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Human Rights Day: U.S. Should Support Victims of Violence Against Women

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"You said, 'Hit me,' and he did. What do you want me to do?" A prosecutor asked Dolores, whose husband had beaten her, when she tried to file a criminal complaint against him. Dolores sat across from the prosecutor, with a bruised face, stunned at his question. She wanted him to do his job and enforce the law. She expected to be treated like any other crime victim. Instead, Dolores was sent home, where she endured eight more years of escalating physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband.

I met Dolores in 2012 through a prominent women's rights organization in Cartagena, Colombia. She is now a leader in her community, educating women about their rights and helping them to walk away from domestic abuse and other violence. Despite the amazing strength she demonstrates every single day, she seemed to crumble before my eyes when she described the obstacles to leaving her abusive husband. In four and a half tearful hours, she described the many steps she took to get help, and all the ways the Colombian state failed her.

About 1 in 3 women globally will suffer intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner in her lifetime. This number may be as high as 7 in 10 women in some places (Ethiopia and Cuzco, Peru), and drops slightly to about 1 in 4 women in high-income countries. But, no matter where you live, it is statistically dangerous to be a woman.

Nearly 20 years ago, women's rights supporters from around the world gathered in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women and declared that, "Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace." Since Beijing, countries have agreed to a set of standards designed to prevent gender-based violence and improve the way governments respond. Yet, violence remains an ever-present part of many women's lives. Over 161 countries, including Colombia, have taken steps to pass comprehensive laws to prevent and respond to violence against women. But passing laws is not enough -- laws have to be implemented. And, as Dolores's case so painfully shows, they frequently are not, and too few of the attackers are ever punished.

There are important reasons why this happens. It's up to the authorities to enforce laws, but often they still carry the societal biases and baggage that contribute to limiting access to justice. The way the prosecutor responded to Dolores is a perfect example. Instead of treating Dolores with dignity and respect, as he should any crime victim, he blamed her for the abuse she suffered. She lost trust in the authorities, and went home ashamed.

Strong laws by themselves were not enough to ensure that Dolores found help when she sought it and most needed it. Instead, Dolores believed that the authorities would not protect her. She never went back for help, even after the violence escalated and her husband hunted her, knife in hand, as she hid in homes throughout her neighborhood.

Dolores eventually found a women's organization in her community, and with its help, escaped with her children and her life. Not all women are so lucky. When the authorities don't prevent, protect and prosecute violence against women, the violence can lead to death.

Today is Human Rights Day, but it also marks the end of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence that began on November 25.

On November 21, appropriately in anticipation of these 16 days, U.S. lawmakers re-introduced the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). This piece of legislation plays an important role in raising the profile of violence against women globally, and it commits the U.S. to do its part to help the world end this epidemic of abuse at home and abroad. It would institutionalize State Department posts dealing with ending violence against women and girls, making the issue a diplomatic priority. Women like Dolores who may never cross the mind of U.S. or foreign officials would become an important focus.

Specifically, the bill directs the U.S. government to put into effect the U.S. Department of State and USAID strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. In so doing, it recognizes that violence against women affects all parts of society, and seeks to address this violence through already allocated funding to various programs -- including health, education and justice. For example, the I-VAWA emphasizes increasing access to justice for victims, and ensuring support for them throughout the legal process. It also gives priority to training police and the judiciary to help overcome societal biases and faithfully implement laws. By addressing the shortcomings in the way laws that exist to protect women against violence are carried out, these critical steps will help increase access to justice for women like Dolores who have found themselves mistreated, turned away, or otherwise unsupported by institutions that should be there to help.

Ending violence against women isn't controversial, and the bill has the sponsorship of both Democrats and Republicans. On this Human Rights Day, stand in solidarity with victims of violence against women around the world. Encourage your member of Congress to support I-VAWA without reservation.