A New Executive Order Places Women and Girls at the Forefront of Foreign Policy

The Preventing and Responding to VIolence Against Women and Girls Globally executive order is a major step toward a better future for girls across the globe.
-Diana Denza, BettyConfidential.com

Back in January, the media flocked to cover the painful story of Sahar Gul, an Afghan child bride who was held captive in a basement bathroom and tortured for six months. Though her life took a turn for the better once her abusive in-laws and husband were jailed, millions of girls and women around the world will never see the same justice.

Over 60 million girls under 18-many of whom live in South Asia-are currently child brides, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Perhaps even more shockingly, anywhere from 100 to 140 million girls around the world have been forced to undergo genital mutilation.

And though women in the United States fare far better, millions of us have been affected by horrific acts of violence. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 18.3 percent of women in this country are survivors of rape or attempted rape.

Read Can You Imagine? The Brutal Rights VIolations of Afghanistan's Girls

These stories and statistics have had women's rights proponents calling for an end to the violence-and it looks like their hard work may finally pay off. Last month, President Obama signed an executive order titled Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally.

"For many years, violence against women was treated as a side issue or a private issue," Alyse Nelson, CEO of nonpartisan women's empowerment organization Vital Voices, told us in an exclusive interview. "We are thrilled that our government has committed itself to ending violence against women. Not one country can say that women are free from violence. Whether it's domestic violence, human trafficking, honor killings, or genital mutilation, we are faced with a whole range of issues. And this is hurting countries socially and economically. We cannot achieve our foreign policy goals if we don't protect the rights of women."

The objectives of Obama's executive order are fourfold:

1. To increase coordination of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts among United States Government agencies and with other stakeholders;

2. To enhance integration of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts into existing United States Government work;

3. To improve collection, analysis, and use of data and research to enhance gender-based violence prevention, and response efforts; and,

4. To enhance and expand United States Government programming that addresses gender-based violence.

Essentially, the order calls for the assembly of a team of representatives from a number of U.S. government agencies under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. They will then be responsible for implementing and revising a wide-ranging strategy, which includes government-supported programs, extensive research, and data analysis.

Read Recognizing Rape: A Changing Definition Calls for Changing Public Attitudes

"Any time a country like the United States takes a stand for women, it sends that message around the world and begins to shift culture," Nelson explained. "This is the first government-wide effort of its kind to address the epidemic of violence against women. It is path-breaking in scope-it is far reaching in terms of coordination among agencies, encompassing security, education, and social, economic, and humanitarian issues."

Though the executive order is a huge step forward, it isn't the only step Obama and Vice President Biden have taken to protect women and girls. For example, just last December, Obama spearheaded the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. In 1994, then-Senator Biden drafted the Violence Against Women Act.

As Nelson points out, the protection of girls and women should never be a partisan issue. "Regardless of who wins the 2012 elections, violence against girls and women is an issue every lawmaker should care about," she noted. "We will be watching the implementation of this order very closely."

The atrocities committed against Sahar Gul and millions of girls like her don't have to be a reality. But it is up to us right now to make a better future possible for the young women of tomorrow. Are you ready to do your part?

Diana Denza is a regular contributor to BettyConfidential.

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