Developing a National Plan of Action on Violence Against Women and Gender Violence: A Human Rights Approach
The Politicization of Safety, ed. Jane Stoever, New York University Press, (2018 Forthcoming)
12 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2018 Last revised: 30 Mar 2018
Date Written: 2018
On October 16, 2017, a new hashtag — #MeToo — inundated U.S. social media. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” wrote the actor Alyssa Milano on Twitter, building upon the “Me Too” movement founded by activist Tarana Burke a decade earlier. Over the next month, millions of women — and many men — posted #MeToo on their social media accounts, many with painful accompanying stories. The hashtag campaign came on the heels of multiple shocking allegations of sexual and intimate partner violence against women committed by high-profile men — Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Ray Rice, and Donald Trump, to name a few. Subsequent revelations of sexual violence by powerful men followed, and sexual harassment and assault stories dominated news headlines.
Many have described this moment in our country — indeed in our world — as a “tipping point” on gender violence. Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment a social trend passes a threshold and starts to spread like wildfire.” Sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking have increasingly become regular topics of conversation in schools, in the media and public spaces, and in law and policymaking — due largely to survivors, advocates, and institutional champions stepping up and speaking out. An estimated three to five million people participated in women’s marches in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States (and hundreds of thousands more worldwide) on January 21, 2017. Approximately 440,000 people have taken the It’s on Us pledge online to be a part of the solution to ending sexual assault, and students have hosted over 3,000 It’s On Us events on 575 college campuses nationwide. Domestic violence, once a footnote in public policy discussions, has become a leading focus in our national discourse about gun safety and “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce immigration law. State and local governments, much like the Obama-Biden administration (in which I had the honor of serving as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women), are taking unprecedented action to ramp up prevention and response efforts to gender violence. If there ever was a tipping point on sexual and intimate partner violence in the United States, it is arguably now.
Tipping points do not inevitably result in systemic change, however. A coordinated and systematic national response to violence against women and gender violence in the United States — one which builds upon the decades of advocacy and the collective outpouring of energy, angst, and experience in the current moment, and one that pulls together the public and private sectors, and government at all levels (federal, state, and local) — is needed to create lasting change.
A national plan of action on violence against women and gender violence in the United States can be a catalyst for such lasting change. UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, has urged all countries to adopt such plans; and approximately 50 countries, located on every continent (except Antarctica), have adopted national plans of action on violence against women and/or gender-based violence.
The United States does not have a national plan of action on violence against women or gender violence. That makes it a global outlier. Many of the countries that have adopted national plans — including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Spain, and Ireland — are considered “sister countries” to the United States, due to shared legal, political, and cultural traditions. While the Violence Against Women Act in the United States is a landmark piece of legislation and has many of the hallmarks of a national action plan on violence against women, it does not constitute a whole-of-government, goal-oriented, community-informed, forward-looking national plan of action, for reasons discussed below.
While the United States should develop a national plan of action on violence against women and gender violence, that plan should not (and, presumably, would not) come from the Trump administration. This administration has rolled back important protections for women, girls, and gender-nonconforming individuals, and has ended important White House initiatives on gender equality and violence launched by the Obama-Biden administration.
But women’s rights are human rights, and human rights start at home, as Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said. A national plan of action on violence against women and gender violence should ultimately be a product of activism that is cultivated locally and then coordinated nationally. Two ways of engaging in local mobilization include the Cities for CEDAW campaign and the dozens of municipalities that have passed resolutions declaring that “freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right.”
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