Subcommittee Takes On New Advocacy Role

Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:33pm

It was an unusual occurrence: a Congressional hearing that turned highly emotional last May, leaving a mark on those involved.

A joint effort of two Senate Foreign Relations subcommittees, the hearing focused on violence against women in the conflict zones of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Center for American Progress’ Enough Project, which seeks to stop political violence against civilians in Africa, testified that day.

“I can’t even count the number of hearings I’ve testified at during the last couple decades. They come and go, and Members are usually somewhat attentive, and they have a day or two worth of chatter afterward,— he recalled last week. “This particular hearing — I thought it was quite profound. The Members who attended still talk about it when I see them.—

The hearing was a distinct highlight in the first year of a revamped Foreign Relations subcommittee. Formerly known as the Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights and Democracy, the panel added global women’s issues to its portfolio in the 111th Congress.

Issues affecting women around the world are getting a new look in the U.S. With Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as chairman of the revamped subcommittee and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton serving as secretary of State, the committee quickly moved to confirm a former Clinton aide, Melanne Verveer, to a new post at the State Department: ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. Verveer was among the witnesses in the first panel at the subcommittee’s hearing in May.

“We cannot allow the participation of women to become an afterthought or a separate category, but rather we must make programs for women’s empowerment, girls’ education, shelters and care for victims of violence mainstreamed into general humanitarian and capacity-building work in this region,— Verveer testified.

The most memorable part of the hearing, though, came during the second panel, made up of leaders working privately in the region. A Congolese journalist and founder of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association brought her personal perspective on the violence to the American audience.

“The entire hearing for me was very emotional,— Boxer recalled in an e-mail last week. “But the memory that sticks with me is of Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu, a journalist from the DRC, breaking down in tears and asking, ‘But why? Why such atrocities? Why do they fight their war on women’s bodies?’—

After the hearing Boxer joined Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in making recommendations for stemming the violence to Clinton. They included distinct suggestions for dealing with each country and a broader list of ways to work with both countries. One of those ideas has nearly come to pass. At the end of September, Clinton chaired a United Nations session during which members unanimously agreed to appoint a special representative to coordinate efforts to end sexual violence in conflict zones. The individual is expected to be appointed early in 2010.

More progress came, both from the State Department and the Senate, later in the year. Clinton and Verveer traveled to eastern Congo to highlight violence against Congolese women in August, and Boxer spoke to members of the U.N. about the same issue in October. Also that month, Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the full committee held another hearing on violence against women.

Yet for Eve Ensler, another witness at the May hearing, the Senators have not done enough. She remembered the “intense— and “potent— feeling of the hearing. Ensler, the founder of the anti-violence organization V-Day who is better known as playwright of “The Vagina Monologues,— hoped the Senators would bring better police training, more resources and more women to peace talks in the two regions. Instead, she said, when she returned to the Congo in December, conditions were worse, especially for young girls.

“For them, a day is a difference between having a life and not having a life,— she said.

For 2010, Verveer and the Senators share similar objectives. Cheryl Benton, deputy assistant director of public affairs at the State Department, said Verveer has three goals this year, and they mostly consist of further progress in initiatives that are already under way. First is re-evaluating the goals for women’s rights that U.N. members laid out in Beijing in 1995. A conference in New York City in March called “Beijing + 15— will provide the forum. Second is promoting economic opportunities for women, and third is curtailing violence against women, including rape, trafficking, child marriage and genital mutilation. Boxer’s subcommittee will renew its focus on Afghanistan, and Kerry has promised to reintroduce the International Violence Against Women Act, which Vice President Joseph Biden introduced as chairman of the committee in the 110th Congress.

“The Senate is now acknowledging this as a key issue in U.S. foreign policy,— Prendergast said. “They get to play at the main table … and work on issues that are viewed as sort of secondary to our overall goals.—