Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) entered Congress more than 15 years ago. She is a senior member of the House Democratic Leadership, and is a member of the Steering and Policy Committee. She serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she is ranking democrat on the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade panel, and on the House Intelligence Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where she is ranking democrat on the oversight committee.
She is particularly passionate about protecting the rights of women, especially combating what seems to be an epidemic of sexual violence. She recently introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, designed to create a comprehensive strategy to deter violence against women and girls abroad. This bill would give the U.S. State Department new tools, ranging from health programs and survivor services to legal reforms to promote economic opportunities and education for women.
The act also would increase funding humanitarian funding and update mechanisms for responding to emerging outbreak of violence, which seems all the more urgent in light of the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Schakowsky discussed the situation with Boko Haram in Nigeria with VOA's Carol Castiel on the Press Conference USA program
What specific measures are you proposing to fight gender-based violence?
First of all because I know we are talking to an international audience, I want to be perfectly clear that we haven't solved this issue at home, and I'm acutely aware of that. It's not only, you mentioned some violence against women in the military, which is far too prevalent, we're also seeing violence against women on college campuses around the country.
We have a lot of work to do here at home, but as women that are often more empowered than our sisters around the world, it seems that we can take some of the principles of our violence against women act here at home and pass the International Violence Against Women Act.
The good news about the legislation is that we do have bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats, and it would make as a priority of United States foreign policy, dealing with issues like gender violence and discrimination against women around the world, address the status of women in many countries, which puts them at a place where they're actually sold.
And it's so incredible what we're seeing right now going on in Nigeria. Boko Haram translates into "no Western-style education." That is an organization, really a terrorist organization against educating girls, to the point that they have been kidnapped. Its leader has bragged on camera that they are being sold -- apparently some for $12 -- even across borders.
And that, fortunately, has evoked international outrage. And here in the United States, a team has been sent now to Nigeria to provide the expertise to rescue those girls, and hopefully to work with the Nigerian government -- to go after that organization and its leader, and treat him as the criminal and outlier and terrorist he is -- in an appropriate fashion.
What would the International Violence Against Women Act do?
This would become a priority, certainly under the category of emergence situations that would spark action by the United States government, Fortunately, this administration has done just that.
Speaking of the situation with the Nigerian girls, as bad as it is, do you think it can be a catalyst to spur the legislation further?
I saw one news account that the response of the United States government is also a reflection of increased power of women in the congress. We have 20 women in the Senate, 79 women in the House of Representatives, so we're just short of a 100, 99. Some of the women listening around the world may know that their parliaments and their legislatures are actually doing better in terms of the number of women.
But I think that the growing power and influence of women in our country has moved this to the top of the agenda, perhaps even more quickly, and I'm hoping that also will spur the kind of sense of urgency on the International Violence Against Women Act. And we're certainly following up on that, trying to get more women and more men in the Congress to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill and to move it.
Speaking of the emergency in Nigeria, are you satisfied with the level of technical assistance the U.S. has pledged or should we be doing more, not only to help the Nigerian military find the girls, but also to combat Boko Haram?
Yes, I would like to see even more activity. Let's see what happens in the next day or so, but it's already now been weeks that these girls have been kidnapped. This is the most shocking thing in a way that I've seen. I've been to Eastern Congo.
I've certainly seen the systematic rape of women, and rape used, as you mentioned, as a weapon of war. It's low tech, low cost. It destroys villages by tearing families and communities apart, and certainly undermines countries. But as a single event, the brazen abduction of these hundreds of girls - the "crime" being that they have gone to school -- is just, I think, in some ways a wake-up call for the entire world.
(Click here to listen to the full interview on Press Conference USA)