Global Women’s Institute Pushes for Laws to Protect Women Worldwide

Mary Ellsberg makes a case in congressional briefing as 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence begins.

Mary Ellsberg
Mary Ellsberg, director of the George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute, discuss the state of domestic violence in Latin America during a congressional briefing on Wednesday.
November 22, 2013

By Lauren Ingeno

Monday is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and Mary Ellsberg, director of the George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute, thinks it is time for the United States government to make this issue a priority.  

For many families in Latin America and the United States, the passage of the International Violence against Women Act (I-VAWA) and comprehensive immigration reform is a “life-or-death issue,” said Dr. Ellsberg, during a congressional briefing on Wednesday.

“The U.S. government has already taken some positive steps to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in the U.S. and abroad, but we have two opportunities right now to have a much greater impact,” Dr. Ellsberg said.

Dr. Ellsberg was invited by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., to discuss the state of domestic violence in Latin America along with Renos Vak, a lead economist at the World Bank, and Amanda Klasing, a Human Rights Watch researcher. Rep. Farr and his staff wanted to put this issue “on Congress’s radar,” said Maureen Taft-Morales, a specialist in Latin American Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, who moderated the discussion. In addition to her research and policy work, Dr. Ellsberg worked in Nicaragua for nearly 20 years as a public health and women’s rights advocate.

I-VAWA was introduced by then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2007, and has gone through numerous re-introductions since then, but has never been passed into law. The legislation would ensure that violence against women is included in the nation's foreign policy, with best practices for preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting offenders. On Thursday, one day after Dr. Ellsberg’s remarks, I-VAWA was re-introduced in the House by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

The most critical parts of the law, Dr. Ellsberg said, are that it would support economic and educational programs that could help prevent women becoming victims of abuse or trafficking as well as help survivors of gender-based violence. In addition, the law would improve U.S. humanitarian assistance to victims. It would also authorize the training of U.S. and foreign military, so that they are better trained on how to protect women from violence.

But ending domestic violence worldwide—and particularly in Latin America—will also require changes to current immigration policy in the U.S. These two issues are “intimately linked,” Dr. Ellsberg stressed.

Latin America is home to alarmingly high rates of domestic violence. And while there has been progress in raising awareness about the issue, many of Latin American countries’ laws meant to protect women against violence are ineffective—because of lack of resources for their comprehensive implementation or lack of political will. Women often do not know about the laws and therefore cannot exercise their rights, Dr. Ellsberg said.

“It should be no surprise to us therefore that many women see fleeing the country as the only option for survival and look to the U.S. as a potential safe haven, only to find that their immigration status leaves them vulnerable to even more violence and exploitation,” she said. “Regardless of how they came to the U.S., women immigrants face a much higher risk of violence, particularly undocumented women, or women who rely on a spouse's visa.”

Many of these women have shared stories with Dr. Ellsberg about being rejected by family members and their communities, often forced to stay with abusive partners for financial or personal reasons, or because the police told them to just “go home and stop provoking” their husbands.

The adoption of I-VAWA, she said, would not only provide much-needed resources to the work of preventing and reducing gender-based violence worldwide, but it would also ease pressure on the already stressed U.S. immigration system. Dr. Ellsberg closed her statement by “urging everyone in this room to do all they can to make sure these important reforms are passed.”

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is an international, annual campaign that kicked off Monday. The Global Women’s Institute will be hosting a series of on- and off-campus events in commemoration of the campaign, including a film screening and a day of service at La Clinica Del Pueblo. There will be a panel discussion about violence against women as a cross-border issue co-sponsored with  We Belong Together, a national campaign to mobilize women in support of common-sense immigration reform that will keep families together and empower women.

GWI’s first event titled, “Breaking the Cycle Part II: Health Sector Responses to Violence against Women and Girls,” will take place Tuesday morning at the Pan American Health Organization.