Eight years ago, Nasreen (not her real name) walked into the office of the Daily Khabrain newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan, and demanded justice. She stripped off her clothes, revealing a black and blue body covered with wounds and cigarette burns. She'd been gang raped. With tears in her eyes, she said, "My husband hired three men and got me raped in front of him because I was tired of his abuse and demanded the divorce that Islam gave me a right to. He didn't even respect me as the mother of his children... I just want justice in the name of God."
Nasreen was just one of millions of women who suffer acid attacks, rape, forced marriages and other unimaginable forms of violence around the world. One out of every three women worldwide is physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. The good news is that there are thousands of organizations in communities around the world for abused women. These organizations run shelters and offer help, support, training, and education so that women can be self-sufficient. They also fight to change cultural attitudes and push for legal reform.
In Pakistan, for example, legal reforms in the past decade have slowly started to give women the tools of basic justice. The story of Nasreen and countless other women became a catalyst for two groundbreaking resolutions in the provincial parliament in Punjab in 2003. One prohibited acid attacks on women. The other abolished violent customary practices or vani, which include honor killings, forced marriages and women bartered into marriage to make up for crimes committed by their male family members. These reforms were unprecedented and moved forward in a parliament that is notoriously corrupt, traditionalist and patriarchal, with leaders who are not only collaborators but often directly involved in violence themselves.
The resolutions had a snowball effect. They created pressure on the federal government of Pakistan, then led by Pervez Musharraf, to amend the nation's criminal laws to protect women against domestic abuse. The following year, despite opposition from many religious leaders, a Women's Protection Act was passed that repealed the Hudood Ordinance, under which a woman subjected to rape, even gang rape, was accused of fornication.
Last year, Pakistan enacted a Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace bill. None of this would have happened without the concerted effort of local women leaders, community-based organizations, NGOs, and the media, which together created enough public awareness and pressure to move the needle.
Now the needle may move again. The International Violence Against Women Act, a historic, bipartisan effort by the United States to address violence against women globally, was introduced this week.
The bill addresses, for the first time, violence against women and girls through all relevant US foreign policy efforts, including its international assistance programs. It would support local efforts in up to 20 countries, assisting in public awareness and health campaigns; shelters; education, training, and economic empowerment programs for women, as well as legal reforms. It would also make the issue a diplomatic priority for the first time, asking the United States to respond within three months to horrific acts of violence against women and girls committed during conflict and war.
Support from the American public is strong. A 2009 poll found that 61 percent of voters across demographic and political lines thought global violence against women should be one of the top international priorities for the US government, and 82 percent supported the International Violence Against Women Act.
Despite the odds women face, we, as advocates to end this global scourge, are always awed by their strength. There are countless examples of women supporting each other to overcome the bleakest of circumstances. Helping them become economically empowered and providing protection and access to justice will enable these women to create societies that are more tolerant, less violent, less extremist, and more human and socially just. Passing the International Violence Against Women Act could truly be a life-changing force for millions of women and girls like Nasreen around the world.
Humaira Shahid is a former editor and legislator in Pakistan, is currently a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Ritu Sharma is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide in Washington.
Summary of International Violence Against Women Act (pdf)