Often absent from the mainstream discussion of global and domestic violence against women is the recognition of the state as a perpetrator.
The International Violence Against Women Act has been brought before our elected officials on numerous occasions, but has failed to move forward at each attempt. The initial introduction was in 2007, and for the third time it’s been reintroduced in the House of Representatives. Alongside the release of the United States’ first-ever “Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally,” IAWA’s re-announcement comes with a renewed sense of energy.
Amnesty International specifies that if passed, the IVAWA will develop preventative and responsive strategies to countries where gender violence is rife, beginning with a select five. The IVAWA is being distinguished as a humanitarian effort, where all-encompassing support and backing is allotted to countries in the form of training to police, financial assistance, healthcare, and legal aid. This is also to further build and fortify Non-Governmental Organizations under the direction of the United States.
With the IVAWA, the United States is asserting that violence against women and girls be made a foreign relations and policy priority. Much of this strategy occurs under the idea that investing in the health and safety of women and girls worldwide creates more stability in countries, especially in those where sexualized violence is a tool used in conflict, and where there are few legal ramifications for interpersonal abuses. The legislation currently has vigorous support from feminist and violence against women groups including political leaders, heads of state, and other women’s rights spokespeople who are calling for the urgency of global gender violence to be addressed.
As gender violence is indeed of great concern both nationally and overseas, it’s important to take a critical look at U.S. intervention strategies, especially when they’re reconfigured as humanitarian or diplomatic efforts. The failures of humanitarian undertakings are well-documented, but they continue to be framed as charitable and philanthropic. They are often not significantly different than other combat strategies, but use language to assuage the public’s opposition to war and provide a more palatable framework under which to send soldiers. Instead of detailing how the military is going to flat-out obliterate people, “humanitarian” occupations are justified because they are framed as benevolent western nations stringently (rather, inhumanely) solving problems for the good of the people. With humanitarian effort and the IVAWA, we see a continuation of the “liberating women” rhetoric used to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing use of women’s rights as justification to organize troops and engage in warfare.
Although it enjoys significant backing from the legal arm of the United States, IAWA has not gone without criticism and analysis. As Wendy McElroy states:
“IVAWA is an aggressive attempt to redesign the attitudes, laws, and institutions of foreign nations in order to impose a Western world view… In other words, America would enter nations with significant resistance to American culture and attempt to change their basic way of life… This is a policy by which an economically and/or military powerful culture attempts to impose its own values on a weaker one.”
McElroy makes a significant point that the reorganizing of cultures (who may be already resisting the U.S.) creates violent conflict. This would also be deciding and defining what gender violence is for other societies and people. U.S. sexual and domestic violence laws are fairly antiquated, heteronormative, and enforce the gender binary. Imposing this on groups who have different ideas and definitions of gender identity and sexuality, and what constitutes as gender violence, is problematic and wrong. It is colonizing. In the scope of gender-based violence, we should be consistently centering ongoing colonization, capitalism and imperialism, and questioning the United States’ continued role as world police.
Militarization and Carcerality
Anytime the United States brings up “national security” measures it typically means one thing: Military engagement.
Unsurprisingly, a significant part of the IVAWA focuses on U.S. training of foreign military, police, and judicial officials on violence against women and girls, as well as assisting in peacekeeping operations. The pushing of the justice system that operates in the U.S., which is problematic and defective, is the main tactic of addressing gender violence under IVAWA.
The IVAWA positions the military as the problem solvers in domestic and sexual assault, even as staggering reports of abuse continue to flow out of our own armed forces. The Department of Defense, who is an ardent backer of the IVAWA, released reports in 2012 and in 2013 detailing the high instances of sexual violence within its ranks and institution. Even within this research and data, the Pentagon estimates 80-90% of sexual assaults in the military are never reported. In addition to the significant and potentially intensifying rates of rape among the multiple branches, the military has a problem of covering up these assaults, hiding the cause of female soldiers’ deaths, firing victims, and even denying healthcare benefits to those who are experiencing sexual assault trauma.
Notably, post-invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, reports emerged of U.S. forces sexually assaulting and torturing women in these regions, even murdering them. Even in these missions premised on liberating women abroad, U.S. female troops are more likely to be sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers than harmed in combat by foreign nations. As Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) detailed, “A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire”.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence articulates in their Anti-Militarism Organizing Resources that the “War of Terror” escalates violence against women of color both domestically and abroad. National security measures entailing heightened policing and criminalization in the name of safety result in more women [of color] at dangerous intersections and vulnerabilities to interpersonal and state violence. In 2011, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership released a report about the intersections of violence against women and militarism. The report details how a culture of militarism creates an “enemy” and intensifies fear and usage of more violence and aggression to settle conflict and disputes:
“High rates of sexual violence within the military, threats by police to women reporting cases of violence, violations committed by peace-keeping forces, and violence against women living and working around military bases make sexual violence by state actors a critical issue when addressing the links between militarism and violence against women.”
The Non-Profit Industry
Another technique being arranged within the International Violence Against Women Act is the usage of NGOs (non-profit or non-governmental organizations). The development and expansion of U.S.-backed NGOs abroad is what’s identified as “soft power” or a “soft occupation”.
