UNITED STATES: Obama's Executive Order on Preventing Gender-Based Violence has Global Impact

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
North America
United States of America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

While recent attention has focused on the absurd remarks U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri, Todd Akin, made about “legitimate rape,” it is easy to miss one of the most under-reported stories of the summer. On August 10, 2012 President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on preventing gender-based violence globally. This order was also accompanied by the release of a U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally.

The strategy outlines four key objectives: to increase coordination of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts among U.S. government agencies and with other involved parties; to enhance integration of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts into existing U.S. government work; to improve collection, analysis and use of data and research to enhance gender-based violence prevention and response efforts; and to enhance or expand programs that address gender-based violence.

From left, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. (AP photo)
Ironically, this strategy document was requested by the U.S. Congress at the same time our legislators were trying to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a 1994 statute that was actually introduced by now Vice President, and then Senator Joe Biden.

The reauthorized version currently before Congress would have included protection for women immigrants by increasing the number of “U” Visas that the Department of Homeland Security could issue for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The current limit on this visa category is 10,000 per year, but this cap has been reached this year.

Tired of waiting for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the President took action. By issuing this Executive Order, the U.S. government recognizes “that gender-based violence undermines not only the safety, dignity and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, but also the public health, economic stability and security of nations.”

Violence against women knows no borders. And the increasing prevalence of rape as a weapon of war in ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sudan and in post-earthquake Haiti underscore the breadth and scope of the problem. Sexual abuse is a form of warfare in the 21st century. With a stroke of a pen Obama expanded the U.S. commitment to protect all women by creating a Commission to review how U.S. assistance to governments and multilateral organizations supports the prevention of all forms of violence.

Protecting women from harm has never been a high priority even in this country. Just think that we have four times more animal shelters than women's shelters. But imagine what happens in places where governance is weak and women are treated as second class citizens.

NCDSV is the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and was one of the organizations that planned the VAWA Rally event infront of the Capitol. (photo/ Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)
In May 2011, the Nobel Women's Initiative, an organization that uses the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize and courageous women peace laureates to magnify the power and visibility of women working for peace, justice and equality, hosted an international meeting in Canada.

Entitled Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, the meeting brought together women from India, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia to share their experiences about violence. The result was a joint commitment to end sexual violence during war.

An international campaign is now underway with the support of foundations, governments and advocates from around the globe.

Thomas Jefferson once said that “the greatest threat to democracy is apathy.” And when it comes to helping women globally we are only starting to make progress by recognizing the promotion of women's rights to be central to our own national interests globally. Thus, an honor killing in Pakistan, or the rape of a school girl in the Congo, are not only violations of basic human rights, but also reflect a deeper instability and more unstable environment in which impacts economies, livelihood and security.

On the international front, the last decade has seen a dramatic rise of violence against women, a defining feature of internal conflicts and civil wars.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an estimated one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence experienced by women globally.

Other forms of violence include human trafficking, sexual violence, including when used as a tactic of war, and harmful traditional practices, such as early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, and ‘honor' killings.” Such violence significantly hinders the ability of individuals to fully participate in and contribute to their families and communities—economically, politically and socially.

What is troubling is our Congress' willingness to make women's rights hostage to a faction of legislators who would rather play politics with their ideological biases rather than do the right thing and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

In 2012 this law has become a lightning rod for all the other political hot-button issues that divide us—immigration reform, lesbian and gay rights, and tax reform.

The House version of the bill contained anti-gay and anti-immigrant provisions which President Obama said he would veto, if passed. When the Senate sought to have its more reasonable version of the reauthorization considered House Speaker John Boehner refused to move this law forward.

What has happened to a nation that only 18 years ago, in 1994, was able to agree that domestic violence required national action whereas with the threat of violence today we have politicians who would treat a homeless pet better than a woman under siege by a boyfriend or spouse?

The Executive Order is an important affirmation of the importance our leadership places on preventing gender-based violence at home and abroad. While these mandates are no substitute for legislation, they lay down a marker that is clear for those who will understand that when it comes to women's rights, there are many friends in the White House and throughout the executive branch.