WASHINGTON — A Senate subcommittee began discussion Tuesday of a bill with bipartisan support that would promote reducing discrimination and violence against women internationally, part of a years-long effort in Congress and, most recently, a response to terrorists’ kidnapping this spring of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria.
Its Democratic sponsors say the measure, the International Violence Against Women Act, would help combat gender-based violence that occurs as a result of sexism in male-dominated societies, both in the United States and around the world. Several female Democratic senators shared stories of women abroad who have been abused in ways ranging from sex trafficking and rape to beatings and verbal harassment.
Although no Republican lawmakers testified at Tuesday’s hearing, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., have co-sponsored the bill, which has a near-identical version in the House of Representatives with 13 Republican co-sponsors.
The legislation, which has been introduced four times since 2007, when then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., did so, would create a five-year plan for how U.S. policy could prevent and combat gender-based violence.
The bill has consistently had some Republican support but not enough to pass, and never as much as the House and Senate sponsors have rallied this year.
Without opposition to the bill in Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who proposed the measure in May, laid it out as a “not complicated” solution to a pervasive problem.
“Tragically, even in the year 2014, the state of women around the world remains precarious,” said Boxer, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that hosted the hearing. “But we have an opportunity to take action to help end the scourge of violence and discrimination.”
Congress last year reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994 to set aside funds for the investigation and prosecution of gender-based violence in the United States. Although the U.S. doesn’t have authority to do the same on an international scale, Boxer’s bill would create an Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department and encourage the advocacy of women’s rights in foreign policy. It also would enact other diplomatic tools to emphasize that stopping gender-based violence and discrimination is a priority for the United States.
To illustrate the breadth of such violence, the testifying senators described – sometimes in graphic detail – myriad instances of victimization.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spoke about the forced marriage of a 15-year-old Indian girl named Lali. Faced with resistance from her community when her mother tried to enroll her in school, Lali did not receive an education, because her family opted instead to save the money for her dowry.
“This is the fate that awaits millions of other girls in India,” Murray said. “But there is a solution: Invest in quality basic education.”
The International Violence Against Women Act includes provisions that would highlight the importance of women’s education. Boxer cited the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls when she introduced the legislation.
Although she was unable to testify Tuesday because of scheduling conflicts, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., submitted testimony for the public record in which she described how an Afghan woman’s husband, who regularly beat her, cut off her nose and upper lip because he had demanded money she did not have.
“Millions of women face senseless violence every day simply because they are women,” Feinstein said.
In the testimony, Feinstein expressed concern about how a decreased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could perpetuate violence against women. The United States is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Although the legislation hasn’t yet been scheduled to move outside the subcommittee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., promised to take it up for debate before the full committee.
“Gender-based violence is a global epidemic,” Menendez said. “This is an issue that affects every single one of us, men and women.”
Subcommittee ranking member Rand Paul, R-Ky., used the hearing to criticize the allocation of U.S. foreign aid to countries where violence against women occurs. He said he supported the merit of Tuesday’s discussion.
“Our aid money should have conditions on it,” Paul said. “Persecution of women is wrong. Persecution of Christians is wrong.”
In the hearing, Boxer advocated for the U.S. ratification of a United Nations measure called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which outlines rights guaranteed to all women around the world.
“We must do more than just make our speeches and call for the end of violence; we must act,” Boxer said.
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