From the Executive Director's Desk...
Recommitting to women and girls Part 1
Rev. John L. McCullough
By Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service
This Presidential election cycle has prompted lively discussion about the candidates' appeal to female voters and how much political and social progress women have made in our nation. Despite the interest in gender politics, no one seems to have pressed the candidates on how they might advance gender equality through U.S. foreign policy. In this two-part series, I'll discuss recent Church World Service efforts to improve the lives of women and girls in developing countries and how you can be involved in this vital effort.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her,
“Give me a drink.” -- John 4: 7
In John chapter 4, we read of a powerful example where Jesus challenged standard conventions of his day and confronted discrimination and unjust social systems. This is the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well. She is from a despised ethnic group. As a female, it would not have been socially acceptable for Jesus to talk with her. Furthermore, as a woman who had had several husbands, she would have been considered morally suspect. And yet, Jesus not only spoke with her, but she is the first person to whom he reveals himself as the Messiah.
What a bold demonstration of Jesus respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all people!
Violence and apathy
Women and girls around the world deserve to be treated with this same dignity and respect. At a most basic level, they need to feel physically safe. Physical safety is a fundamental human right for all people. Unfortunately, this is not yet the reality for many. The statistics and the stories of widespread abuse of women and girls tear at your heart.
According to United Nations sources, approximately one in three women in the world will experience violence directed against them during their lifetime. One in five women in the world will be a victim of rape or attempted rape. While the risk factors for rape vary across countries, we know it occurs in all nations, all regions, across all demographic groups. Tellingly, 102 member states of the U.N. have no specific laws on domestic violence.
Abuse occurs at home, at school, at the workplace. The trafficking of women and girls for prostitution is a major industry in some countries like Thailand , the Ukraine , the Dominican Republic , Burma , Moldova and Nigeria . Distressingly, rape is used as a weapon of war. Human Rights Watch has documented this in Sierra Leone , Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo , Afghanistan and Rwanda . Rape also occurs in refugee camps among those already so vulnerable. For example, the U.N. is investigating recent reports of their Peace Keeping Forces' behavior in the Democratic Republic of the Congo refugee camps.
As Human Rights Watch notes, “Abuses against women are relentless, systematic, and widely tolerated, if not explicitly condoned. Violence and discrimination against women are global social epidemics.”
We must change this situation.
Refocusing U.S. foreign aid priorities
Violence against women and girls can have many other negative consequences in addition to the physical, psychological, and spiritual harm that is done. Gender violence can be a barrier to economic opportunity and contribute to the poverty of females. For example, sexual harassment and the fear of it can deter girls from going to school or continuing their studies after a certain age or pursuing subjects where males heavily dominate. Women may fear taking certain jobs, joining unions, or otherwise standing up for themselves in the workplace because of the threat of potential physical abuse from other workers or their bosses. Recent research shows a connection between the physical abuse of women and increasing rates of HIV/AIDS among females.
Given the connection between women's human rights and poverty, Church World Service has been participating in several efforts to address the link. This spring we participated in The Women, Faith and Development Alliance Breakthrough Summit which strove to galvanize more concrete action and greater financial resources to address the needs of women and girls. CWS has committed nearly $10 million for fiscal year 2008 on projects designed to improve the lives of women and children.
The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) was introduced last October in the Senate (S. 2279) and a companion bill in the House (H.R. 5927) was introduced on April 30 this year. The IVAWA strives to strengthen the U.S. response to the worldwide abuse of women and girls. The bill has been assigned to the respective committees on foreign affairs, and needs more political support in order to move in the next Congressional session.
For the first time in U.S. history, the IVAWA would make addressing gender violence a diplomatic priority. The bill requires the Administration to take a more comprehensive, holistic approach to the issue. Currently, violence against women and girls is dealt with in health terms only. The IVAWA would integrate it throughout our assistance efforts legal reforms, foreign security force training, humanitarian assistance, economic growth, etc.
This piece of legislation would establish a more robust office within the State Department to coordinate initiatives related to women and girls, and require it to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the problem of violence.
Among other things, the bill would create an Advisory Commission within that office to focus on gender-based violence, provide for training U.S. foreign service officers on how to prevent such violence, and enable the U.S. Secretary of State to take emergency measures to respond to violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations. To date, there has been little U.S. government focus on preventing violence or responding to it in combat settings, such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What you can do
The IVAWA won't go anywhere without more Congressional co-sponsors. Elected officials need to hear from men and women that halting the physical abuse of women and girls internationally should be a diplomatic priority and handled more rigorously.
This summer, as candidates for national office make the rounds in your area, please consider scheduling a visit, writing a letter, making a call to them or raising the point in candidate forums. This is an opportunity to share your views of the importance of recommitting to women and girls in U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid.
See Director's Desk archive for more articles