U.S. Senate hearing on combating violence and discrimination against women

Article Date

24 June 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This morning, Senators Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul convened a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues on “Combating Violence and Discrimination Against Women: A Global Call to Action.” The objective of the hearing was to highlight stories of the terrible human rights abuse that is gender-based violence—which impacts one in three women around the world—and to call for action, particularly by U.S. policy makers.

The action at hand is twofold: passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) and U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Both are measures that would position women’s rights—including that most central right to live a life free of violence, exploitation and abuse—at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Both are equally lofty… and to date, equally unsuccessful.

It’s not for lack of substance. IVAWA was designed (with guidance from the International Center for Research on Women, among others) to make ending violence against women and girls a top diplomatic and foreign assistance priority. Previous versions of the bill gave way to what is now the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, a pivotal piece of foreign policy that for the first time tasked agencies responsible for administering U.S. foreign policy and development assistance with key responsibilities to end gender-based violence. Now, IVAWA would codify in law this Strategy, and also permanently authorize the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and its Ambassador-at-Large leadership, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Senior Gender Coordinator. Together, the Ambassador and Senior Coordinator share leadership—and importantly, accountability—for the coordination and implementation of various internationally-focused American policies, programs, and funding related to gender equality and female empowerment, including those intended to prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV).

At present, neither the Strategy, nor the Ambassador, nor the Senior Coordinator, are protected and permanent institutions; all could be swept away in future administrations that do not hold U.S. leadership on these issues in such high regard. All good things.

CEDAW, on the other hand, is not a bill that needs to be passed but an international treaty that the U.S. should ratify. Often referred to as the “international bill of rights for women,” CEDAW is an international agreement that outlines the rights of women and girls to live free of violence, to enjoy equality and full participation in their nations’ economic, political and social spheres. Somewhat shockingly, the U.S. is one of only a handful of states that has yet to ratify—keeping company with the likes of Iran and Sudan. Needless to say, the fact that we have not ratified CEDAW does nothing to enhance our credibility on women’s issues on the world stage.

For those of us who’ve supported the International Violence Against Women Act for more years than we’d like to count—it’s been introduced in each of the last five Congresses, but never been passed into law—there can be a bit of despair in hearing another panel of witnesses testify to the horrors endured daily by women and girls around the globe with little chance of passage. The same feeling applies with CEDAW, which, despite the fact that Secretary Kerry pledged to work with his Senate colleagues to ratify during his Senate confirmation, continues to languish on the sidelines of Washington’s foreign policy discussions.

However, today did feel a bit different. I arrived on Capitol Hill 40 minutes early, and there was already a line out the door of the hearing room. By the time the proceedings began, both the hearing room and a larger overflow chamber down the hall were filled to capacity, with young activists dodging Capitol Police to get inside. Also new and different, a panel of female senators elected to testify in support, this time as witnesses, not from the other side of the bench alongside their colleagues. That’s something I’ve not seen done.

The last election cycle saw quite the “year of the woman,” with more female Senators elected to that esteemed body than ever in American history. Those of us who cheered them to the finish line hoped the sheer number of their ranks would be a game-changer for our issues; watching them elbow their way onto this morning’s panel, I wondered if that just might be true.