March 11, 2021

Van Hollen, Bipartisan Group of Senators Introduce the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2021

Legislation improves U.S. consideration of programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence from the onset of humanitarian emergencies, bolstering strategic support for humanitarian actors

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2021. Introduced on the heels of International Women’s Day, the bipartisan legislation seeks to strengthen current United States’ and international actors’ efforts to address gender-based violence perpetrated during humanitarian crises, which disproportionately threaten the wellbeing of vulnerable women and girls.

In addition to establishing U.S. government policy to advance the skills of humanitarian actors, improve coordination in emergency response, and bolster support for survivors of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergency contexts, the comprehensive legislation seeks to elevate the voices of women and girls around the world by fostering empowerment opportunities that promote economic advancement, access to education, and leadership and involvement in humanitarian response efforts. 

“America’s global leadership must include standing up and speaking out against gender-based violence. Keeping women and girls safe around the world, as well as promoting efforts to empower them, should be central to our efforts to address humanitarian crises. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation that reaffirms the United States’ commitment to protecting the safety of and expanding opportunity for women across the globe,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“With this commonsense legislation, we stand in solidarity with vulnerable communities around the world who have suffered immeasurable tragedies under humanitarian emergency conditions, including the widespread and horrific perpetration of gender-based violence,” Chairman Menendez said. “Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the largest recorded refugee crisis in history, displaced women and girls seeking refuge and safety have endured horrific abuses that demand swift and substantive action. I look forward to working with my colleagues across the aisle to pass this legislation and critically strengthen the tools necessary for the United States and its partners to confront gender-based violence against women and girls everywhere.”

“During the COVID-19 public health crisis, violence perpetrated against women and girls has drastically increased around the globe. Refugees, displaced and stateless women and girls were at greater risk from gender-based violence long before COVID-19, but the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have only exacerbated these pervasive issues,” Senator Murkowski said. “We have a collective responsibility to safeguard the most vulnerable, particularly during global conflict. This commonsense legislation will promote a coordinated response to gender-based violence, while establishing prevention methods and increasing access to services for survivors around the globe.”

Joining the Senators in introducing the legislation were Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Susan Collins (R-Maine). 

“Around the world, there is a disturbing pattern of humanitarian crises intensifying horrific gender-based violence experienced by women and girls,” said Senator Merkley. “Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are extremely serious crimes—and we can’t stay silent while they happen. We must do all that we can to ensure that our international efforts actively address gender-based violence by providing the resources necessary to help those who are impacted and to expand economic, educational, and leadership opportunities for women.”

“Preventing and responding to the global epidemic of violence against women and girls requires our swift and immediate action,” said Senator Rosen. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in this bipartisan legislation that will help bring an end to gender-based violence by enabling the State Department to provide communities across the globe with resources and tools to prevent incidents, as well as to empower women and girls who are experiencing violence. Together, we can help put an end to gender-based violence.” 

“The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act takes practical action to address the disproportional impacts on displaced women and girls during a humanitarian crisis, and I applaud Senators Menendez and Murkoswki for their leadership,” Senator Markey said. “Our humanitarian responses will be more impactful and humane if our interventions respond to the specific vulnerabilities and needs of girls and women. This legislation will help to prevent, identify, and manage cases of gender-based violence, and expand opportunities for women and girls in humanitarian settings.”

"As millions of displaced people seek refuge around the world, women are holding their families together even in the most dire of circumstances. I am proud to support this legislation that expands women and girls’ leadership opportunities and strengthens their protections in humanitarian crises,” said Senator Cardin, Chair of the SFRC Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations. “By formalizing the State Department’s and USAID’s Safe from the Start program, we can improve efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.”

“I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Keeping Women and Girls Safe Act,” said Senator Coons. “The United States is the global leader in humanitarian assistance, and we have a responsibility to make sure that women and girls are safe from violence and sexual exploitation. All too often, women and girls face the real risk of gender-based violence even when they’ve escaped from conflict or disaster zones. Part of the solution is bringing women to the table and empowering them as decision-makers and agents of change in humanitarian response.”

“When humanitarian crises emerge, women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing sexual and domestic violence. Combating gender-based violence is a moral responsibility as well as a critical part of broader efforts to bring stability and economic security to some of the most vulnerable corners of the globe. This demands Congress’ attention and should be a U.S. foreign policy priority,” said Senator Shaheen. “I’m glad to join Senators across the aisle in this bipartisan legislation to ensure the State Department and USAID prioritize addressing gender-based violence during humanitarian crises, making sure sites like refugee camps are not safe harbors for perpetrators to target displaced and vulnerable women. We must remain vigilant and ensure our women and girls are at the forefront of our work to resolve humanitarian emergencies.”

