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Fathers Can Stop Violence, Too

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This weekend I, like many other fathers in this country, had the joy of celebrating Father's Day with my family. As Dad to five sons, I take special pleasure in helping them to become positive forces in the world. One of the things I have tried to teach them--through my behavior, my words, and my work--is that we men have a role to play in the empowerment of women and girls. Gendered power dynamics contribute to so many of the world's ills, from HIV/AIDS to poverty, from lack of access to health services to poor quality education. But one of the worst manifestations of gender norms is also a consistent barrier to our multibillion dollar efforts to address these other human rights challenges: violence against women and girls.

Around the world, one in three women will be beaten, raped or coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In the vast majority of these cases, the perpetrator is a man known to the woman or girl. To my great sadness, this perpetrator is often her father, or another trusted male relative. As a father, I feel it is my responsibility to model for my sons how we can help reduce the negative impacts of gender norms. As a human rights activist focused on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, I know it is my duty to advocate for policies around the world that help ensure safety for women and girls, so they can be healthy, educated, productive members of their families and communities. This is why my organization, the Global AIDS Alliance, and I are supporting the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), currently making its way through both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support.

Violence against women and girls is both a cause and a consequence of HIV/AIDS, in this country and everywhere. It is a cause because violence or the fear of violence can prevent women from negotiating safe sex, from asking if her partner knows his HIV status or has other sexual partners, from seeking HIV testing, returning for her results, or taking antiretroviral treatment to slow the progression of the disease. Studies have found that men who are violent toward their intimate partners are more likely to have multiple sexual partners at the same time, a major risk factor for the spread of HIV; and that women who have been abused are more likely to use condoms inconsistently than women who have not experienced violence.

Violence is a consequence of HIV for many reasons, too. For example, women living with HIV often experience stigma; stigma may lead to violence, which can prevent women from seeking services they need to stay alive out of fear that it will make their HIV status more apparent and expose them to further risk. Ultimately, research tells us that women living with HIV experience more violence in their lifetimes than HIV-negative women, and women who have experienced violence may be up to three times more likely to acquire HIV than women who have not.

Three of the key champions of the International Violence Against Women Act--Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Representative Ted Poe (R-TX)--are also fathers who recognize how essential male partnership is in ending violence against women and girls. While I-VAWA will support engagement of men and boys in creating gender equality and making the world safer for women and girls, it will make many other improvements to U.S. international development and global health programs, as well.

I-VAWA will build off U.S. leadership on HIV by ensuring that we are also addressing violence, both as it relates to HIV and as a human rights violation and barrier to U.S. foreign policy goals in its own right. Much as HIV/AIDS requires a comprehensive response, so too does violence against women and girls. So I-VAWA will mandate the creation of a comprehensive multisectoral strategy in a set of focus countries, where programs will be supported to reform the health, legal, and education sectors, increase women's economic opportunity, and change social norms that enable violence against women and girls to continue. Improved coordination across the Department of State, USAID and other U.S. agencies implementing overseas programs, and increased attention to the role of sexual violence in armed conflict and humanitarian crisis situations are also on the I-VAWA agenda. I-VAWA will increase the efficiency and efficacy of our foreign assistance dollars, and make the world a better place for everyone--men and women, boys and girls.

This Father's Day I was reminded yet again how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful family--and how important it is that I take that opportunity to make the world a more just, healthy, and peaceful place. By working to address the twin pandemics of HIV/AIDS and violence against women and girls, I know I am taking a step in the right direction. I encourage you--whether or not you are a father too--to urge your Members of Congress to co-sponsor I-VAWA and pass it swiftly. The best gift this father could get is a safer world for this generation and the next.

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