WGS EXCLUSIVE: What does the International Violence Against Women Act have to do with Americans?

Erin Helfert

Globally, one-in-three women, and one-in-five men will experience gender-based violence (GBV) in their lifetimes. In an increasingly globalized world, our social, political and economic health has a direct relationship with the stability and development of countries around the world.

More than ever before, Americans are traveling, living, working, and studying abroad. At any given time, there are roughly 65 million Americans abroad. This does not include the 750,000 American military personnel and their dependents who are deployed abroad.

I have spent much of my life abroad, whether to study, to research, or to work. My US Passport truly opened up the world to me, connecting me with opportunities to support causes I care about from an international front. But, while researching Gender-based violence and justice reform in Morocco in 2008, I was violently raped by a local national. This experience bonded me to the larger, global struggle against GBV.

In the aftermath, I experienced the limitations of Moroccan law per Gender-based Violence. The local law could not conduct a full investigation due to a lack of formal witness testimony. Neither the Moroccan authorities, nor the more active women’s groups (that focus on this issue) could tell me what to expect as I pursued my case in their system. Morocco lacks a formal victim support system. No doctor or clinic worker was trained on performing “rape kits,” or to gather forensic evidence from the victim’s body. Morocco offers no official professional “grievance period.”

After more than five years, and eight hearings, I gained a conviction in my case. But mine was exceptional. Only six percent of all reported rape cases in Morocco ever receive a conviction. In the process, I set three main precedents in the Kingdom. Mine was the first rape case in Morocco in which DNA evidence was accepted by the Moroccan court for use by the prosecution. In light of my financial difficulties, the Tribunal supplied me with a free, court-appointed lawyer.[1] Finally, the perpetrator in my case was sentenced to six years; three times the maximum penalty for sexual assault in Morocco.

At one of my final hearings in Casablanca, two Moroccan women approached me. They had been a part of the courtroom audience. Noticing my quiet distress, the women put their hands to my chest, tapping softly. I began to cry in a way that I had not done prior. With immense compassion, they said to me repeatedly in Arabic, “It is ok. You are doing this for all of us.”

No woman in the United States, Morocco, or elsewhere should experience Gender-based Violence, or face such insurmountable obstacles to obtain justice. The International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) is the first comprehensive strategy with strong bipartisan support to address Gender-based Violence globally, from prevention to reintegration. It aims to make ending violence against women a top US foreign policy goal. The Act is set up as a pilot program that will target five to twenty countries in which there are high incident rates of gender-based violence. Within these countries, the I-VAWA will specifically work to:

  • Change Social Norms to Prevent Gender-based Violence.
  • Increase Legal and Judicial Protection to Address Gender-based Violence.
  • Increase Health Sector Capacity to Address Gender-based Violence.
  • Increase Women’s Economic Opportunity and Education.

The I-VAWA has significant bilateral support in both the House and the Senate. Despite the lack of total adoption of the I-VAWA, each year since its introduction in 2009, the US Government has adopted key components of the Act. For example, in the same year, the State Department formed the Office of Global Women’s Issues, whose mission is to “ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.”[2] Further, In 2012, the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) released the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, a document intended to speak to our representatives on the necessity and benefits of women-lead growth around the world. While there is a strong consensus that women’s rights should be a component of all US Diplomatic missions, the I-VAWA remains as yet un-passed.

As an American, a woman, a survivor, and an advocate, I know the necessity of the I-VAWA. When we treat women as a crucial part of the global social, political, and economic success story, we not only empower ourselves, but we see our efforts take on an exponentially positive effect. As we know well within the United States, when women are empowered agents of change, they reinvest in their families and their communities to create immediate and generational shifts in perceptions, attitudes and opportunity. I believe that American women want to be a part of this larger story of success, both at home and abroad.

For more information, and for what you can do to ensure the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, please visit the websites listed below. There, you can also find letter templates to send to your representatives.

  1. Amnesty International USA “Support the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA).
  2. United Nations Women “Support I-VAWA
  3. Futures Without Violence, “I-VAWA Summary” (downloadable PDF)



Erin Helfert is an advocate for Women’s Empowerment, working to fight against gender-based violence around the world.  She is a specialist on issues of Women-led economic growth, and gender and justice. She has experience working with USAID, the UN, and the EU on projects throughout Europe. Latin America, and Africa.  Her advocacy contributed to the development of the Vision 21 Program from the Department of Justice, which addresses the need for and strives for the creation of a more adequate victim response service, both in the United States and abroad. Erin holds a Masters (US) in International Relations and Development, and a Master II (French) in International Trade and Development. She currently resides in New York City.



[1] The lawyer ultimately did not show to court over the course of the eight hearings. But, it is noteworthy that the tribunal granted a free lawyer to me, the victim. The Moroccan constitution provides that both sides must have access to legal representation. Should either side not be able to afford representation, the court will assign one to the prosecution/ defence. However, in reality, the onus is on the victim of Gender-based Violence to both prove that the act was committed against them, and to bear all legal costs to prosecute the perpetrator.

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