“In addition to being a pressing human rights issue, gender-based violence contributes to inequality and political instability, making it a security issue as well as a moral issue for us all. Our bipartisan bill would support U.S. and international efforts to combat such violence around the world,” said Senator Collins. “I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues to end gender-based violence and to provide the assistance and resources necessary to achieve this goal.”

Find a Section-by-Section summary of the bill HERE. 

Find a copy of the bill HERE.

Tarah Demant, Director, Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program, Amnesty International USA, said:  “All people have the right to live free from violence, yet 1 in 3 women globally will experience violence, and in humanitarian emergencies, women and girls are even more vulnerable to violence. Ending violence against women and girls should be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, including in work to address humanitarian crises.”

Michelle Nunn, CARE USA President & CEO, said: “It is critical that the United States make a robust commitment to address gender-based violence in its humanitarian response efforts. The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act does just that, and we thank Senators Menendez and Murkowski for their bipartisan leadership on this critical and timely legislation. Women and girls displaced by conflict and disaster carry so much on their shoulders, yet their unique needs and rights are often overlooked. One in five women report experiencing sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies. The COVID-19 crisis alone may cause 15 million more cases of gender-based violence globally for every three months the virus causes shutdowns. Yet, we know this staggering reality is preventable. CARE strongly endorses the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act for bringing attention to these issues and for standing alongside women and girls as they demand safety, rights, and dignity.” 

Richard L. Santos, President and CEO, Church World Service, said:  “Women and girls face increased risks of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies, including natural disasters and protracted refugee crises. This is unacceptable, and all the more tragic given that displacement caused both by conflict and extreme weather events around the world continues to increase. The impact of COVID-19 now further exacerbates this situation, and has increased the risk of gender-based violence for women and girls everywhere. CWS accompanies women and girls in rebuilding their lives after being forced from home by conflict, persecution or disaster; we know their needs are profound and their voice, choice and agency need to be heard. We are proud to support the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act and urge Members of Congress to do the same.” 

Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International, said:  "We applaud the introduction of the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act and thank Senators Menendez and Murkowski for their bi-partisan support of this important legislation. The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act recognizes that forcibly displaced women and girls face increased threats of gender-based violence (GBV) and that U.S. funding must support prevention and respond to GBV at the onset of an emergency. The measures contained in this bill are especially important now, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic increases of GBV worldwide, particularly among some of the most vulnerable displaced women and girls. The bill also recommits that U.S. supported programs will include the meaningful participation of affected women and girls, which is essential when designing effective programs. Displaced women and girls know their needs best.  Refugees International endorses the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act and encourages Congress to pass this essential legislation.”

The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act was endorsed by over 68 leading civil society organizations. A full list of supporting civil organizations includes: Advancing Girls' Education in Africa (AGE Africa), Alliance for Peacebuilding, American Jewish World Service, American Red Cross, Amnesty International USA, Bethany Christian Services, CARE USA, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), Center for Victims of Torture, ChildFund International, Clearinghouse on Women's Issues, Feminist Majority Foundation, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Friends of UNFPA, Futures Without Violence, Global Rights for Women, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation, GOAL, GreeneWorks, Guttmacher Institute, Heartland Alliance International, HIAS, International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), International Lifeline Fund, International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, International Youth Foundation, Islamic Relief USA, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Jewish Women International, Jewish World Watch, Kronia Collaborative, Landesa, Last Mile4D, Mercy Corps, Mercy-USA for Aid and Development, National Association Social Workers, National Democratic Institute, National Organization for Women, North American MenEngage Network, Oxfam America, PAI, Pathfinder International, Plan International USA, Population Institute, Population Media Center, Promundo-US, Radiant International, Refugees International, The Global Women's Institute (GWI) at the George Washington University, The Hunger Project, Together for Girls, Too Young to Wed, UN Women USA, UNICEF USA, Virginia Equal Rights Coalition (VERC), Vital Voices Global Partnership, War Child USA, Women for Afghan Women, Women for Women International, Women Graduates USA, Women Watch Afrika, Inc., Women's Refugee Commission, World Relief, World Vision US, Zonta International, and Save the Children.