Standing Up to Violence Against Women Worldwide

04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ritu Sharma Author of Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe, Senior Visiting Fellow with CSIS and IYF

By Ritu Sharma and Humaira Shahid

Nasreen (not her real name) who walked into the office of the Daily Khabrain newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan that day eight years ago demanded justice. She stripped off her clothes, revealing a body which was blue due to a gang rape, covered with wounds and cigarette burns. With tears in her eyes she said, "Humaira, my husband hired these three men and got me raped in front of him because I was tired of his abuse and demanded the divorce that Islam gave me a right to. He didn't even respect me as the mother of his children ... I just want justice in the name of God."

Nasreen was just one of millions of women who suffer acid attacks, rape, forced marriages and other unimaginable forms of violence around the world. One out of every three women worldwide is physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. The good news is that there are many thousands of local organizations in communities around the world supporting abused women: by running shelters, offering help and support, training and educating women so that they can be self-sufficient, fighting to change cultural attitudes and finally, pushing for legal reform. Pushing for long-term social change requires all of these efforts.

In Pakistan, for example, legal reforms in the past decade have slowly started to give women the tools of basic justice. The story of Nasreen and countless other women became a catalyst for two ground-breaking resolutions moved in the provincial parliament in the state of Punjab in 2003. One was against acid attacks on women, while the other abolished violent customary practices or vani which include honor killings, forced marriages, and women bartered into marriage to make up for crimes committed by their male family members. These reforms were unprecedented and moved forward in a parliament that is notoriously corrupt, traditionalist and patriarchal, with leaders who are not only collaborators but often directly involved in violence themselves.

The resolutions had a snowball effect. They first created pressure on the federal government of Pakistan, then led by Pervez Musharraf, to amend the nation's criminal laws to protect women against domestic abuse. The following year, despite opposition from many religious leaders, a Women's Protection Act was passed in 2006 repealing the Hudood Ordinance: under which a woman subjected to rape, or even gang rape, was accused of fornication. Just last year, Pakistan enacted a Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace bill. None of this would have happened without the concerted effort of local women leaders, community-based organizations, NGOs, and the media, which together created enough public awareness and pressure to move the needle.

This week, efforts like these all over the world have their best chance of being supported by the United States. And at a time of extreme partisanship in Washington, a historic, bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) was introduced in both the Senate and the House on February 4. The bill comprehensively addresses, for the first time, violence against women and girls through all relevant U.S. foreign policy efforts, including its international assistance programs. It would support local efforts in up to 20 countries, supporting emergency assistance like shelters, public awareness and health campaigns; education, training and economic empowerment programs for women, as well as legal reforms. It also makes the issue a diplomatic priority for the first time, asking the U.S. to respond within three months to horrific acts of violence against women and girls committed during conflict and war, for example, the rape and abuse of millions over the last several years in the Congo.

Support from the American public is strong. A 2009 poll found that 61 percent of voters across demographic and political lines thought global violence against women should be one of the top international priorities for the U.S. government, and 82 percent supported the I-VAWA legislation when it was explained to them.

Despite the odds women face, we as advocates to end this global scourge are always awed by their strength. There are countless examples of women supporting each other to overcome the bleakest of circumstances, and investing in this untapped reservoir is the best way to create societies that are tolerant, less violent, less extremist, more humane and more socially just. Passing the International Violence Against Women Act could truly be a life-changing force for millions of women and girls like Nasreen around the world.

Ritu Sharma, a leading advocate of the I-VAWA, is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide in Washington DC, which pushes for U.S. policies that support women living in poverty worldwide. Humaira Shahid is a former editor and legislator in Pakistan, who drove the passage of the first two resolutions against violence in the Punjab state parliament. She is currently a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.