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The introduction of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) in the U.S. Senate last week couldn’t have come at a more critical time. The abduction of some 300 Nigerian adolescent school girls in mid-April by Boko Haram militants constitutes an act of violent terrorism in its most insidious and local form, striking at the heart of families and communities. That they might soon be sold as sex slaves – or already have been – is an abomination that will condemn the girls to a life of unspeakable abuse and horror.
Boko Haram is clearly the main culprit in this terrible crime, and the Nigerian government bears the primary responsibility for leading rescue efforts. We applaud the U.S. and other governments for pledging their support in the search for the girls, because as global leaders and citizens we all must act to protect women and girls from such terrible human rights abuses in the future. This is one, heartbreaking example of why the United States must put the safety of women and girls at the heart of its foreign policy, which IVAWA would do. Passing IVAWA would compel the U.S. government to respond to critical outbreaks of gender-based violence in order to ensure the safety and security of women and girls in situations such as what the world is witnessing in Nigeria in a timely manner.
If there is anything constructive that can come out of this tragedy, it is the awareness it has raised about the horror of forced marriage, human trafficking and gender based violence, which disproportionately affect millions of women and girls globally. And – importantly – an awareness that there is a need for the international community to work together to protect vulnerable girls like those in Nigeria.
Girls of all religious, geographic and cultural backgrounds are each and every day at risk of being forced to marry, being forced into sex, and being completely deprived of their rights to girlhood: to finish school, to choose if, when and whom to marry, to learn about their bodies and to have control over them. Once married, girls in this situation are at much higher risk of violence, sexually-transmitted infections and early pregnancy; death from childbirth is the leading cause of death of girls aged 15-19.
Poverty, conflict and deeply-entrenched gender inequality drive this egregious human rights abuse, and so efforts to tackle their roots must be at the center of our response to this global scourge. We are researching innovative solutions that are helping girls, their families and communities to buck the trend. But with 14 million girls married off each year, much more needs to be done and at a much higher level.
Next year, the UN Millennium Development Goals will reach their 15th and final year. The international development agenda – which is now being shaped – must include clear goals towards eliminating forced and early child marriage and other forms of violence and abuse against girls if the world is to continue to make progress in the fight against global poverty and suffering.
As for the Nigerian girls, they will have a long road to recovery once they are rescued. We know this from our research in northern Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where enormous numbers of women and girls have suffered sexual enslavement and violent sexual abuse as a result of conflict. The U.S. government must be prepared to invest in prevention of violence before it occurs, as well as to come to their aid when violence does happen, with vital rehabilitation assistance. Passing IVAWA will ensure that commitment, and ensure that other schoolgirls like them will be safe in their classrooms and communities.
--Stella Mukasa is director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, DC