Audience members packed into a hearing room last Thursday afternoon to witness a historic moment—the first full Senate committee hearing on the topic of violence against women. Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) presided over the hearing titled Violence Against Women: Global Costs and Consequences, which featured two panels of speakers:
• The Honorable Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Department of State
• The Honorable Stephen Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Department of State
• Major General Patrick Cammaert, Former Military Advisor to the UN Secretary General, Former UN Force Commander for the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
• The Honorable Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, Former Ambassador to Angola
• Ms. Geeta Rao Gupta, President International Center for Research on Women
• Ms. Esta Soler, President and Founder, Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF)
The message of the hearing was clear: Women’s issues are a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. “[The issue of] violence against women cannot be relegated to the edges of foreign policy,” said Ambassador Verveer, who holds a post created by Secretary Clinton to emphasize the importance of women’s issues internationally.
Panelists described the issue of violence against women as inextricably linked to national security, weak states, economic underdevelopment, even failed peace agreements. According to Verveer, women invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities—a contribution that is lost when women are threatened by sexual violence. Steinberg emphasized the importance of recognizing women as stakeholders in peace accords. He said, “The exclusion of civil society is half of the time the reason why peace agreements fall apart.”
Discussion also turned to the motivation behind sexual violence in parts of Africa. Ambassador Rapp testified that in Sierra Leone, rape was not the “isolated conduct of out of control individuals” but “an effective tool for terrorizing and displacing a population.” As Major General Cammaert bluntly noted, “Cheaper than bullets, more silent than bombs, rape is the weapon of choice for rebel groups.”
Much of the hearing was devoted to celebrating the recent passage of Resolution 1325 by the United Nations Security Council and looking to the future. Concrete action has already begun in the U.S. Senate. Senator Kerry announced plans to reintroduce The International Violence Against Women Act, or I-VAWA, a bill that would dedicate staff, and budgets in the State Department and USAID to the issue. Senator Kerry said in his concluding statement, “We’ll give you all the support that we can. We can do this. We’ll create the consciousness to change the behavior.”
Given these words of optimism and the early commitments of Secretary Clinton and President Obama, it seems women’s issues have arrived front and center. Now it’s important to build on this momentum to ensure that increased attention in Washington leads to meaningful improvements on the ground, in places like eastern Congo, where the scourge of sexual violence is most acute.
Photo: A woman who survived rape rests at a safe house in eastern Congo. (Enough/Rebecca Feeley)