The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020

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SEATTLE, Washington — Backed by a bipartisan group of Senators, S. 4003: Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020 seeks to bolster U.S. and international efforts to prevent gender-based violence that occurs during humanitarian crises. The bill affirms U.S. support for response and prevention programs and for better enabling humanitarian actors to deal with violence against girls and women. Another goal of the act is to empower women and girls and promote their leadership in response efforts.

COVID-19 and Violence Against Girls and Women

This bill was introduced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and as Senator Lisa Murkowski explained in a statement, “Unfortunately, emerging data suggests that one unintended consequence of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has been an increase in incidents of domestic violence and abuse, particularly against women and girls.” According to Murkowski, the goal of the bill is to prevent and address gender-based violence (GBV) “from the start,” as that approach is more effective.

Gender-Based Violence During Emergencies

Indeed, gender-based violence (GBV) often increases significantly during emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic. According to World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, female genital mutilation and cutting have increased in Somalia and other countries as a result of lockdowns. The financial strain caused by the pandemic will lead to a significant rise in child marriages. Incidents of domestic violence have also risen all around the world as a consequence of the lockdowns.

The Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights for the United Nations, Nada Al-Nashif, confirmed that women and girls face additional challenges during COVID-19 and other emergencies and disasters. These challenges include sexual abuse. According to Al-Nashif, “insecurity and displacement fuel increases in sexual and gender-based violence as well as other crimes and human rights violations such as child, early and forced marriages, or denial of access to sexual and reproductive health services.” Al-Nashif notes that, in countries like Myanmar, Venezuela and South Sudan, systemic discrimination against women and girls allows human rights abuses to persist. Thus, achieving gender equality is necessary to end GBV.

The prevalence of GBV in emergencies is evident. Mercy Corps, for instance, explains that 20% of refugee or displaced women have experienced sexual violence. Unfortunately, humanitarian assistance is not usually targeted to address GBV. In fact, less than 1% of global funding for humanitarian aid is used for the prevention of and response to GBV. The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020 aims to address this problem directly.

The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020

The bipartisan piece of legislation seeks to expand Safe from the Start, a State Department and USAID program, which prioritizes the prevention of and protection from gender-based violence.

S. 4003 authorizes the Secretary of State and the USAID Administrator to institute programs and activities to prevent, mitigate and respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies. These activities include the following:

  • training humanitarian personnel

  • deploying gender advisors

  • developing the technical skills of local organizations

  • establishing standards, guidelines and best practices to address GBV

  • expanding women’s empowerment activities like economic opportunities, education and women’s leadership programs.

The bill states that the United States should seek to effectively prevent and respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies by strengthening the skills and capacity of humanitarian actors and improving coordination in emergency response. Furthermore, the U.S. should support activities that provide quality, much-needed services to survivors of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies. A key way to advance the policy objective of preventing GBV is to advance and promote the participation and leadership of women and girls in emergency response efforts. Additionally, the U.S. should promote transparency and accountability for programs supported by U.S. aid.

Status of the Bill

Senator Robert Menendez [D-NJ] introduced S. 4003: Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020 in the Senate on June 18, 2020. The bill was then referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. S. 4003 currently has nine cosponsors (8D, 1R) and is in the first stage of the legislative process.

As Senator Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Combating gender-based violence must remain a critical foreign policy objective for the United States. This bill helps us make good on that effort.”

Sarah Frazer
Photo: Flickr

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