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Chicago Defender - Violence Against Women, at Home and Abroad, Must Cease

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Chicago Defender - Violence Against Women, at Home and Abroad, Must Cease

by Barack Obama

President Bush has an opportunity to assert America’s moral leadership in the aftermath of Friday's meeting with President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). President Bush should seize it by stepping up efforts to stop the epidemic of sexual violence in the DRC -- an epidemic that is similarly devastating places like Darfur, where rape is the weapon of choice.

In recent years, tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped, tortured, and assaulted in the DRC by disgruntled soldiers and bands of marauders. One expert says this is so common in some places that it is "almost normal."

The decision to stop the violence rests with the Congolese, but the United States has a number of options -- many of which were included in legislation I helped pass last year and addressed in a letter I sent to Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice earlier this month. These options range from making U.S. support contingent on Congolese efforts to stop the violence and care for the victims to building a coalition of donor nations to pressure the DRC into action. President Bush should make it clear that no diplomatic option is off the table.

But asserting America's moral leadership abroad requires more than strong, principled diplomacy. It requires setting a better example by stopping the violence that’s committed against women here at home. One in four women suffers from domestic violence in her lifetime. In 2005, over 175,000 women reported being victims of rape or sexual assault. These statistics are numbing; they are also heartbreaking.

And yet, they only dimly reflect the full scale of the problem. Too often, women fear their stories of abuse will not be believed or blame themselves, and as a result, they don’t come forward. But while a crime can go unreported, its consequences cannot be undone.

Abuse scars not only the victim but her loved ones, sending currents of violence that ripple across our society. Right now, a woman who’s fled an abuser is living on the streets, wondering how long it will be efore she has to turn to crime or prostitution to feed herself. Down the street, a child has shut the door and buried his head under the pillow so he doesn't have to hear his mother's cries, and there's a good chance he will grow up to be an abuser just like his father.

Government has a critical role to play in stopping this cycle of violence. Over the course of more than a decade in elective office, I have fought to assist the victims of sexual assault. And this is a commitment I will carry with me to the White House. As President, I will pass my plan to provide millions of dollars to strengthen programs aimed at preventing domestic violence and caring for those affected by it. I will also expand government efforts to offer domestic violence counseling in urban areas. And I will ensure that we fully fund the Violence Against Women Act, an important piece of legislation that I commend my colleague Senator Joe Biden for drafting.

We also need to ensure job security for victims of sexual assault, up to half of whom report losing their jobs as a result of being attacked. In Illinois, I led the fight to ensure that victims could seek shelter or treatment without losing their jobs, passing one of the strongest job protection laws in the nation. As President, I will make this a federal law. And I will expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to give additional job security to victims who need to take time off.

Finally, combating this problem demands a sustained high-level commitment. That is why, as President, I will appoint a special advisor who will report to me regularly on issues related to violence against women. This advisor will ensure that our agenda is coordinated across federal agencies, and fully implemented.

But government cannot stop a husband from striking his wife, or a woman from being assaulted on a deserted street. Ultimately, this problem has to be addressed by neighbors who are willing to report suspected crimes and by families who are willing to help loved ones come out of the darkness of isolation and into the light of justice. And we can all do our part by discussing this issue in public until we break down the stigma that still stops so many women from coming forward and bring about a change in the misogynistic attitudes that foster this violence.

Let's stop treating this as just a woman's issue. Whether it's hundreds of thousands of women being brutalized in the United States and around the world, or just a single friend whose boyfriend took advantage of her one night -- when a woman is attacked on account of her gender, it is a human rights issue. And so long as it continues, the conscience of our nation cannot rest.


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