When a group of young men raped a 16-year-old girl in Kenya late last year, their punishment was merely cutting the grass at the local police station. While riots in response to the lax sentencing eventually brought this injustice to the public’s awareness, similar incidents played out around the world with little attention and even less accountability.
The World Health Organization estimates 35 percent of women have been sexually assaulted or experienced domestic violence worldwide, about a billion women in total. In many cases, these women do not receive justice. Frequently, family members are the abusers, which law enforcement usually treat as a domestic issue, resulting in no punishment.
Non-profit organizations doing grassroots mobilizing have been able to achieve small successes for women and girls in countries like Kenya. One Billion Rising, a global campaign, advocates for the end of violence against women with a one day event in which men and women in 207 countries express their outrage at sexual violence in solidarity. A short film about the movement has been selected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, creating more awareness and empowerment among women around the world.
While the topic has received renewed attention in recent years, change will not come until corrupt law enforcement and government officials are held accountable and appropriately punish perpetrators. While the U.S. should always limit its intervention into other countries’ affairs, passing the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) would increase the visibility of the issue and pressure other countries to take the issue of sexual assault and violence seriously.
The I-VAWA would create an Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department as well as a position of Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in the State Department, which would be responsible for coordinating activities, policies, programs and funding relating to women’s empowerment worldwide.
The I-VAWA has been stalled in Congress for years due to a combination of lack of interest and Republican opposition. If passed, it would be a symbolic victory for women and their rights. The act would make ending violence against women a top U.S. diplomatic priority while also signifying sexual violence as a healthcare issue and human rights violation, with significant consequences that should be addressed through measures such as prevention programs, reproductive health services, mental health and emergency services.
Domestically, U.S. Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) a little over a year ago. That bill passed with bipartisan support in 1994. While the VAWA was successful in its aim of providing $1.6 billion toward improving the overall response and approach to violence against women in the U.S., the passage of the I-VAWA is proving to be more difficult, even though it would require no new spending.
While the bill is scarce on details of how the U.S. government would be involved in “supporting survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and preventing violence,” passing the I-VAWA would nevertheless provide a framework in which rape is taken seriously and addressed adequately internationally.