an eye-opening internship

by Stacie Graff

I have always been interested in fighting for women’s issues and the empowerment of women. Prior to interning at Jewish Women International this past semester, I worked on women’s issues through a social lens and never got a chance to understand the political side of the issue. During my internship at JWI , I had the opportunity to learn about women’s issues through a political lens.  I have been exposed  to a little of everything- sitting in on appropriations meetings, researching demographics of congressional districts and  attending a press conference introducing the International Violence Against Women Act.

Last week, I also attended a breakfast briefing entitled “How to Reduce Gender-Based Violence through Improving Reproductive Health Services.” The event addressed the intersection between gender-based violence and access to reproductive health services and was sponsored by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the International Center for Research on Women and the International Rescue Committee.

I learned that for many women suffering from gender based violence, access to basic reproductive services is their only link to medical care. They are otherwise forbidden from seeking medical attention because of their abusers strict control over all aspects of their lives. Therefore, the reproductive health sector in these countries is a crucial resource to hearing the voices of women who suffer from violence. This may be the only place where women and girls can find safety and comfort. Many women fear the consequences of sharing their story with anyone and do not even share their horrors with medical professionals. Far too many women remain in silence with no guidance and counseling. Cultural and legislative changes on a global scale must be taken to enable women to safely seek services and build lives free of violence.

With the reintroduction of the International Violence Against Women Act, the call to action is gaining momentum.  To truly combat gender based violence, improvements must be made in the health care sector.  I believe there is a need for improved ethical training of medical professionals to notice the warning signs of abuse and connect the victim to available services. However, services such as counseling must be provided in such a way as not to disrupt cultural barriers.

Cultural barriers are yet another reason why many women remain silent.  Violence may be widespread, but remains unaddressed because cultural norms prohibit an open dialogue about abuse.   Communities may accept specific rituals that are considered abusive to many but painfully welcome a woman into society and make her eligible for marriage. One of the challenges is that individuals defending gender equality must appear unbiased – protectors of women’s physical safety and health but not disrespecting of the community culture.

We must work together to build safe environments for women and girls to thrive. Demonstrating the connection between gender-based violence and reproductive health services will help empower communities change the attitudes and social norms that sanction violence.  The United States by supporting legislation like I-VAWA which focuses on long term systemic changes and localized initiatives to change social norms, is transforming the global discussion about gender based violence.  We cannot merely enter a country and expect to improve the situation overnight. If we don’t include women in the entire process- from evaluations of existing services and policy to the implementation of new programs- we will not be able to eliminate violence.  By understanding the culture and the locations where women seek refuge, foreign aid will be more able to help and less likely to be perceived as having the goal of  forcing our cultural values onto a nation that is different than our own.

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