Women’s groups target Voinovich to pass anti-violence bill

Supporters of the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) are ramping up their lobbying efforts as Congress prepares to bring the measure to a vote following the July 4 recess.

Their primary target: Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a prominent “debt hawk” and member of the Appropriations Committee who is retiring after this year. 

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Voinovich is viewed as a crucial GOP vote for a bill that currently has only two Republican sponsors in the Senate. Advocates say his support will be vital to obtaining the desired amount of funding from Congress: up to $1.3 billion over five years.

More than a dozen religious organizations, service institutions and advocacy groups from Voinovich’s home state have joined with national groups such as Women Thrive Worldwide to lobby for the senator’s vote.

Phyllis Carlson-Riehm, executive director of the Action Ohio Coalition for Battered Women in Columbus, said she plans to visit Voinovich’s district office in the coming weeks.

Her organization was one of 18 local groups to draft a letter to Voinovich urging the senator to support I-WAVA.

“It is important for the United States to demonstrate ethically and morally the belief in both genders having access to resources and equal rights,” Carlson-Riehm said.

Carlson-Riehm said she is optimistic Voinovich can be won over.

“As an individual who listens to his constituents and cares about respecting their views, there’s no reason not to expect that he will respond,” she said.

Voinovich spokeswoman Rebecca Neal said the senator will review the legislation and make an appropriate decision should the bill come up for a vote.

Ritu Sharma, president and co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, said her organization recently delivered a considerable stack of letters and faxes to Voinovich’s office.

“I don’t think there could be a clearer signal from his constituency that they want him on this bill,” Sharma said.

Advocates say public support for I-VAWA is strong. A 2009 poll found that 82 percent of voters across demographic and political lines support the bill.

“I think members of Congress will be really proud to go back to their districts and say ‘I voted to help end violence against women around the world,’” Sharma said.

But concerns over the cost of the bill are causing some senators to balk, most notably Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who originally co-sponsored a similar bill in 2007 with then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

Sharma said she has been working with Lugar’s office to address his concerns.

“In an ideal world, we’re looking at a significant U.S. investment over a five-year period,” Sharma said, “but we absolutely understand the budget situation that we’re in.”

I-VAWA was re-introduced on Feb. 4, 2010, under new sponsorship by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.); Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine); and Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.); Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

The bill is designed to combat violence against women and girls through all relevant U.S. foreign policy efforts, including international aid programs, and require the administration to produce a strategy designed to “measurably reduce violence against women.”

It would also for the first time make the issue a diplomatic priority, requiring the United States to respond within 90 days of an outbreak of sexual violence against women during conflict and war.

I-VAWA is an international version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a piece of legislation passed in 1994.

The bill currently has 28 co-sponsors in the Senate and 112 in the House.

Delahunt is “cautiously optimistic,” according to his press secretary, Rory Sheehan.

Sharma said she hopes to see a vote by September and is confident the bill will pass.

“We know we have the votes in committee and we know we have the votes on the floor,” Sharma said.