Combating Gender-Based Violence as a US Policy Priority

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

This blog is part of the series, "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series features renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.

Women and men in Tunisia and around the world were appalled earlier this month when it came to light that a woman who filed charges of rape against two police officers was herself charged with "public indecency." After a week of protests and embarrassing press, the Tunisian president issued a formal apology to the woman, though it remains to be seen what will become of the charges against her and the police officers. This is just one recent example of a much wider affliction that plagues countries around the world: sexual harassment, violence, and intimidation directed at women.

The American policymaking and civil society community should take inspiration from the Tunisian woman who refused to be a silent victim and the countless others like her, and work together to fight against sexual and gender-based violence, in all its forms. With concerted efforts by the US government, international civil society, and local activists, real progress can be made in helping victims of sexual violence, and just as important, working to combat the institutional and social factors that can lead to such atrocities.

In August, 22 organizations and individuals in the human rights community came together to make recommendations on the biggest human rights challenges that need to be addressed by the next American president. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama should include strategies for combating sexual and gender-based violence in their foreign policy priorities.

In our respective fields we have seen people who suffered violence, mostly women, at various points on the path from victimization to survival. We see trafficked women who need refuge, and survivors of violent attacks who urgently need medical assistance. Many of those we meet have been attacked in war zones or in places of significant gender inequality. Some are in environments that enable abuse — among displaced peoples, migrant workers desperate for a better life, and districts catering to the male demand for girls and women who have been, with no meaningful choice — converted into mere commodities for sex. Too often, survivors have little or no access to justice, necessary health care, or other restitution.

There are myriad causes of sexual and gender-based violence, but one key element that encourages these crimes is the almost total impunity for perpetrators in many countries. Establishing and promoting accountability would not only punish the culprits, but would also be an essential part of the healing process for many survivors.

There is substantial evidence of the connection between conflict and instability on the one hand, and sexual and gender-based violence on the other. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, women are frequently attacked by government forces, rebel troops, and other factions vying for power. According to a report published in 2011 by the American Journal of Public Health, four women are raped in the DRC every five minutes. But such violence is not limited to one country, continent, or time. Too few women who were systemically raped in the Balkans in the 1990s have had their lives restored, despite this violence aptly being classified as a war crime. Women protesters participating in the Arab Spring uprisings have been targeted with sexual violence by both government allies and opposition forces. Rape and sexual harassment are used to intimidate and punish women in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen for their political engagement, either real or perceived.

Although sexual and gender-based violence often comes to the surface in these emergency situations of war or civil unrest, the ordinary undercurrent of violence in many countries is much more sinister. For instance, a 2012 International Labor Organization report found that there were a staggering 21 million forced labor victims in the world, of whom 55 percent were female and 22 percent were exploited for sex. Even those who were exploited mainly for labor rather than sex were also subject to sexual violence.

Victims of the various forms of sexual and gender-based violence — including rape, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and domestic abuse — are frequently prevented by societal constraints from seeking safety or justice. Too often their suffering is compounded by social stigma and denial that they are victims. Those aiming to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence therefore have dual goals: treating the immediate needs of survivors, and targeting the underlying causes of the violence. We must not only provide health care, shelter, and a path to safety, but we must also promote sustainable security, access to education, regular medical services, job training, and judicial institutions.

The United States and other democratic governments must work together with countries where these crimes often occur to create international norms, and put in place local legal structures and institutions designed to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and successfully prosecuted. The American government should make accountability for sexual and gender-based violence a priority in bilateral relations, and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for involvement in human trafficking and other sexual crimes on the part of US government employees, contractors, and military personnel. And civil society advocates and governments alike should establish and protect accountability mechanisms during conflicts, not only to guard against abuses during war, but also to stem the seepage of impunity from war zones into post-conflict societies.

The best agents of change to stop sexual and gender-based violence and push for an end to impunity are the survivors of violence themselves. And ultimately, the full engagement of women in politics and society — whether in poverty-stricken, post-conflict, or post-autocratic countries — will drive the transformation of abusive environments. But human rights advocates and democratic governments can and must support their efforts. Whoever is elected president on November 6 should make it a US policy priority to snuff out violence against, and promote the empowerment of, the half of humankind represented by women and girls.

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