Khalida married her husband Asad in Pakistan through an arrangement made by their families. (Their names are changed here to protect Khalida.) She finished medical school and began her residency a month after she was married. Her husband was immediately abusive and jealous: He restricted Khalida's movement and forced her to be accompanied wherever she went, including to work. When she had to stay at the hospital for 24hour emergency duty, her husband accused her of staying out just to attract men and to dishonor the family. He raped her repeatedly, and when she miscarried her first pregnancy, he slapped her and blamed her work at the hospital. Khalida eventually quit her job, but even after the birth of her two children the brutal abuse continued, along with blame for bearing daughters instead of sons. After trying for years to escape, she finally made it with her children to the United States with the help of brothers who were already here. To this day, Asad and his family do not accept that the marriage is over and threaten to harm Khalida if she ever returns to Pakistan.
The Tahirih Justice Center recently opened its doors in Houston to help women like Khalida, the very few who are fortunate enough to escape violence and have the means to make it to safety in the United States. While Tahirih provides some of the services that help Khalida and others like her build safe futures for themselves and their children, many of her sisters around the world remain trapped in desperate situations. Solutions for them have to be found closer to home.
One out of every three women worldwide is physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime, and in some countries that rate is as high as 70 percent. The nature and scale of the violence women suffer is horrifying: from pervasive domestic violence to rape (including as a tool of war), to widespread sex trafficking and girls being forced to trade sex for food. Violence devastates the lives of millions of women and girls and knows no national or cultural barriers. Violence also keeps women poor. Women are the majority of those living on $1 a day or less worldwide, and the cruel cycle continues: Violence prevents them from getting an education or working, and their poverty keeps them dependent, preventing them from leaving abusive situations.
Now the good news: We can and must stop this violence, and there are thousands of local organizations like Tahirih around the world that are doing just that. They are running shelters, offering help and support, training and educating women so that they can be self-sufficient, fighting to change cultural attitudes that treat violence as normal, and pushing for legal reform so women's basic rights will be taken seriously by local courts. Every country and culture is different, and these organizations know best how to serve women in their communities.
There are promising signs that our country is beginning to support these worthy local initiatives. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been a forceful advocate for women worldwide, raising the profile of this issue everywhere, from her visit last year with women raped during the conflict in the Congo to her remarks pointing out gender inequality in Yemen at the Davos Economic Forum in January.
And at a time of seeming partisan dysfunction in Washington, a groundbreaking, bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act, or I-VAWA, was introduced in both the Senate and the House in early February. The bill comprehensively addresses, for the first time, violence against women and girls through all relevant U.S. foreign policy efforts, including its international assistance programs. U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, is the lead Republican sponsor in the House, working across the aisle with Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and many others.
Support from the American public is also strong. A 2009 poll found that 61 percent of voters across demographic and political lines thought global violence against women should be one of the top international priorities for the U.S. government, and after learning more about it, 82 percent supported the I-VAWA. The I-VAWA would support wide-ranging local efforts to end violence against women and girls in up to 20 countries. It would make ending violence against women a diplomatic priority for the first time in U.S. history and would ask the U.S. government to respond to outbreaks of gender-based violence in conflict situations within six months.
If passed, it could truly be a life-changing force for millions of women like Khalida in countries around the world, helping them get a second chance for themselves and ensuring a better future for their children.
Chandler is Houston director for the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides free legal services to immigrant women and girls fleeing violence; Sharma, a leading advocate for the passage of I-VAWA, is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide in Washington, D.C., which pushes for U.S. policies that support women living in poverty around the world.
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