudable, these words will ring hollow without strong, proactive leadership by the Trump administration on the crisis of gender-based violence.

To demonstrate its commitment to this issue, the White House should begin by issuing a statement supporting Rep. Schakowsky’s bill, as written, and requesting swift passage by both the House and Senate. By stepping up to the plate on this issue, the administration can help mitigate some of the damage done to women and girls through its other policy decisions and prove to the global community that addressing gender-based violence is indeed the priority it claims it to be. Once adopted, IVAWA would accelerate progress toward the world envisioned by the United States in its ICPD25 proclamation and demonstrate that U.S. interest in combatting gender-based violence is more than just empty rhetoric.

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