In the United States, NGOs have been created to provide support to women who are victims of interpersonal violence in the form of hotlines, advocates, shelters, and counseling. While they have provided immeasurable care and assistance, the non-profit/rape crisis system is a result of the state co-opting the anti-violence movement.
As Andrea Smith details in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex and The Antiviolence Movement and the Non-profit Industrial Complex, the state took feminist ideals and work to build up the relationship with law enforcement and the carceral state, and was then able to further a repressive anti-crime agenda. This anti-crime agenda included harsher and longer sentences, and what Beth Richie has detailed as our “Prison Nation,” with anti-violence backfiring.
The non-profit structure and the military industrial complex combine to re-create the domestic system of the state directing anti-violence, and much like in the U.S., the purpose is to stifle social movements and momentum abroad. The increased presence of NGOs is about setting up permanent U.S. occupation under the guise of altruistic and helpful assistance, especially, as Wendy McElroy describes, in places that are already resisting the western nations.
“In this imperialist feminist scheme, women were trained to lead NGOs, to participate in the political structure of conservative and pro-Western states, to engage in alienating, pacifying training programs for the capitalist ‘democracy’ and join the army of workers to build ‘civil society.’ In this version of women’s struggle, capitalist relations of power and the institutions of state and patriarchy are left untouched… In some cases, women’s NGOs are mobilized by the state and external actors to weaken, depoliticize or even crush the women’s movements.” – Shahrzad Mojab, Women’s NGOs Under Conditions of Occupation and War
The U.S. As A Global Cause of Gender Violence
Politicians and leaders are deciding that they’re setting a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to worldwide violence against women. But what does it mean when a notable abuser decides what victimization is?
Often absent from the mainstream discussion of global [and domestic] violence against women is the recognition of the state as a perpetrator. Both nationally and internationally, the United States is complicit in and an active agent of violence against women in a myriad of ways. Free trade agreements resulting in femicide, sanctions disproportionately impacting women including reproductive health. Other reproductive abuse in the form of forced sterilizations, and drone strikes, border violence and deportation centers, police and state brutality, and extractive industry.
In conjunction with U.S. military forces perpetrating sexualized violence as a weapon of war in occupied regions, the presence of multinational companies are causing conflict. The Democratic Republic of Congo, cited as the “rape capital of the world,” is experiencing extraordinary rates of violence due in large part to resource extraction, which many American companies are profiting from. The DRC is heavily cited in the IVAWA discussion as an example of why this policy is necessary, yet there is not a single mention or suggestion of the United States (or other western nations) ceasing mining and/or exiting the region as a strategy to alleviate this violence. While there is a push for the United States to respond to outbreaks of violence, we have to acknowledge that they are sources of these outbreaks. The U.S. starts, funds, and purposefully engages in violent encounters.
Embedded in the language surrounding the IVAWA is a heavy investment in security, development, and protecting U.S. engagements and demands. There is talk of alleviating social tension and addressing emerging threats to national security. Secretary of State John Kerry, a backer of the IVAWA, has reiterated on a number of occasions that the use of foreign aid is a strategic move to advance U.S. interests. Because there is a general desire to want to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, it is tactical (and dishonest) to center women’s rights within violent conflict as the reason to “secure” control over civil unrest.
Continuing to further Andrea Smith’s work on Decolonizing the Anti-Violence Movement has been an important counter to current mainstream sexual and domestic violence approaches. Much like with Decolonizing the Anti-Violence Movement, addressing colonial and neo-liberal forces as abusive (and as abuse) is not a community-organizing objective relegated to the United States.
All over the world, community-based approaches developed to address violence outside of the carceral state center the police, military, imperialism, racism, capitalism, and ongoing colonization as sources of violence. In India, “…Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organisations pointed out, neoliberal corporate culture has brought heightened violence against women – not only in the cities, with the proliferation of sexualised images of women and girls, but in the countryside of India. In the broad swath of central India where multinational mining companies are grabbing land and killing and displacing adivasi people and where all dissent is being crushed by the Indian state, rape is a weapon used routinely against women who resist.”
In Canada, on February 14th each year is the Women’s Memorial March, a day to honor and bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women and to “protest the forces of colonization, misogyny, poverty, racism and to celebrate survival, resistance, struggle and solidarity and to make visible these forces and women’s resistance.”
In New Zealand, Maori women’s organizing is also identifying colonialism as a foundation of current family violence and mobilizing people to address intergenerational trauma and return to traditional practices. In South Africa, grassroots women continue to challenge gender-based violence by also highlighting continued symptoms and systems of colonialism and apartheid. All while “feminist organizations in SA are resisting internet controls put in place by corporate and national security interest, fighting to keep websites from being censored, emails from being under surveillance, and the internet from being used to track, stalk, and attack women.”
Violence Against Women – Domestically
In the United States itself, gender-based violence is a substantial social and public health concern. Every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted. According to Department of Justice, each year 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted and 1 in 4 have been a victim of intimate partner violence.
