Washington — The extent of violence against women and girls makes it one of the world’s greatest challenges, says the top U.S. official for women’s rights.
Gender-based violence “cuts across ethnicity, race, class, religion, educational level, international borders,” Melanne Verveer said March 1 at the conclusion of the 2nd World Conference of Women’s Shelters. "It affects girls and women at every point in their lives from girl infanticide to female genital mutilation, to child marriage, to rape as a tool of war, to human trafficking, to dowry-related murder and domestic violence,” said Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.
The four-day conference in Washington brought together more than 1,400 people from 96 countries who work on the front lines to help people who have been physically, verbally or economically abused to escape and heal from violence. More than 200 delegates made presentations to their peers on their successes as they sought to strengthen their networks.
The conference was co-sponsored by the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Global Network of Women’s Shelters. It was supported by the U.S. departments of State, Justice, and Health and Human Services and funded by several private foundations. Sixteen U.S. embassies funded delegates.
Stressing the importance of working to eliminate violence against women and girls, Verveer called abuse “first and foremost a serious violation of human rights. It not only destroys the lives of individual women and girls, it takes a toll on their families and communities and robs the world of talent we urgently need.”
“This is not a cultural issue. It is not a private issue. It is a problem and it needs to be prosecuted,” she said.
Verveer added that violence against women and poverty are connected because when women are abused they are unable to go to work or to maintain their concentration. Abuse also deteriorates women’s health and leads to the spread of HIV, she said.
Verveer stressed that ending violence requires the involvement of men and boys to raise awareness of the issue and to push for change. Delegate Ben Atherton-Zeman, a Massachusetts advocate and spokesman for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, performed a short play he uses to teach men about what they can do to prevent and stop abuse. He said he was inspired to work for women victims of abuse when two friends in college told him of their experiences with gender-based violence.
Other sessions focused on sheltering victims of abuse, aiding women who are survivors of war or trafficking, and helping victims of violence gain financial independence.
“It is good to hear at the conference about the experiences of others working on the same problem that we are,” said delegate Rosana Schaack, a refugee from Liberia living in the United States. Schaack started a shelter in Liberia for girls who had been soldiers in that country’s civil war. She noted that Liberia recently passed a law that makes rape a criminal offense.
In a video statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that countries must adopt and implement laws that criminalize violence "to hold people accountable.” She urged conference delegates to continue to think of new ways to address the problem of violence.
“Stand up, speak out and think of new solutions,” Clinton said.