By Dominique Soguel
Friday, May 9, 2008
The International Violence Against Women Act would require the U.S. to respond to a critical outbreak of gender violence within 180 days. Zimbabwean Betty Makoni explains why women in her country need the bill to be made into law.
(WOMENSENEWS)--When Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced the International Violence Against Women Act to Congress last week, Betty Makoni was among the 200 women and men who converged on Washington, D.C., from all parts of the world to hail the news.
"I-VAWA allows the United States to intervene single-handedly in Darfur, Congo, my country, situations where people can't rescue themselves," said Makoni, director of the Girl Child Network in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. "You don't have to go before the U.N. Security Council to debate people's lives. It takes too long to intervene on behalf of the world's most vulnerable people."
Makoni, a 37-year-old survivor of sexual violence, and human rights activists from London-based Amnesty International rallied on Capitol Hill to support the bill, which would integrate the framework to fight violence against women worldwide, including rape, mass rape during conflicts, domestic violence, acid burnings, dowry deaths, honor killings, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and other acts of violence.
The International Violence Against Women Act would set aside $1 billion--spread over five years--to support grassroots organizations working on gender-based violence and women's issues.
Last October Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., introduced I-VAWA in the Senate.
If I-VAWA were in place now, Makoni said during an interview at Amnesty's New York office, it would provide a financial and diplomatic lifeline for women suffering in the violence that has followed the disputed results of the March 29 elections in Zimbabwe.
The delayed election results released May 1--five weeks after the election and the same day Berman introduced the bill--showed that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, beat President Robert Mugabe but failed to win enough votes to avoid a run-off, according to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network.
Opposition activists are accusing Mugabe of election fraud and demanding a recount amid violence that has claimed at least 20 lives, brutalized hundreds and displaced thousands. A run-off vote may not occur until July.
James McGee, U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, in late April attributed only one incident of the 500 cases of political violence he had handled to the opposition party.
On April 29 the United Nations Security Council kept Zimbabwe off its formal agenda after discussion was blocked by the South African ambassador, who said it was up to Mugabe and U.N. Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon to arrange a special envoy or fact-finding meeting. South Africa has received over 2 million refugees fleeing Zimbabwe's turmoil but has refrained from criticizing the Mugabe government directly.
Mugabe has led the country since its independence in 1980. His reputation swings from freedom-fighting hero to brutal dictator. Critics claim his land reforms--carried out forcibly with a battle cry pitting poor blacks against white imperialist farmers--stifled agricultural productivity, leaving large pockets of the population unemployed, starving or displaced.
Many women suspected of voting against Mugabe have been beaten, harassed, raped and abducted in acts of political intimidation, Makoni said. "When you beat one of them, you beat all of them. Now women will fear polling stations as a no-go zone for women."
Women of Zimbabwe Arise, an activist group that stages peaceful protests across the country, reported May 5 that police in Bulawayo attacked a group of protesters, including one pregnant woman, with baton sticks and made arbitrary arrests.
Teachers--mostly women--played a large role at election polls, said Makoni. Over 2,740 teachers have been hurt or intimidated since, according to a statement from the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe. Another 133 have been hospitalized, four houses torched and 31 schools abandoned.
At least two teachers were shot in reprisal killings, terrifying the female-dominated profession. Makoni fears such women will not return to the classrooms or polling stations.
"These survivors of political violence are not the first," says Makoni. "There are previous ones from elections in 2000 and 2005. Together, they are genocide. You are not going to hear that 50,000 have been tortured or killed one by one. Who is going to put the statistics together? The aid agencies have left. We need a U.N. envoy to go to the country and conduct a fact-finding."
Makoni--whose work exposing high-profile cases of child abuse antagonized the government and landed her in jail last year--spent the month of March visiting Zimbabwe's rural edges, where 60 percent of the population is concentrated and where 80 percent are female.
The invasion of farms by youth militia, Makoni says, has left untold numbers of women homeless, jobless and hopeless.
Every woman Makoni talked to, she says, was starving. This year's droughts were bad and fertilizers came too late. Food storage vans stood empty. Most women have worked the farms since birth; without schooling, they have no other means of survival and can't bear a season of failed crops.
In her account, husbands often migrate to Harare, the capital, for prospects of low-pay work driving taxis or shining shoes, but return penniless and infected with HIV as a result of frequent contact with sex workers. Rural women, mostly sustenance farmers, earn $1 to $5 a month. Harare's sex workers earn at maximum 20 cents per night.
Makoni calculates that 80 percent of married women have HIV-AIDS and only 10 percent manage to access antiretroviral drug treatments in their lifetime. The spread of the disease is accelerated by the popular belief that sex with a virgin cures it. Women and girls who attempt to leave Zimbabwe often trade sex for passage to South Africa or are raped by security forces at the border, she said.
Zimbabwe has a population of 13 million, with a life expectancy of 34 years for women and 36 for men.
The International Violence Against Women Act would create a special office in the State Department to oversee the distribution of funding and coordinate efforts to combat violence against women abroad. The U.S. government would have no more than 180 days after a critical outbreak of gender-based violence to develop emergency efforts in response.
"That would be a transformational change on how we deliver foreign assistance," said Ritu Sharma Fox, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a Washington advocacy group that helped developed the bill along with Amnesty and the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund. "The U.S. government would be accountable for proving that money gets to local organizations."
The bill, she says, has very strong bipartisan support but is not likely to pass during an election year. Of the three presidential candidates, only Sen. Hillary Clinton has signed on to it.
"This year is about building awareness and support for the legislation," Fox told Women's eNews. "And next year with a new administration and a new Congress it will be about making it happening."
I-VAWA's budget would roughly quadruple the amount of U.S. foreign aid to women's organizations, which is now less then $50 million annually, according to estimates from Women Thrive Worldwide.
One in three women worldwide will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to the U.N. Development Fund for Women.
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.
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