The Center for Disease Control approximates that 1.3 million women are raped each year. With interpersonal abuse comes a long and potentially re-traumatizing legal process. Effects of violence [especially from an intimate partner] include pregnancies resulting from rape (roughly 32,000 each year), enhanced or new mental health consequences, eating disorders, suicide, permanent injuries, financial hardship, and sometimes murder.
As part of the legal system, rape victims often undergo an invasive process called a forensic exam (or rape-kit) which is then backlogged. We currently have national backlog of approximately 400,000 untested forensic exams. With encouragement from carceral feminists, victims are often incarcerated. And remarkably, as the U.S. pushes for more carceral solutions both locally and internationally, 97% of rapists in the U.S. will never be incarcerated.
For immigrant women, abuse and the fear of deportation combine to put them in more dangerous situations. 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime and the murder rate is 10 times the national average and the leading cause of death; rates comparable to other countries where this level of violence is labeled femicide. There are approximately 64,000 missing Black women and the degree of violence that [especially] Black transgender women face is abhorrent.
Amazingly, in a major study about the stability of countries being dependent on the way women are treated, the United States scored below average in representation of women in national government. In fact, in relation to the countries the U.S. claims to be liberating by invasion: “Ironically, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, it urged that these countries have a minimum of 25 percent female participation, and now both countries score higher than their invader on this indicator…”
Between 2001 and 2012 there were more women murdered by their partners domestically than U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and citizens killed by terror attacks combined.
Co-Opting Popular Feminist Discourse to Push Imperialism
There is no doubt that gender-based and sexual violence are significant problems both locally and globally, but the IVAWA is not going to be helpful. This is a thinly-veiled attempt at furthering imperialism and colonization, reinforced by white savior feminism. It is unsurprising that One Billion Rising language is being used to describe the situation of gender violence globally, encouraging and playing off of emotions to draw people into intervention. Exaggerating the need for western humanitarian assistance and manufacturing crises are not new tricks used to persuade the general public into invasions or pushing authoritarian legislation.
In “Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism: The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Antitrafﬁcking Campaigns,” Elizabeth Bernstein argues there has been an increasing shift to a politics of incarceration and “…a commitment to carceral paradigms of social and in particular, gender, justice and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.” Bernstein cites Kristin Bumiller’s “In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence” as a detailing of how the use of “feminism” by neoliberal ideas and policymaking has become a vehicle to facilitate social control:
“Bumiller observes that by the early 2000s, the neoliberal sexual violence agenda of feminism was increasingly being exported as part of U.S. human rights policy, solidifying the carceral imperative within feminism domestically and spreading the paradigm of feminism-as-crime-control across the globe.”
In recent months there have been a plethora of conversations, teach-ins, on the ground organizing, and hashtags and tweet-storms centered on gender violence. We have witnessed #BelieveSurvivors, #FreeMarissa, #WhyIDidntReport, #SurvivorPrivilege, #DecolonizeSAAM, #YesAllWomen and #AbuserDynamics and most prominently #BringBackOurGirls. These hashtags have cultivated worldwide responses on the subject of gender-based violence, sexual assault, sexism and misogyny, in addition to how violence against women is shaped by racism, colonialism, and oppressive institutions. They have been exuding energy to have deep and meaningful conversations about the realities of interpersonal abuse, how it happens, what it looks like, and collective and community action to address it.
These grassroots online conversations and the energy they have sparked have not gone unnoticed by mainstream feminist non-profits and governmental powers. In the latest reintroduction of the IVAWA, Senator Barbara Boxer co-opts and uses #BringBackOurGirls (a hashtag initiated by a Nigerian lawyer as a response to his government’s minimal reaction to the kidnappings of more than 200 school girls) as a reason why the U.S. needs a presence abroad. Other publications have written about #YesAllWomen and the pervasiveness of misogyny as why the IVAWA is necessary. There have also been attempts by politicians to take these hashtags and demonstrate why we should push for even more criminalization.
In Haifa Zangana’s book “City of Windows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance”, she opines how the environment for women in Iraq has been made worse post-invasion, and that colonial feminists who pushed for the military offensive under “women’s rights” should take some accountability for the instability and increased climate of violence created from this. In “Does the International Violence Against Women Act Respond to Lessons From the Iraq War,” Nissa Thompson states,
“Given the damage done by the U.S. government and feminist activists in Iraq, one must even ask whether nonintervention would be the best feminist foreign policy.”
These are crucial questions to ask and should be at the very center of the discussion on this piece of legislation.
As Mariame Kaba says, “We’ve got to start conceptualizing violence as structural”. Feminists and anti-violence advocates in the United States could take measures to alleviate global gender violence by addressing and organizing to pull out military forces, stopping extractive industries, quelling the spread of multinationals, discontinuing the U.S. involvement in the proliferation of small arms and the equipping of people in conflict with weaponry, and stopping surveillance and internet censorship laws.
If we are truly interested in financially supporting women’s organizing, we should be funding grassroots movements and groups that operate independently of federal, state, and corporate funding. Stopping empire abroad means stopping it at home. Within the confines of the U.S. borders, confronting ongoing issues of settler colonialism, racism, misogyny, and state violence are fundamental.