By Chloe Angyal*
As ethnic tension boils over into violence in Kyrgyzstan  this week, rumors have begun to surface on the ground that amid the rioting, shooting and chaos, Kyrgyz women are being raped. Whether or not the rumor is true, the situation is all too familiar. When violence breaks out, women and girls, already vulnerable, are often among the first casualties, and the violence is often systematic, designed to demoralize their communities.
Violence against women and girls is a huge, global problem. As obvious as this statement might seem, somehow we seem to forget that every day, in every corner of the globe, women and girls are subject to acts of violence and cruelty, from the horrific – such as acid attacks and rape as a weapon of war – to the benign, but still deeply harmful – like exclusion from education and lack of access to maternal healthcare.
Last weekend I was reminded of the scope of the problem, and of the need for the United States to make a serious commitment to solving it, as I sat listening to the many distinguished speakers at the No Violence Against Women Conference . The conference, hosted by Hunter College and organized by the National Council for Research on Women  and the US National Committee of UNIFEM , brought together influential thinkers, activists and policymakers from around the world to discuss the pressing issue of violence against women.
As I sat listening to them, one message stood out loud and clear: The United States needs to prioritize the prevention of violence against women around the world, and it needs to include women’s voices when making policy to do so. Again and again, I heard stories about how US policy abroad has made violence against women more likely, or about how, despite our best efforts, our policies are not reaching the women and girls who so desperately need our help.
Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International , a woman who spends much of her time in disaster and warzones, spoke about the need to make policies that are tailored to the unique culture in which they will be implemented. In Iraq, where Salbi grew up and where Women for Women has crews on the ground, the US altered the system by which food rations were distributed. Before the US-led invasion, rations were distributed through stores, but under US policy, Iraqis must now go to the mosque to collect food. This has made access to food more difficult for women, who were civilians in the store, but second-class citizens in the mosque. “A mosque is not church,” Salbi said: what works in the US does not necessarily work abroad.
Another place where our policy is not performing as it should is Haiti, said Nancy Dorsinville, Senior Policy Advisor at the Office of the UN Special Envoy to Haiti,  who spoke alongside Salbi. Since January 12th, when an earthquake reduced most of the already impoverished capital Port au Prince to rubble, US aid and aid workers have flooded Haiti, but have done little to curb the rampant violence against women, Dorsinville said. Sexual assault and rape have become widespread since January, she reported, and adolescent girls are particularly at risk. The practice of distributing food rations to men has led to a rise in transactional sex so noticeable that Dorsinville predicted a baby boom in September, nine months after the quake. Despite efforts to put more women aid workers on the ground, most aid workers are men, and Haitian women feel uncomfortable reporting sexual assaults and rapes to them. And even when they do, there is no system for documenting the crimes. In short, despite the sums of American money pouring into Haiti, systemic and structural violence against women continues, with no end in sight.
Finally, Joanne Sandler, Deputy Executive Director at UNIFEM , observed that simply sending aid workers and peacekeepers to violent areas around the world is not enough: we have to train those peacekeepers to identify and prevent violence against women and girls. When asked why there weren’t protecting women from sexual violence, Sandler said, peacekeepers responded, “because we weren’t ordered to do it.” In order to ensure women’s safety in warzones and disaster zones, the protection of women against rape and sexual violence must be added to the mandate of peacekeepers. Though cracking down on violence against women will require a change in attitude and vigilance on the ground, the effort must start at the top: peacekeepers won’t protect women from sexual violence unless they are “ordered to do it” by their superiors.
Violence against women is holding us all back: when women suffer, the world suffers. For too long, we have talked about the importance of preventing violence against women and girls, while taking very little action, or the wrong action, to change the situation. As Zainab Salbi said, “we have learned to talk the talk.” Now, it is time to walk the walk, to implement policies that include the voices of the women they will impact, and that are tailored to the unique needs of the places where they’ll be implemented.
If we ever want to end violence against women, we need to ensure that women’s perspectives are heard and their needs met. Women need to be at the planning table, and they need to be on the ground. In this, the US must lead partly by example. Salbi pointed to the irony of the United States encouraging those nations where we send aid to include more women: “When we send teams that are 50% women,” she said, “then we can preach gender equality.” There is work to be done, at home, and abroad, to end the horrific violence being perpetrated against women and girls all over the world every day. The time has come to act. Salbi concluded her comments by saying, “I don’t want to spend another twenty years of my life talking the talk.” Well, neither do I.
*Chloe Angyal is a writer and blogger from Sydney, Australia. She writes about gender issues at Feministing.com , and her work has been published in the Guardian UK  and the Christian Science Monitor . She lives in New York City.