What the U.S. Doesn't Get About Violence Against Women

On September 23, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a decidedly — and uncharacteristically — proactive U.S. initiative. Safe from the Start is a $10 million plan to assist “humanitarian agencies and organizations to hire specialized staff, launch new programs, and develop innovative methods to protect women and girls at the onset of emergencies around the world.” Considering the complex web of issues that arise in a conflict scenario, many of which have been given higher priority than preventing gender-based violence, this is a tremendous victory for the women, peace, and security agenda, as well as the struggle for human rights at large.

However, it also highlights a stark inconsistency in U.S. policy with regard to gender equity and civil rights. With unexpected bedfellows such as Iran, Sudan, and Somalia, the U.S. remains one of seven countries that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW is intended to provide a basis for "realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life... education, health and employment... so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms." In not yet ratifying CEDAW, while promoting Safe from the Start, the U.S. is sending a clear message to the international community that it will set the moral compass but not be held accountable to the same standards. In order to have a positive impact on the lives of women in conflict zones, the U.S. must demonstrate a resolute commitment to their equality overall. In order to do this effectively, the U.S. must finally ratify CEDAW and ensure the security and equality of its own female citizens. 

Indeed, the need for the U.S. to take a solid stance on preventing violence against women and girls in conflict is unquestionable. Though statistics are scarce, particularly in perilous environments, even the lowest range of estimates indicates hundreds of thousand of women are victims of gender-based violence in conflict. With a range from 20,000-50,000 women raped in Bosnia in the 1990s, 250,000-500,000 in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and over 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2008, we are looking at anywhere from 470,000 to 750,000 abused women in three conflicts alone. These numbers are staggering and unacceptable. However, just as important from a preventative standpoint would be to take a comprehensive look at the legal and cultural environment for women outside of conflict. Take the DRC for example. Despite the DRC's ratification of CEDAW in 1986 and the adoption of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa in 2004, the DRC does not offer legal equality to women. The most effective way of demonstrating this inequality is through the DRC Family Code. Article 444 of this Code says that “the man is the head of the household and the woman must obey him.” Regardless of the international documents the DRC has signed onto, it is still an unequal state for women, which offers greater insight on their treatment throughout the conflict. If the United States truly seeks to create a enduring shift in the way women are treated in times of conflict, it must be equally concerned with the ways in which women are treated in times of security.

Unfortunately, the United States has little room to talk in attempting to convince countries such as the DRC to advocate for gender equality both within and beyond conflict. Having not yet ratified CEDAW, the United States itself faces tremendous challenges in terms of gender discrimination and oppressive legislation towards women. From a constant battle in Congress and in our courts over a women's right to make decisions regarding her own body, to a continual disparity in pay rates, the cultural and legal battle over equality for women still wages on. And like a country in conflict, these inequalities are manifested in gender-based violence. Twenty percent of American women, or one in every five, have reported being a victim of sexual assault. And even more Americans have reported being a victim of domestic violence: 54 million Americans with almost twice as many women reported as men.  

The inability of the U.S. to ratify CEDAW should most certainly not overshadow the importance of and need for programs like Safe from the Start. Rather, initiatives combating gender-based violence should further reinforce the need for ratification and enforcement of international laws like CEDAW, so that women no longer need to be protected in the first place.