Can a bill languishing in the United States Congress make a difference to half the people of a country more than 7,500 miles away? Yes, said Wangechi Wachira-Moegi, the executive director of an organization in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to bring justice to women in the courts and open opportunities for them in political leadership.
The bill is the International Violence Against Women Act, introduced last November in the House of Representatives by Janice Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois. It has picked up dozens of co-sponsors, but its current chances of passage remain dismally low in a Congress not disposed to making a priority of women’s issues.
The bill asks the US State Department and, in particular the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to focus on women and girls in American foreign policy and “provide assistance to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls internationally.”
Wachira-Moegi, the executive director of the Center for Rights Education and Awareness in Nairobi, said that the women of Kenya, 52 percent of the national population of 40 million, are at a critical juncture in advancing their status and opportunities, as well as ensuring the next generation of girls gets the education and health services it needs to progress in the future.
Speaking in an interview on the margins of the recent session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s principal policy-making body on women’s rights, Wachira-Moegi joined a large number of others attending the session in demanding that gender equality be made a stand-alone goal in the post-Millennium Development Goals programs after 2015.
The strong support of the US would help women everywhere, she said. Her organization is assisted by the American Jewish World Service in New York as well as Kenyan backers.
“For me, being in New York, the conversation that is currently going on in the post-Millennium Development Goals is very, very important because we are able to have all the issues that affect women in the South, especially in Kenya, being articulated at these forums,” she said.
“We strongly believe that the Millennium Development Goals in our country around issues that affect women have not been accomplished. Many girls have still not been able to assess education; very many girls are still experiencing violence; women have still not been able to get into leadership positions — especially political leadership position. Every day, out of the 21 million women in Kenya, actually half of that population experience violence.
“The conversation happening around the [international] Violence Against Women law in the US, for me that’s very, very important because in setting such a law, it means that first and foremost a lot of other countries in the world are able to look at what the US is doing to protect women out in the world,” she said.
“Such a US law against violence, once it is passed, means to me that resources are going to trickle down into different parts of the world,” Wachira-Moegi said, rectifying what she sees as the absence of a “gender lens” in USAID programs by putting more resources into projects for women and girls.
“That’s going to have a very big impact on women’s rights issues all over the world.” She emphasized the importance of bringing gender issues down from global goals to national government action, and instituting monitoring to track specific national plans that look good on paper but may not be implemented.
Not waiting for legislation, the administration of President Barack Obama introduced on March 20 a gender-based violence emergency response and protection initiative in foreign policy. Speaking at the launch, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns called attention to all the urgent needs of the moment globally.
“One in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime,” Burns said. “In some countries it is double that rate. In any given year, more than a hundred million girls and tens of millions of boys under the age of 18 experience forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. Today there are more than 60 million child brides in the world. These numbers and these acts — from rape to domestic violence to early forced marriage to so-called ‘honor killings’ — should shock the conscience of all people, from all walks of life, in all parts of the world.”
Women in Kenya have progressed in many ways beyond their sisters in numerous other African countries. Wachira-Moegi said that for Kenyan women “it is a very, very interesting time in our country.”
“We have a constitution that was passed in 2010, and this progressive constitution has now articulated women’s issues at the highest level,” she said. “Many women can now be able to access property, to get education, to get health care. They are able to participate in decision-making. But what has been holding them for a very long time is culture and religion — especially culture, where there are harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation.”
While men continue to do the planning and most of the decision-making at the national level, where women’s voices are sorely needed, Wachira-Moegi said, in the homes of at least urban families, men’s attitudes are changing.
“Because now the women are working equally with men, meaning that there is a lot of sharing of roles,” she said. “There are campaigns that are happening at the national level on how to support the women, even to talk about the issues of gender based violence — how to protect their daughters, how to protect their wives. We see a trend. My grandfather behaved entirely different from my husband today. The environment has really, really changed. But of course there is so much more work to be done. We are not at the level where the women of Kenya would like to be.”
Wachira-Moegi, who shares her life with a husband and two young daughters, 4 and 7, said she was conscious of how important it is to ensure that her daughters grow up in an enabling environment.
“When I look back, I see my mother, I see my grandmother, and the kind of work that they have done,” she said. “I look at them every day and I am inspired by the work they have done for so many, many years in that challenging environment.”
“I need to fight the challenges of today’s women,” she said, so that her daughters, she added, can be safe and secure and have many opportunities. “So every day when I wake up in the morning, I want to create an environment that they can be at their full potential.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.