05/29/2013 08:41 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Resilience in the Face of Violence

Late last week, I saw a story on CNN that struck a chord with me. It profiled Sonali Mukherjee, a young woman in India who - in 2003 - was headed to college and had a bright future ahead.

At just 17 years old, Sonali had repeatedly rebuffed the advances of three men. One afternoon, they found her sleeping and threw a jug of acid on her face. Because of her injuries, she is unable to see and initially had trouble even speaking.

I've been an advocate for global women's rights for more than 20 years. Through my work, I've met women in too many countries to count whose stories are just as horrific. But Sonali's story was particularly moving for me. Not because of how gruesome her injuries were, but because of her resilience.

I would have wished to die if I were in her place, but not only is she going on living, she's out there fighting to raise awareness, prevent acid attacks, and get justice for survivors.

Now, 10 years and 27 surgeries later, she is making her story known.

"My father spent every penny, hoping I would get justice. But in the end we lost everything, while the criminals are out there," she told CNN.

Around the world, violence hobbles the lives of far too many women and girls. Violence doesn't always involve acid. Sometimes it's sexual assault. Sometimes it's domestic violence. And sometimes it's harassment on the street.

The numbers around gender-based violence globally are just staggering. But behind each and every data point is a woman like Sonali. Here are some chilling facts:

  • Nearly 70 percent of women in certain countries will experience some form of violence in their lifetimes.
  • Each year, around 3 million girls and women--or some 8,000 girls each day--face the risk of female genital mutilation or cutting. An estimated 130 million to 140 million girls and women have already undergone the practice.
  • In some countries, as many as 30 percent of women report that their first sexual experience was coerced or forced, and the younger they were at the time of sexual initiation the higher the chance that it was violent.

Statistics like these can seem overwhelming, but women and men across the globe are making progress in reducing violence through successful community programs to change attitudes and behavior.

I believe the United States has a unique ability within the global community to lead in reducing violence against women and girls.

Already, Congress and the White House have taken important steps toward ending violence here at home. The landmark Violence Against Women Act that passed earlier this year is crucial legislation that adds resources where they are most needed - but it only applies to women within the United States.

Now is the time to take our commitment to women and girls global.

We are asking Secretary of State John Kerry to make reducing gender-based violence a centerpiece of his foreign policy. We've started a petition where anyone who wants to see the United States do all it can to prevent attacks like the one that scarred Sonali can weigh in.

No single policy or piece of legislation will wipe out gender-based violence in one fell swoop. But each action we take adds to the cumulative tide of meaningful change.