Make protecting women's lives a priority

I never met my grandmother. She was burned alive with kerosene doused on her sari and lit on fire. Some think it was suicide. Others say it was a dowry murder, given her mother in-law's displeasure with the dowry. I cannot imagine her shock, grief and pain in the moments before she died. It makes me sick to even think about it.

Regrettably, her story is not uncommon. Millions of women all over the world suffer acid attacks, rape, forced marriage and other horrendous forms of violence. In fact, one out of every three women worldwide is physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime.

But now there's a chance to help change this around the globe. The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), now pending before Congress, addresses violence against women worldwide by making it a priority in U.S. foreign policy and international assistance programs. This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill. Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a member of the committee, has been a champion of the legislation, and the bill also has strong support in the House of Representatives, including from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

The good news is that there are local organizations worldwide that are fighting gender-based violence in their communities. The IVAWA would fund a comprehensive range of such efforts in up to 20 countries. This would include public awareness and health campaigns; education, training and economic-empowerment programs for women; legal reforms; and programs that include men and boys as partners in creating positive social change. The IVAWA also would make the issue a diplomatic priority, requiring the United States to respond officially within three months to appalling acts of mass violence against women and girls committed during conflict and war.

This means that women facing death by stoning; women in the world's most violent places, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and even women silently suffering brutality in their own homes will get a much-needed boost. Where in the past local organizations with meager resources were unable to help them, services will expand, police officers will be properly trained, new laws will be passed and existing laws will be enforced.

The IVAWA has strong bipartisan support in Congress and is backed by more than 100 diverse organizations — American and international, faith-based and secular — including the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Amnesty International, World Vision, CARE, International Rescue Committee, Global AIDS Alliance and Jewish Women International. Also, it has strong support from the American public. A 2009 poll revealed 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 82 percent supported the IVAWA.

Despite the odds women face, I am always awed by their strength. I know of countless examples of women supporting each other to overcome the bleakest of circumstances. Helping them become economically empowered and providing protection and access to justice will enable them to support their families better and create societies that are more tolerant, safer, more humane and just.

Congress should pass the International Violence Against Women Act now. It will be a life-changing force for millions of women and girls around the world. My grandmother won't witness this extraordinary step. But millions of women like her all over the globe will finally have a chance to live free from fear.

Ritu Sharma, a Crownsville resident, is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, which advocates for U.S. policies that empower women living in poverty globally. She has been a leading advocate for passing the IVAWA. Her e-mail is

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