When I began serving in the United States Senate, there were only nine female senators at the time. Today, there are a record number of women—20 in all—serving together in the Senate. While much progress remains to be made, we have witnessed great strides in the advancement of women in our own country and most of the developed world over the past century.
Across vast swaths of the globe, however, the opportunities for women to advance in society are far fewer. Instead of having political, academic, or economic opportunities, they are faced with violence, forced marriages, and human rights abuses. In fact, one out of three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime, with rates reaching 70 percent in some countries. This kind of abhorrent violence ranges from domestic violence to rape and acid burnings to dowry deaths and so-called “honor killings.”
Look no further than the conflict playing out in Syria and Iraq today. There, the utter barbarism perpetrated by the terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIL) has been on horrific display. Girls and women have been abducted from their homes and villages, sold into sexual slavery, and forced into marriages with ISIL fighters.
In refugee camps and refugee-populated areas near Syria, women and girls are exposed to exploitation and harassment. With little economic opportunity and no way out, these families often arrange marriages for their daughters to protect them from sexual violence. Human Rights Watch has told the story of Zahra from Homs, who is the breadwinner for her family, but has been forced to leave three jobs because her employers tried to pressure her into sex. When she tried to report the incidents to a United Nations refugee caseworker, she was told there was nothing that could be done about it.
This systemic targeting of women, however, is not confined to the war-torn Middle East. The International Center for Research on Women says one in nine girls around the world is married before the age of 15, a harmful practice that deprives girls of their dignity and often their education, increases their health risks, and perpetuates poverty. In Nigeria, al-Qaeda affiliated Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 innocent schoolgirls this spring. The reason they were targeted? They were trying to get an education. The results of such widespread and deplorable practices will undoubtedly have repercussions for generations to come.
Combatting this type of oppression against women and increasing their opportunities abroad has been a long-standing priority of mine. This year, I joined Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in introducing the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which ensures that the U.S. will take a leadership role in combating these problems. This bill would establish that it is the policy of the United States to take action to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls around the globe and to coordinate efforts to address gender-based violence into U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance programs.
In addition, for the third year in a row, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved my request to designate up to $50 million of foreign aid to increase women's political participation in local and national governments around the world. Research shows that simple investments to increase equality for women will have an exponential effect on the prosperity of societies. According to the World Bank, increasing the number of women in elected office can contribute to reducing corruption that undermines the rule of law. In addition, female parliamentarians are more likely to advance legislation to protect human rights and promote economic growth, education, and health care for women.
I have seen first-hand the positive effects of greater political involvement on the part of women here in the United States, and I believe our nation can and must continue its leadership role in empowering women worldwide. In doing so, we will not only improve the lives of untold millions, but we will also create a more secure world for ourselves and future generations.