The International Violence Against Women Act's Uncertain Future

In 2006, Nora O'Connell, vice-president of the non-profit advocacy group Women Thrive, traveled to Markala, a small village in the mountains of Honduras, to learn about the success of an all-female coffee cooperative. The cooperative, Coordinadora de Mujeres Campesinas de La Paz (COMUCAP), trains women to grow and sell coffee and aloe vera. Today, it employs over 256 women in the community.

When she asked COMUCAP's founder, Dulce Marlen Contreras, why she started the cooperative, O'Connell recalls, "I was expecting to hear about the challenges they faced in terms of poverty."

Instead, O'Connell and her team learned about the less obvious reason for the organization's genesis: the prevalence of domestic violence in the community. The women, O'Connell says, were mistreated at home. And if they did summon the will to report their husbands' abusive behavior to the police, the municipal government did nothing to help them.

COMUCAP works, O'Connell explains, because it harnesses a basic societal law: economic power leads to social power. "When women don't have economic resources, they are more likely to be trapped in violent situations," O'Connell says. But by earning an income, women gain the comfort of financial independence, and thus the option to pick up and find a better life somewhere else.

O'Connell evokes the story of COMUCAP when explaining why Women Thrive -- in conjunction with Amnesty International USA and the Family Violence Prevention Fund -- helped develop I-VAWA (S.2982, HR. 4594), or the International Violence Against Women Act. Originally introduced in the House and Senate during the last Congress, the bill was reintroduced in February 2010 by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Representatives Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas).

The bill was scheduled to go to markup in the Senate Foreign Relations committee last Wednesday. But the meeting was canceled at the last minute. According to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy, Sen. John Kerry intends to bring up the bill in the November lame duck session.

Given its high-profile congressional backers and Obama administration's emphasis on foreign aid, it seems that I-VAWA may be successful in committee come November. At last week's Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations, Obama emphasized the importance of the U.S. role in global development and aid--specifically citing women's issues as being vital to international security and economic growth. Toward the end of his speech, Obama appeared to refer indirectly to I-VAWA.

"We know that countries are more likely to prosper when they tap the talents of all their people," he said. "That's why we're investing in the health, education and rights of women, and working to empower the next generation of women entrepreneurs and leaders. Because when mothers and daughters have access to opportunity, economies grow and governance improves."

I-VAWA is also distinctive among foreign aid bills in its assertive approach to helping alleviate women's suffering abroad. It promises to address the issue of women's violence along multiple fronts: health, legal, economic, social, and humanitarian. It will begin by designing programs for 5-20 countries, all using various best-practice data that the nonprofits involved in the legislation's development have already gathered.

The bill has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, backing from more than 200 U.S. and overseas nongovernmental organizations, and additional endorsement from the American public: According to a poll by Women Thrive and the Family Violence Prevention Fund this spring, more than 60 percent of Americans believe ending gender-based violence should be a legislative priority. More than 80 percent support I-VAWA.

"This is one of the few foreign policy issues for the American people that is really black and white," says O'Connell confidently.

But it may not be that simple. Ostensibly, violence against women isn't a partisan issue. But part of the bill has tapped into two issues that are very much a part of partisan politics: foreign aid funding and abortion.

STEPHEN COLECCHI, director of the office of international justice and peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, supports the goals of the legislation, but is worried that the bill's definition of violence against women is overly broad. "We want to be sure that it does not include the possibility of promoting changes in abortion law overseas," Colecchi explains.

David Christensen, the senior director of congressional affairs at the Family Research Council, shares Colecchi's concerns. He points to the definition given for 'violence against women and girls' in the Senate's version of the bill as troublesome. The bill defines violence against women as  "any act of violence against women or girls that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm ... or arbitrary deprivations of liberty..."

"What is 'arbitrary deprivation of liberty'?" asks Christensen. The bill, he says, "seems innocuous," but "has some serious problems in it." For example, "If you believe abortion is an inherent right and you're in a country that does not allow abortion, than this potentially could be interpreted that pro-life law is depriving somebody's liberty."

Another potential problem: I-VAWA doesn't amend the Foreign Assistance Act. This, he says, means it isn't covered under the Helms amendment, which states that federal funds can't be used to fund abortion overseas as a method of family planning.
But a congressional aide at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity says that the restrictions on foreign assistance, including Helms, apply without needing to amend the FAA. The aide also responded to concerns over the definition of 'violence against women.'

"I-VAWA is not aimed at creating a new definition of 'violence against women,' but rather uses the extremely widely accepted definition put forward in the UNGA [UN General Assembly]," the aide said. "The definition is meant to be a guide, and it does not aim to define every term, the way a criminal statute would."  

Despite these claims, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he would oppose the bill in its current form.

"The bill is inconsistent with long-standing U.S. foreign aid policies regarding the sanctity of life," Corker said. "We strongly support much of what is in this legislation and believe it should become law, so hopefully before the bill is brought up again, the necessary changes will be made and the bill can win broad consensus among the committee."

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks some senators will propose amendments to change the bill's language so it can't be misconstrued as pro-abortion. But he'll likely oppose the bill for another reason.
"There is no money to pay for it," Lugar says. "This is simply another program that will cost over a billion dollars, and there's nothing provided for it."  

I-VAWA is an authorization bill, which means it doesn't actually provide any funding. If passed, I-VAWA will be included in a springtime appropriations bill which would actually fund the legislation's programs.  According to a congressional aide in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staffer at one of the nonprofit organizations that helped draft the bill, Senator Lugar referenced an outdated and incorrect price tag: The price of the legislation will not be over a billion dollars. And since they are still unclear about how many countries will be included in the pilot program (as few as 5, as many as 20), it's impossible to assign a specific dollar amount to the bill.

The typical U.S. International Affairs budget hovers around $55 billion each fiscal year (FY). Anda Adams, the associate director for the Brookings Institution Center for Universal Education, says that number rose to $58.94 billion in 2010 because of a supplemental bill passed to fund activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti. The House has request $54 billion for FY11, and the Senate has requested $56 billion.

That outcome would be especially likely if democrats lose seats in the upcoming election.
I-VAWA's fate will be determined by how willing the next Congress will be to allocate funds to foreign aid. Some experts are cheering a recent poll from the USGLC, which reveals support among military personnel for diplomacy and development-based aid. Some experts say the poll could help convince Congress to allocate more funds to development-based aid, given the credibility that military personnel tend to have among legislators.
Others, such as Kristen Lord, the vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, worry about the future of development-based aid bills like I-VAWA.

"My concern is we haven't seen very much movement in Congress investing more money in diplomacy and development," she says, citing the "all-star" team in the Obama administration--Clinton, Mullen and Gates--supporting this legislation. "Sometimes I worry that if this team can't pull this off, if they can't address this balance, what does that portend for the future?"