NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– As Haitian women who were displaced by the 2010 earthquake suffer from sexual violence in refugee camps, a bill lingers in Congress that supporters say could improve U.S. efforts to help in such a situation.
Critics of the bill, the International Violence Against Women Act or I-VAWA, have argued that it will impose Western values upon other countries, will be costly to implement and excludes men and boys.
Wendy McElroy, a research fellow at the California-based Independent Institute, criticizes the bill, writing that it will require a "redirection of foreign aid funds in order to insert politically correct feminism into the structure of other nations."
McElroy also accuses the bill of ignoring male victims and focusing on male perpetrators instead.
"[The bill’s] reference to males is on the need to engage them in reducing violence. ‘How’ is not specified. Legal sanctions and judicial enforcement are mentioned repeatedly, however. Presumably, males would be engaged as actual or potential abusers," McElroy wrote.
Julia Drost, a rights advocate supporting the bill, sums all that up as so many misconceptions.
She says the I-VAWA would serve as coordinating mechanism for the State Department and agencies such as USAID and the Office of Global Women’s Issues.
It’s designed to prevent overlap, said Drost, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocate associate for Amnesty International, the London-based global rights group, in a phone interview. "[It is] so important that these agencies are at the table and working together."
Reintroduced in the Senate in May of this year by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the bill failed to pass in the House in 2013 because of the lame duck session, said Drost.
The bill had the most Republican support in 2013 with 13 co-sponsors, including New York Reps. Richard Hanna and Chris Gibson, in the House.
"I’m really proud that we had the largest number of Republican co-sponsors this bill has ever seen," said Drost, who is hopeful it will pass by the end of this year.
The lack of Republican support can be attributed to the fact that many believe the bill focuses on reproductive rights and abortion.
Codifying a Global Strategy
The bill, which has been introduced into Congress four times over the last seven years, would also codify a global strategy that President Barack Obama signed in 2012 to make reducing gender-based violence a main and permanent priority for the United States, said Christine Hart, policy and government affairs manager for Women Thrive Worldwide, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Although federal agencies and departments currently work on global gender-based violence, there is no policy that ensures that they will continue to do so, said Hart in a phone interview.
If made law, I-VAWA would have guided humanitarian aid in better ways, for instance, to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010.
With forethought and focus on gender violence, she said agencies could have set up refugee camps with greater care.
Inadequate security, poor outdoor lighting, isolated bathrooms, insecure housing and limited access to food and water all contributed to notoriously high rates of sexual violence in the Haitian refugee camps. Of those surveyed, 93 percent said violence has increased in the camps, finds the 2012 PotoFi Haiti Girls Initiative Field Study.
The bill would require federal agencies to select five "pilot countries" where they would create an "in-depth, detailed implementation program," Hart said.
The main requirement for choosing those countries is that people and organizations on the ground express a need for U.S. aid, Hart said.
The bill also says federal agencies would have to report their work and findings on gender-based violence to Congress annually and that those results be accessible to the public, Hart said. "[It] ensures that work is being done and reported on in a transparent way."
Amnesty’s Drost points to the way I-VAWA might have applied to Guatemala.
With an estimated 7,600 women killed from 2000 to 2012, Guatemala has the highest rate of femicide in the region. Less than 4 percent of these cases end in an arrest or conviction.
In response to high murder rates and gender-based violence, a 24-hour court was established in Guatemala City. The court gives women who have been harassed health services, psychiatric treatment and the opportunity to report the assault, said Hart.
I-VAWA would require that U.S. federal agencies and Guatemalan organizations worked together to train police officers, lawyers and judges in matters of sexual violence.
No Additional Funds
Congress will not need to allocate additional money for the bill because it will only require that the United States continues its work on gender-based violence, Drost said.
"This bill is not imposing U.S. values," added Drost. Instead, federal departments will only be required to address gender-based violence in areas where it is needed and wanted, she said.
"Unfortunately the name [of the bill] gives a misconception that it excludes men and boys," said Drost. The language in the bill is intentionally meant to be inclusive, she said.
The bill focuses heavily on engaging men and teaching boys about the accountability of violence against women, said Drost.
Humaira Awais Shahid, a journalist, human rights activist and two-term legislator in Pakistan, said she supports the bill because of its strategy for violence prevention.
While Shahid stands behind bill, she acknowledges the concerns surrounding its intentions. The United States has long been criticized for its mismanagement of international aid and intervention strategies.
"A lot of aid that is directed to the developing countries including Pakistan is [constructed] with short-term goals and speedy results . . . Billions of U.S. aid directed to violence prevention fail to address economic development, health and education of women and their communities, which directly affect the lives of women," Shahid said in an email interview.
"The bill is criticized because of the past history and deliverance of aids and reforms to the conflict-torn regions," she said. "The inability to deliver fruitful results and lack of sustainable impact brings more international criticism."
Shahid said that if I-VAWA were passed it could help overcome some of the negative impressions left by previous types of humanitarian aid programs for girls and women.
"I-VAWA is about serious long-term policy of women with the intention of delivering through an effective mechanism," Shahid said. "Sincere policy and sincere deliverance devoid of political gains is what is required to dispel the image of the U.S.A. as asserting their dominance."
Nicole Deniflee is a former editorial intern for Women’s eNews. She is a student at Rutgers University and Douglass Residential College. Follow her on Twitter: @nicole_deniflee.
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