Population Matters

Two “Must Wins” for Women

August 5th, 2010

With the August Congressional recess just days away, it’s time to check in on two pieces of legislation of vital importance to women in developing countries. 

The first is the International Violence against Women Act (IVAWA).  An estimated one out of three women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.  In some developing countries, the rate of domestic violence reaches or exceeds 70 percent. 

 IVAWA would establish an Office for Global Women’s Issues in the State Department to coordinate efforts regarding gender integration and empowerment of women in U.S. foreign policy.  At USAID, it would establish an Office for Women’s Global Development to integrate gender in U.S. foreign assistance programs and policies, and direct the agency to develop a comprehensive five-year strategy for programs to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in countries with severe levels of violence against women.

 The House bill (H.R. 4594) was introduced by Rep. Delahunt and currently has 118 cosponsors.  The Senate bill (S. 2982), introduced by Senator John Kerry, has 31 cosponsors.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was scheduled to consider the bill earlier this week, but the “mark-up” was postponed at the last moment.  No action has been taken on the House bill, which was referred to both the House Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The second is the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103, S. 987), which was introduced in the House by Rep. Betty McCollum and in the Senate by Senators Richard Durbin and Senator Olympia Snowe. Child marriage is a recognized violation of human rights, but an average of 25,000 girls a day become child brides, and unless something is done to change this trend within the next 10 years, over 100 million girls in the developing world will become child brides. 

The legislation authorizes the President to provide assistance to prevent the incidence of child marriage and promote the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls. The State Department is required to come up with a multi-year strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of young girls who are at risk of child marriage. Last month, the Human Rights Commission held a compelling Congressional hearing on the issue of child marriage, but no action has been taken as yet by either the House Foreign Affairs Committee or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Momentum has been building for both of these legislative initiatives, but the Congressional clock is ticking. There are probably fewer than 25 legislative days remaining before Congress leaves town in October, and while a lame duck session this year is virtually assured, it may be difficult to pass these bills when Congress resumes in late November.

Empowering women in developing countries may not rank as high on the Congressional agenda as job creation, but the issues of violence against women and child marriage are of crucial importance to millions of women around the world.  While President Obama and Secretary Clinton have demonstrated outstanding leadership on these issues, they need the support of Congress now, not next year when a new Congress is sworn in. In Congressional parlance, these bills are not a “heavy lift.”  But they would provide a big lift to women in the developing world.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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