We are about to sit down at our seder table to celebrate the foundational freedom narrative of the Jewish people. Joining family and friends in an environment of privilege and plenty, we recount the history of hardship and travail, when our ancestors in Egypt suffered brutal oppression. This year, my thoughts are with those who continue to live under the threat of constant violence, especially women and girls across the globe.
As a participant in the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship, I have become involved in the “We Believe” campaign to stop violence against women and girls. Inspired by our Jewish values and teachings that assert that dignity of every human being, our intergenerational cohort of AJWS fellows is actively pressing lawmakers to support the International Violence Against Women Act, which would link international diplomacy and foreign aid to global efforts to end violence against women and girls.
The horrifying realities of continuing persecution sadly is very prevalent in the 21st century in many parts of the world. A recent front-page headline in the New York Times asserted “U.N. Reveals ‘Alarmingly High’ Levels of Violence Against Women.” In early March, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported on the results of a study to the General Assembly, claiming that despite the gains women have made in education, health, and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide remains widespread. About 35 percent of women worldwide – more than one in three – said they had experienced physical violence in their lifetime, the report finds.
The immediate priority of We Believe, a national advocacy campaign of American Jewish World Service, is the passage of IVAWA, which recently has been introduced in Congress by Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, with the support of a bipartisan group of sponsors. Two weeks ago, U.S. senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the International Violence Against Women Act in the Senate. This bipartisan legislation would make reducing the levels of violence against women and girls worldwide a top diplomatic priority for the United States.
We urge Bergen County members of Congress from both parties who have not yet joined this important initiative to follow the lead of several of their New Jersey colleagues (notably Rodney Frelinghuysen, R. – Dist. 11 and Leonard Lance, (R – Dist. 7) and add their name to the growing list of the IVAWA’s sponsors and supporters.
The first action step is for all of us to recognize how prevalent violence against women and girls continues to be around the world. Believing in the dignity of all people and their basic human right to a life of freedom from fear and abuse, we must renew our Jewish commitment to justice for all. As we commemorate the escape from slavery of the Jewish people and acclaim the story of our redemption, it is incumbent upon us to recognize that an estimated one of every three women across the world will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
This is a time for American Jews and other supporters of human rights to take action and advocate for policies that will improve the lives of people in the developing world. By signing the IVAWA petition and calling on our congressional representatives to support its passage, every person can take a small step toward making significant change in our deeply troubled world. Just as we are enjoined to recall that we were once slaves in Egypt, we should take a moment to reflect on what life is like for women and girls who suffer from violence and coercion in their daily lives in our day.
The We Believe campaign becomes a personal commitment when someone listens empathically to the transformative stories of hope of a number of extraordinary, resilient people that are recorded on the AJWS website – you can find it at webelieve.ajws.org. I urge readers of the Jewish Standard to do this as a way to make the awareness of this pressing issue more personal and immediate. The passage of IVAWA will lead to the implementation and funding of innovative, cost-effective programs that have been shown to decrease violence against women. This is a fundamental issue that all people of good faith can support, regardless of their political affiliation, religious inclination, or party preference.
At our family seder we incorporate the new ritual of placing a Miriam’s cup, filled with water, on the table. This tradition honors the role that the prophetess played in the crossing of the sea and recognizes the leadership of women in Jewish life and culture. This year, we will add a reflection about women and girls around the world who continue to need our advocacy so that they, too, may one day sing jubilant songs of freedom.