I never met my grandmother. She was burned alive with kerosene doused on her sari and lit on fire. Some think it was suicide, some think it was a dowry murder since her mother-in-law was not pleased with what my grandmother brought into her new husband’s family. She had four children; one of them my mother, the other my uncle, who was just a few months old when she was killed. I cannot imagine her shock, grief and pain in the moments before she died. It makes me sick to even think about it.
Regrettably, her story is not uncommon. Consider the young couple whom the Taliban stoned to death for adultery and the young Afghani woman whose nose and ears were cut off because she tried to escape an unbearably abusive husband and his family—it happens every day.
We all read those stories, cringe at the grotesque pictures and then feel that empty pit in our stomachs because we think there’s nothing we can do. But finally that could change.
Five years ago, Women Thrive Worldwide partnered with the Family Violence Prevention Fund and Amnesty International USA to find out what our country could do to meaningfully help women stop violence in their lives. We interviewed over forty women’s groups in poor developing countries and consulted more than 100 experts and organizations working in the field. The result is IVAWA, the International Violence Against Women Act (H.R. 4954/S. 2982), introduced into the Congress by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). It was introduced into the House by Representatives Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Ted Poe (R-Texas).
The IVAWA lays out some constructive steps the U.S.—still a beacon of hope for so many women worldwide—can take. Most significantly, it targets up to 20 countries where several key factors are aligned: violence against women and girls is epidemic, the country’s government is supportive (at least not counterproductive), there are local women’s organizations already working to stop violence and ready to go big, and the U.S. has a good relationship with the nation. These countries would get help in addressing violence from many different angles—through the legal system, programs to change attitudes, services for survivors, women’s economic empowerment, and girls’ education.
This means that women facing death by stoning (or worse), women in the world’s most violent places like Congo, and even women silently suffering brutality in their own homes will for the first time get a much-needed boost, where in the past, local organizations with meager resources were unable to help them. Services will expand, police officers will be properly trained, new laws will be passed, and existing laws will be enforced.
IVAWA is about making a real difference where we can. Rather than turn away from all women and girls because it just seems too overwhelming, IVAWA focuses on expanding proven solutions and working in places where a small amount of money can go a long way.
Now for the best part—it won’t cost much. If all the programs in IVAWA were fully funded each year, it would cost 0.00008 percent of our current U.S. federal budget —that’s eighth-tenths of one ten-thousandth of one percent. We’d be hard pressed to find a better return on investment. This is an issue that must transcend party politics and posturing over “fiscal responsibility.”
There are more than enough votes to pass this bill, but we shouldn’t even need to count them. It’s a matter of simple humanity. We know how to help. We know it won’t cost much. Applying the force of American diplomacy in the world to do good is our country’s legacy. To do nothing would be to turn our backs on millions of women who have no one else to turn to.
Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide which advocates for U.S. policies that empower women living in poverty globally. She has been a leading advocate for passing the IVAWA. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.