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Why #BringBackOurGirls Isn't Enough

Zak Newman,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 26, 2014

When Boko Haram kidnapped girls in Nigeria, the Obama administration voiced its strong opposition. Social media sprang into action, with millions—including the First Lady and many members of Congress—participating in the viral social media campaign calling on the terrorist network to "#bringbackourgirls."

But we cannot combat gender-based violence and sex discrimination from the convenience of a Twitter handle. If we are serious about these issues, we must commit ourselves to global efforts to eliminate gender-based violence.

The tools to take on this and other atrocities are sitting right in front of us, but the U.S. government's response has too often been lip service instead of leadership. Fortunately, the Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women's Issues held a hearing yesterday on several potential actions we can take to combat sex discrimination at home and abroad.

The International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) would bolster and make permanent many of the Obama administration efforts to end violence against women and girls. The bill also would create a permanent ambassador-at-large position within the State Department and a senior gender coordinator position within USAID.

Ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—also known as the Women's Equality Treaty—is decades overdue. First adopted by the UN in 1979, the treaty establishes a blueprint for ratifying countries to achieve equality for women and girls and holds them accountable to their obligations to address sex discrimination. As we said in our coalition letter in support of passage of I-VAWAand U.S. ratification of the treaty, the United States' failure to ratify the treaty "undermines its leadership in the global fight to combat discrimination and violence against women [and] calls into question its credibility" on the issue.

It's important to understand just exactly how these steps would help secure women's rights domestically and abroad.

Ratification would strengthen the U.S. government's hand in advocating for women's rights on the international stage by showing that the standards it calls on other countries to meet are ones it is willing to hold itself accountable to at home.

Moreover, ratification would enable the U.S. to influence global standard-setting on women's rights through participation in the human rights body established by the treaty, the Committee to End Discrimination Against Women. The Committee is charged with monitoring and enforcing the global protection of women's rights by every country that has ratified the treaty. As a member, the U.S. could help promote standards and rules to hold abusers accountable.

The past year has been a painful reminder of why both the Women's Equality Treaty and I-VAWA are so urgent. In the past two months alone, three women in India have reportedly been found hanged from trees after having been brutally raped. Meanwhile, reports of sexual assault in war time continue to pour out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. government can and must act to stem this epidemic.

As proud believers in the basic rights of all people, we should feel shame for our government's failure to join this crucial system of human rights protection for women around the world. Ratification of the Women's Equality Treaty and passage of I-VAWA would be far more than a rhetorical or symbolic point; it will help us move from words of condemnation to a system of comprehensive action. Only in so doing can we effectively fight against gender-based violence and discrimination at their source.

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