Last year, I visited Haiti with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). We visited displaced persons camps where, years after the 2010 earthquake, thousands of people still live in shelters made from tattered tarps tied to wooden posts. What became clear in the midst of the squalor was that women bore the majority of the responsibility for their households. They and their children were also exposed to tremendous physical danger in the camps—from abuse to sexual violence to rape.

Despite these challenges, we also observed the amazing power of Haitian women to change their circumstances. A grassroots group funded by AJWS was giving these women microloans of farm animals, simple economic training and economic assistance, and the women have used these things to turn around their lives. I discovered on that trip that change is possible when we have the courage to believe that things need not remain the same.

There is a woman in the Bible, Tamar, who took a great risk to empower herself in a dangerous world where she possessed few rights or options. Tamar’s husband died, leaving her in the vulnerable position of a woman alone in biblical times—without a home, an income or protection from violence. Local culture dictated that her brother-in-law should marry her, saving her from this terrible fate, yet he refused. Deprived of choices as to whom she would marry, choices over her own body, choices as to her own destiny, Tamar took matters into her own hands. She went to her father-in-law, the Patriarch Judah, pretending to be a prostitute. After he lay with her and she conceived a child, Tamar risked everything by publicly confronting Judah and asking him to spare her and give her a degree of power over her own life. He did so, saying: “She is more right than I” acknowledging his own failure to follow through on his obligations to ensure her security.

Millions of women throughout the world today face similar powerlessness and lack of choices that Tamar experienced. And unfortunately, few women living with poverty and violence today have access to someone with the power and generosity of spirit to help them get back on their feet. As a result, millions of women may never have the opportunity to gain justice for themselves, their daughters or the generations to come.

That is, unless, we choose to write ourselves into this story as characters who advocate for systemic change so that women like Tamar can realize their rights.

There is now an opportunity for the American people to make a real difference in the lives of women in places like Haiti and throughout the world. There is a bi-partisan bill before Congress called the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). If passed, the act will:

  • Make sure that women and girls are front and center in U.S. diplomatic and aid efforts
  • Guarantee the appointment of a permanent U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, ensuring that the rights of women and girls are considered in high-level foreign policy and diplomacy
  • Require that at least 10 percent of U.S. funding to fight violence against women and girls goes to local groups on the ground in developing countries, and that the U.S. government ensures that funds are truly being used to benefit women and girls

Imagine the lives that could be changed if the American government focused its power on improving the treatment of women and girls throughout the world today. Imagine how we could reduce the violence that is perpetrated against them, how we could prevent the marriages that young girls are forced into. Imagine if funds were made available to effect real and sustained change. Imagine if there was an Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State that could help make this vision a reality.

American Jewish World Service has made advocating for the passage of IVAWA a priority issue, and I am proud to join them in this worthy effort. In a world where an estimated one out of every three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime, passing legislation like this is critical in ensuring a just future for us all. Like Judah, we cannot default on our obligations to support women worldwide in overcoming the tremendous challenges they face. With our support and with that of the U.S. government, they can gain the confidence and resources that they need to stand up and make their voices heard.