By Ritu Sharma
When Dulce Marlene Contreras started her organization with seven of her friends, she had just one thing on her mind: helping the women in her rural corner of Honduras protect themselves from domestic violence.
A daughter of farmers in the region of La Paz, Marlene was tired of watching the women of her community endure abuse. In 1993, Marlene foundedthe Coordinadora de Mujeres de La Paz, or COMUCAP, to raise awareness about women’s rights. They started by building shelters and educate women in the community about their rights, so they could stand up for themselves.
But as time went by Marlene noticed that something was missing. While this work was critical, she realized that to reduce violence against women, COMUCAP had to attack the root problem: poverty. “We realized that until women are economically empowered, they will not be able to escape abuse for good,” Marlene says.
Seeing this link changed the way COMUCAP approached its work. In addition to awareness workshops, Marlene’s organization started training women to grow and sell organic coffee and aloe vera, which allowed them to earn an income for their families. Initially the reaction from the community was hostile—women’s empowerment was seen as a threat to families. As COMUCAP’s programs grew, however, Marlene and her friends started seeing results: the more money women made, the more power they were able to assert in the home. The community started to view the women of COMUCAP as economic contributors, and more and more women started making decisions jointly with their husbands while standing up for themselves and their children.
Today COMUCAP provides employment and income to over 250 women in its rural community. And household violence, Marlene is proud to report, has reduced drastically.
COMUCAP’s success is an important one because one out of every three women worldwide will be physically, sexually, or otherwise abused during her lifetime, with rates reaching 70% in some countries.
What many people don’t realize is that violence against women and girls is a major cause, as well as a major consequence, of women’s poverty. Women are much more likely to be among the world’s poorest, living on a $1 a day or less, and the violence they face keeps them poor. Abuse prevents women from getting an education, going to work, and earning the income they need to lift their families out of poverty. In turn, poverty means women are not able to escape abuse, leading to a vicious cycle that prevents women from making better lives for themselves and their children.
The good news is that there are thousands of local organizations like COMUCAP that work within their own communities to support women in violent situations, help women find ways to support themselves, and work to change cultural attitudes that perpetuate violence within their communities. Every country is different, and local organizations are best equipped to help end the global epidemic of violence.
As US citizens, one of the most powerful actions we can take is to support these efforts, and there’s now an easy way for all of us to do that. The bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), just introduced this spring in both Houses of Congress, comprehensively addresses global violence against women and girls through US foreign assistance programs. If it is passed, prevention of violence and helping survivors will be incorporated into all existing US assistance programs, providing healthcare, education, and economic opportunity, and promoting legal reform, and social change in 10-20 countries.
I-VAWA would make ending violence against women a diplomatic priority for the first time in US history, and require the US government to respond to critical outbreaks of gender-based violence in armed conflict—such as the mass rapes used as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo—within six months.
And best of all, it would invest in local solutions like COMUCAP, exponentially increasing the potential for impact. The I-VAWA, which has been developed in consultation with more than 200 organizations working on the issue in the US and overseas, could help millions of women in poor countries escape violence and lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty. All the dollars our nation spends on national security, development and peace building would be that much more effective if violence against women is reduced, leading to more stable communities. And there’s strong US public support for the bill: a recent poll of voters shows that over 60% of US citizens from all demographic groups and partisan lines think ending violence against women should be a top foreign policy priority, and over 80% support I-VAWA when it is explained to them.
Strong support in this Congress should mean I-VAWA will pass easily, but with so many other pressing domestic and foreign policy issues before the nation, it’s sometimes hard for issues like this to get airtime in Washington. Your Representatives need to hear from you that ending violence against women is a priority for you. Let them know by visitingwww.womenthrive.org/ivawainfo.
Act now, because women can’t wait.