International Violence Against Women: Stories and Solutions

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight
Washington, DC
October 21, 2009

Thank you, Chairman Delahunt, for bringing us together today, as we continue to address one of the most serious global challenges of our time: violence against women. I request that my submitted written testimony be entered into the record, and I will summarize from it. I would also like to thank Representative Schakowsky for her long leadership on this issue.

The time to take concerted action to end international violence against women is now. Today, we have a far greater understanding of the global variables involved in the problem – of why we must intensify our efforts against this worldwide scourge, and of the consequences if we fail to seize this opportunity. We need to chart a new era of international cooperation on this global pandemic – to create partnerships among governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, and civil society. And I want to applaud Nicole Kidman for her personal commitment and generosity for bringing her celebrity to UNIFEM to put a spotlight on this issue. Violence against women cannot be relegated, as you said, Mr. Chairman, to the margins of foreign policy. It cannot be treated solely as a “women’s issue,” as something that can be dealt with later, after we deal with “more pressing” issues. Violence against women and girls is a humanitarian issue, a development issue – and a security issue.

As Secretary Clinton has observed, there cannot be vibrant civil societies if half the population is left behind. Where violence and the threat of violence prevents women from participating fully, freely, and equally in their societies, in those places good governance, the rule of law, and economic prosperity cannot fully take root. Around the world, the places that are the most dangerous for women also pose the greatest threats to international peace and security. The correlation is clear: where women are oppressed, governance is weak and extremism is more likely to take hold.

The current scale, savagery, and extent of violence against women and girls is enormous. It affects girls and women at every point in their lives, from sex-selective abortion, which has culled as many as 100 million girls, to withholding adequate nutrition, to FGM, child marriage, rape as a weapon of war, human trafficking, so-called “honor” killings, dowry-related murders, and so much more. Rape is fueling HIV/AIDS infection among adolescent girls, which continues to climb at a rate that should concern us all. Life everywhere is touched by violence. It occurs in homes, at schools, in the workplace, and all across society. This violence cannot be explained away, as you said, Mr. Rohrabacher, as “cultural” or as a private matter; it is criminal. It is every nation’s problem and it is the cause of mass destruction around the globe. We need a response that is commensurate with the seriousness of the crimes.

Now, the statistics that tell the extent of this humanitarian tragedy are well-known. But behind the numbing quantitative data are qualitative data – the stories of actual people. We are telling their stories here in the hopes of keeping alive, around the world, a simmering sense of collective outrage that can and must spark into global action, so that other women will be able to have different life stories – with happier endings.

Mr. Chairman, you have entitled this hearing, “Stories and Solutions.” Stories of real lives should move us to action, and stories of real solutions, of ways of successfully combating this violence, are lessons we can grow and take to scale, lessons without borders.

Addressing violence against women and girls means ending stories like Waris Dirie’s: one of the two to three million girls and women each year who are subject to FGM, she underwent the procedure in Somalia when she was 5 and survived, although two of her sisters and cousins died. Tostan, an NGO in Africa, has worked effectively to reduce the practice of female genital cutting – which is deeply ingrained in some societies. Both men and women at the village level, working together, became aware of, and took action to end, the harmful effects of the practice on the health and wellbeing of girls.

It also means not having any more stories like Shamsia Husseini’s. Parts of her face were eaten away by acid last year, after a man – a stranger –decided that attacking her might prevent her from going to her school in Afghanistan and getting an education. It didn’t: Shamsia is still in school, despite the fact that her scars interfere with her eyesight. She is one of 2.6 million girls in Afghanistan in school – a vast improvement from 2001, when the Taliban prohibited any education for girls, but still just one-third the number of boys in school. Whether the number of girls continues to grow will say much about Afghanistan’s future.

Confronting violence means being able to rewrite stories such as that of a young Yemeni girl, Najoud, a vivacious child with a big smile whom I got to know. She was married at the age of eight to a much-older man, and she walked out of her house after two months of rapes and beatings, and found her way to the courthouse, intent on getting a divorce. She was lucky to find a caring female lawyer who took her case, as well as those of other girls whose fathers had married them off – sometimes just to be freed of the burden of caring for a daughter. Yemen has, subsequent to Nujoud’s case, been debating whether to raise the age of marriage, but 52 percent of the girls there still marry before the age of 18. For these girls – not just from Yemen, but from South Asia, from Africa, and elsewhere – their childhoods are effectively curtailed; their education is terminated; their emotional and social development is interrupted. Maternal mortality is high for girls who have babies, and they face the highest risk for fistula and chronic physical disability in addition to the violence done to their psychological and emotional development.

With interventions, however, to provide incentives to parents to keep their daughters in school – ending school fees, for example, or providing families with commodities like bags of flour or cans of oil or other necessary staples, or feeding children in school – other girls like Najoud will potentially be spared the horrors of child marriage.

The stories of violence against women include those of the estimated 5,000 who are killed each year to cleanse the family’s so-called “honor” of the shame of the victim’s – or other people’s – alleged indiscretions. Mukhtar Mai, from Pakistan, was one such targeted woman: gang-raped on the orders of a local village council because her brother allegedly held hands with a girl from a nearby village, it was expected that she would commit suicide because the attack on her dishonored her family. She didn’t: this illiterate young woman mustered the courage to take her case to court. She won a modest settlement, which she used to build two schools: one for boys, and one for girls, in which she enrolled herself. When asked why she used her small settlement for this purpose, she said she knew that nothing in her village would ever change without education.

Women and children are also most at risk in conflict zones, when legal and social norms fall away and armies and militias act without fear of accountability or judicial penalty. In August, I traveled with Secretary Clinton to Goma. At the Heal Africa Hospital, we met a woman who told us that she was eight months' pregnant when she was attacked. She was at home when a group of men broke in. They took her husband and two of their children to the front yard, and shot them, before returning into the house to shoot her other two children. Then they beat and gang-raped her and left her for dead.

Her story is unfortunately far too common. In the DRC’s eastern provinces, 1100 rapes are reported each month. Rape is being used in armed conflict as a deliberate strategy to subdue and destroy communities. Secretary Clinton took this issue to the UN Security Council and two weeks ago spoke on behalf of a U.S.-sponsored resolution focused on protecting women in armed conflict, which the Council unanimously adopted.

The stories I’ve outlined represent a humanitarian tragedy – and more; a tragedy for all of our efforts to build a better world. These abuses not only destroy the lives of individual girls and women, families, and communities, but also rob the world of the talent it urgently needs. There is a powerful connection between violence against women and the unending cycle of women in poverty. Women who are abused or who fear violence are unable to realize their full potential and contribute to their countries’ development. There are enormous economic costs that come with violence against women. Ending violence against women is a prerequisite for their social, economic, and political participation and progress.

There is a common thread among the stories I have presented: each of them is, fundamentally, a manifestation of the low status of women and girls around the world. Ending the violence requires elevating their status and freeing their potential to be agents of change and good in their community.

We need a greater response to this global pandemic. In the written testimony I’ve submitted, there are a number of ways we can do that – ways that the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues is working on, and ways in which we hope to secure the cooperation and partnership of key allies.

Women are critical to progress and prosperity in the 21st century. When they are marginalized and mistreated, humanity cannot progress. When they are accorded their rights and afforded equal opportunities, they lift up their families, their communities, and their nations.

It is time that violence against women became a concern for all of us.