The Global Gender-Based Violence Threat

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Washington, DC
November 20, 2013

Good afternoon,

I am honored to be here with all of you to discuss the critical importance of preventing and responding to gender-based violence globally. I would like to express my appreciation to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for your commitment to promote and defend international human rights, including women’s rights.

It is fitting that we gather now to discuss these issues, as Monday marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the first of the 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, which concludes on Human Rights Day, December 10. My job as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues is to promote the principle that advancing the status of women and girls is essential to achieving America’s diplomatic goals – that peace, security, prosperity, economic growth cannot be achieved without the full and equal participation of women, and that men and boys are important partners in this effort.

Violence against women and girls is a global epidemic. It crosses every social and economic class, ethnicity, race, religion, and education level, and transcends international borders. It takes the form of early and forced marriages, sexual violence, and traditional harmful practices, among others. Violence occurs both inside and outside the home, and often increases with instability.

For example, we see heightened levels of gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict settings, in refugee and displaced persons camps, and following natural disasters. The use of rape as a tactic of war is yet another egregious form of gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women and girls. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime, and one in five will experience rape or attempted rape. This is unacceptable.

Gender-based violence is also a public health challenge and a barrier to social, political, and economic participation. It undermines the dignity, overall health status, and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, as well as the public health, economic stability, and security of nations.

That is why addressing gender-based violence is a cornerstone of the Administration’s efforts to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality around the world.

While serving as Chief of Staff to Dr. Jill Biden, I spearheaded an interagency effort to develop the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, which the Administration launched in August 2012. It is my hope that this strategy, and the accompanying Executive Order from President Obama, will make a significant difference in efforts to ensure that all persons can live free from violence.

This work also complements and builds upon the U.S National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which aims to protect women and advance their participation in conflict, post-conflict, and relief and recovery settings.

It is estimated that women and children make up more than 75 percent of displaced populations worldwide. At the UN General Assembly this year, Secretary Kerry announced Safe from the Start, an initiative to prioritize the needs of women and children at the onset of emergencies. With an initial funding commitment of $10 million, this new State-USAID initiative will assess and address the needs of women and girls in emergencies.

We have also been working closely with other donor countries around the world, including the UK, to advance this policy priority, including through coordination on the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and through Secretary Kerry’s recent announcement that the U.S. will chair the Call to Action to Address Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies this coming year.

Whether we are responding to the link between violence and HIV/AIDS as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), stemming the tide of trafficking in persons, responding to humanitarian crises, providing training to law enforcement and judges, or engaging with civil society, we factor in the concerns of women and seek ways to provide support to survivors and activists working to address violence.

In partnership with USAID, the State Department supports efforts to help local governments investigate and prosecute crimes of gender-based violence; provide legal and psychological services to survivors; support prevention efforts by educating communities and engaging with critical stakeholders including men, boys and religious leaders; and support capacity-building to enhance the ability of the media and civil society to address these issues.

We also work with the private sector to identify creative and innovative programs to prevent and respond to gender based violence. We work to create opportunities— through investing in education to entrepreneurship—that will help women and girls overcome barriers and empower them to be less vulnerable to violence, exploitation, brutality, and abuse.

I want you to know that I am personally committed to this effort – and will use all the resources at my disposal to make a difference. Martin Luther King, Jr famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice; I believe this is true for women worldwide. All around the world, governments and people are beginning to recognize that global stability, peace, and prosperity depend on protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls. That is not to say that every day there are not millions of women whose potentials are stifled by violence, early and forced marriage, misguided notions of honor, traditional harmful practices, barriers to education, credit, and rights under the law.

But we’ve seen that when a girl has the chance to go to school, has access to health care, and is kept safe from violence, she will marry later, have healthier children, and earn an income that she will invest back into her family and community—breaking the cycle of poverty. We’ve seen that integrating women’s perspectives into peace negotiations and security efforts help prevent conflict and can lead to more durable peace agreements. And we’ve seen women entrepreneurs lifting up families, communities and entire economies.

We’ve seen what is possible. We know that empowering women and protecting them from violence will lead to stronger families, stronger communities, and stronger nations. I look forward to working with you in this effort.

Thank you.