It was thrilling this week to see President Barack Obama signing a new law to combat "conflict minerals" mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- a heinous practice financed by armed rebel militias, whose extreme violence against women has made Congo one of the most deadly places on earth for females. The United Nations documented more than 8,000 rapes there last year, along with other sexual and physical abuse, kidnapping, and sexual slavery.
The Congo legislation is a highly successful example of what can be achieved in just one year when officials at the top levels of government focus together on solving a problem. Last summer, after visiting Africa's second-largest country and seeing first-hand the hospitals full of physically and emotionally scarred women and girls, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the lead on violence against women in Congo -- advocating for legislation, pushing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, and working collaboratively with industry groups to ensure their supply chains are free of conflict minerals.
It's important to note that not only did the Obama Administration persuade big public corporations like Hewlett Packard to support the conflict minerals law, but its officials also crossed the aisle to work on this issue with Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback.
So why, I ask, isn't the Obama Administration putting on a similar full court press to get the International Violence Against Women Act, out of the House and Senate committees where it's been stuck for years? This vitally important, comprehensive legislation, sponsored by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA), should have been high on the Administration's legislative agenda this year once a former Senate sponsor, Joe Biden, became Vice President. An important provision of the bill -- the appointment of the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues -- was already accomplished last year when international activist Melanne Verveer was confirmed by the Senate for this new position.
The law would require the United States to act to support women around the world, of whom, according to a study by the World Health Organization:
- Between 4% and 12% report being abused during pregnancy;
- One in five report being sexually abused as children; and
- Approximately 5,000 are the victims of honor killings each year.
The ACLU of Southern California is joining hundreds of women's NGOs around the world in calling for the enactment of this bill, known as IVAWA. It would require the Secretary of State to develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent violence against women and girls; prepare a public report on best practices for preventing and addressing violence against women and girls internationally; and determine emergency response measures to identify critical or widespread incidents of violence against women and girls in situations of armed conflict. It would require funding, training, the involvement of our military, and working with nonprofits, governments, and international organizations like the United Nations.
Before the August recess, Congress should take up this bill. Please join me in visiting the website of a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, Women Thrive Worldwide. Sign their petition asking your member of Congress to make women's lives a priority.
As the petition notes: "Women in poor countries already face enough barriers to lifting their families out of poverty. Violence should not be one of them."
Ramona Ripston is Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.