The world paused with shock when news of the ghastly assault on a woman riding New Delhi public transportation recently came to light. The young student nicknamed Nirbhaya -- a Sanskrit word meaning fearless -- succumbed to injuries she sustained during a brutal gang rape by six men who took turns torturing her as the bus careened through the city.
While Nirbhaya was being cremated this week, so was the Violence against Women Act (VAWA). Congress let VAWA expire due to disagreements over issues like, of all things, protection of 'American Indian' women.
The issue is obviously not new. Subjugation and abuse of women have been used as tools of power, politics and conflict for millennia. Today, more than 100 million women are victims of female genital mutilation practiced in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East. Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani student and TIME Person of the Year Finalist, was shot in the head for being an education advocate for girls. Women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square by Egyptian men protesting, ironically, their government's overreach of power.
The United States is certainly not immune. According to the Department of Justice, more than 200,000 rapes and sexual assaults occur here every year, or approximately one every two minutes. Every day, three women are killed as a result of domestic abuse, abuse which the CDC reports 1 in 4 American women experience in their lifetimes.
The phrase "war on women" was uttered frequently during the recently concluded election season in reference to debates over women's access to contraceptives, pregnancy termination options and other policy impositions on a woman's body. But the real war is ensuring they enjoy the same rights as men: to safety, security, and equality, something violence and sexual assault attempts to rob from them. And while the phrase is an obvious American creation -- we like to declare war on our challenges -- the problem is not.
But our country has lessons for the world. The domestic abuse rate has declined by over 60 percent in the last 15 years. Likewise, from 1979 to 2009, the reported rape and sexual assault rate declined by over 80 percent. When they do occur, such as the disgraceful 2009 gang rape and beating of a Richmond, Calif. teenager or the rape of a 12-year-old girl at a Baltimore skating rink, the perpetrators are pursued and prosecuted.
Legislation helps change the culture and enforcement helps deterrence. This seems obvious, but, in many places, it is not commonplace.
When VAWA reauthorization failed to occur, we unnecessarily muted our voice and lost moral ground. The act authorizes the funding of law enforcement and prosecutors to track down and convict perpetrators, as well as victim services and support groups. As result, while the violent acts remain criminal, the resources to bring the culprits to justice and support for the victimized women are drastically reduced. If we are to lead, it must be by example, and reauthorization is an important step.
All is not lost. This past summer, President Obama signed an executive order endeavoring to prevent and respond to violence against all women. The order creates an interagency working group to implement a global strategy that recognizes the critical role societies with empowered women play in foreign policy, stable societies, and economic prosperity.
Perhaps just as importantly, amendments to the new Defense Bill, signed into law yesterday, redouble efforts to eradicate sexual assault from the military services. This is an enormous message to the world: there is an enormous advantages when hard and soft power meet in support of gender-equality.
Now that this issue once again has the world's attention, it is time to act. The self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor touched off the Arab Spring and a series of public protests that overturned governments throughout the Middle East in 2011. The horrid shooting in Newtown, Conn. last month was the impetus for our nation to address its gun policy and associated issues. Likewise, the horrible loss of this New Delhi woman -- who could have been any woman anywhere in the world -- should be the seminal moment that spurs the world into action, and the United States must do what it has always done in this arena: lead by example.
By reauthorizing VAWA, we will show that in the face of violence against women, our country has the same nirbhaya spirit of the young student in New Delhi.