When I walked into the U.S. Capitol building this week, it was with the weight of history – my own and my country’s. Years ago, I had walked these hallowed halls as a writer for a Congressional publication and had lived in a house just blocks away. But this time I was there for a very different purpose: I was going to try my hand at lobbying, plying Congress for a cause that had become dear to my heart.
I came to Washington, D.C. with nearly 150 volunteers and staff from the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that promotes human rights and works to end poverty in the developing world. This year, one of the group’s legislative priorities is passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, now pending in Congress. In February, I had traveled to Uganda as a Global Justice Fellow with AJWS, learning first-hand why this bill is so crucial to the lives of women around the world. I met a gay woman whose life had become hell because of her gender identity; she’d been beaten, raped and robbed and was suffering the emotional trauma of being ostracized by family and community. I also met sex workers, many of them single mothers just trying to make a living, who had been subjected to unprovoked beatings and police brutality. And I met a transgender woman whose home had been burned to the ground and who had been terrorized by her community simply because of who she was. In fact, I would learn that one in three women around the world are beaten, abused or raped at some point in their lifetime – an appalling figure.
The bill would help combat this trend by using the full force of U.S. diplomacy, as well as existing U.S. foreign aid funding, to support legal, social, educational, economic and health initiatives to prevent violence, support victims and change attitudes about women and girls in society. When women become victims of violence, everyone suffers; gender-based violence can reduce a nation’s GDP by as much as 3 percent because women are so key to collective productivity.
“If you want to get a barometer on how a country will fare – its stability – just look at the way it treats its women,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) told our group as we prepared to head out to visit Members of Congress. “Women invest in children and family. Men invest in war.”
With the recent kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian school girls, the need for the legislation has become all the more pressing. “This is the moment to strike,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said during a meeting with 20 members of our group. We met with Boxer in the sumptuous President’s Room in the U.S. Capitol, adorned with gilt, frescoes and historical portraits and the spot where Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King once stood. Boxer had just come from a vote on several new judges and was gracious enough to stop by to spend 20 minutes listening to our pitch and discussing strategy.
A strong women’s rights activist, she has been an ardent supporter of the bill from the start. With 300 nonprofit groups now clamoring for its passage, she said she felt it was time to introduce it into the Senate, which she did a week ago. It’s now critical, she said, to enlist additional Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, particularly among members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to give it greater weight and bipartisan appeal. In the House, the bill already has 63 Democratic and 11 Republican co-sponsors, with more being sought.
Together with three colleagues, I also met with staff members for Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) to put in a bid for their support. Eshoo is my representative, so I was delighted to hear from her legislative correspondent, Margo Brown, that Eshoo, another strong women’s rights advocate, would be a likely co-sponsor of the bill. And Chu’s legislative assistant, Joleen Rivera, JD, while not familiar with the legislation, seemed genuinely interested. Many bills in Congress simply fail for lack of awareness, so at the very least by calling attention to the issue, I felt we helped elevate its status among the pile of proposals that come before Congress every year.
All told, we made 100 collective visits that day to Members of the both the House and Senate in what was an extremely gratifying experience. We agreed that together we had moved the needle that much closer to helping improve the lives of women around the globe.
Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls, Preventing domestic violence and HIV in Uganda, Sex work in Uganda: Risky business, In Uganda, offering support for those born with indeterminate sex and Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence
Photo by Rob Pongsajapan