Stopping violence against women worldwide

The U.S. Violence Against Women Act and several reauthorizations created critical funding, strategies and structures to prevent violence against women and girls and to support survivors. While this law has been immensely helpful in the United States, foreign assistance to combat violence against women in other countries has been patchy, meager and uncoordinated. 

Sadly, there are many examples of the need for better responses to violence against women in countries around the world. The severe and widespread sexual violence and other attacks on women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide a stark example.

The words of one woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch last year illustrate what thousands and thousands of Congolese women and girls have endured: “They attacked at night, locked people in their houses and then burned them in their homes…Nobody in my family survived. I went to the toilet when the bandits [a militia group] were already in the village.…They found me while I was trying to flee and took me and 10 other women and girls into the forest to rape us. I was raped by four of them at least, but then I lost consciousness and couldn't count them. I was in the bush with them for one week…I became pregnant because of the rape.”

The United Nations estimates that at least 200,000 women and girls endured sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2008. In conflict-ridden eastern Congo, sexual violence is practiced systematically by both soldiers and rebel fighters. These include gang rapes and assaults in which guns, knives or sticks are thrust into victims’ vaginas. Many of the victims are children.

The health and social impacts of sexual violence are grave anywhere. In Congo, many rape survivors are also shunned by their communities, especially if they become pregnant.

In recent years, the Congolese government and nongovernmental organizations have increased their efforts to provide medical, psychological, economic, and legal support to rape survivors. International donors have supported programs to improve the justice system, for example through legal training and building the capacity of the military justice system and the police. The military justice system is better equipped to deal with sexual violence than a few years ago, and some soldiers have been convicted of sexual crimes. However, the vast majority of attackers remain free to rape again, and the vast majority of rape survivors have no access to needed services. Far more needs to be done.

For many women and girls in Congo, reporting rape leads nowhere. One woman said she was raped by a soldier and could identify him. She went to the battalion’s commanding officer. He said he did not believe her. The rapist was moved to another town, but returned a few months later and was never prosecuted. 

The United States pledged $17 million last year to help rape survivors and prevent sexual violence in Congo. This support was important. But the U.S. government’s efforts to combat violence against women and girls in Congo and around the world should be more intensive, strategic and consistent. 

The International Violence Against Women Act presents a comprehensive plan for U.S. foreign assistance to prevent and remedy violence against women and girls. A structure would be created to support more coordinated and intensified local efforts in up to 20 countries to improve the full range of services that survivors need. It would promote jobs and other economic support for women, and strengthen efforts to change social attitudes that condone violence against women.

The bill has important provisions for addressing violence against women during and after armed conflict.  It would support trauma counseling, medical assistance, legal services and economic opportunity programs for women in countries affected by conflict.

After each gut-wrenching interview with a sexual violence survivor that we do as researchers into human rights violations, we walk away feeling angry and sad, but also hopeful. Hopeful because of the resilience of these survivors, and their determination to speak out to stop these crimes. Hopeful because at least some will reach organizations that can help them mend their health and their lives. Hopeful because we know we can do something to support their efforts. Passing this bill is an important step in that direction.

Janet Walsh is deputy women’s rights director for Human Rights Watch.