Violence against women is a silent epidemic that can cross generations, leaving lasting marks on families and society. Ritu Sharma, president and co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, knows this firsthand.
“I feel like doing this work was decided before I was even born,” she said, speaking at Ecumenical Advocacy Days here March 27. The theme of the annual conference and lobbying effort was “Development, Security and Economic Justice: What’s Gender Got to Do with It?”
Women Thrive Worldwide is a leading non-profit working to shape U.S. policy that will help women in developing counties lift themselves out of poverty.
In Sharma’s family, women across several generations were affected by violence at the hands of family members.
If any other ill of society was as common as violence against women, it would be plastered all over newspapers, Sharma said. But because violence against women is so often kept silent, it can be tempting to believe that it isn’t widespread. We don’t talk about it, and we don’t get mad about it.
There are some things that we’ve been told — poverty will always exist, for example — that are simply not true. Poverty is a political issue that is a result of factors like corruption and lack of funding, Sharma said.
And the same is true with violence — we let it exist. Right this moment, there are women being raped in the Congo, but there is no outrage about it, Sharma said.
Studies have shown that violence against women has huge economic costs, and that communities that abuse women are more likely to be unstable, poor and harbor terrorists. But why should we have to point to dollar signs and other arguments to draw attention to the issue?
“It angers me that we have to do that. As if violence wasn’t bad enough,” Sharma said. “It’s wrong. It’s a sin. It’s evil. Why are we afraid to just name it for what it is?
“There is no other more important human issue in our century,” she said.
Violence against women relates to countless other causes — such as HIV/AIDS and child health and welfare — and yet violence is the most normalized evil in the world today.
Ecumenical Advocacy Days culminates with a lobby day, during which participants visit with their representatives to push for specific actions related to the theme of the weekend.
Among other things, this year, participants lobbied for the reauthorization and full funding of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the co-sponsorship of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) when it is reintroduced.
VAWA, originally passed in 1994, was the first federal legislation acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault a crime. It provides federal resources for community responses to violence against women and is up for reauthorization this year.
If passed, IVAWA would make stopping violence against women a priority in U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid through education, health interventions and support and legal training.
Sharma focused on IVAWA in her talk, saying that Americans can be easily pacified by knowing that the United States is doing something to address violence. But IVAWA would ensure that these actions are appropriate to the scale of the problem.
She also encouraged participants to help explode the myth that helping women will break the budget. Just half of one percent of the federal budget goes to poverty-based foreign aid, and this affects millions of people.
“Help people in power understand the real consequences of their decision-making,” Sharma said, adding that religious leaders can act as a community’s conscience.