The worldwide statistics for women, girls and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community are horrifying:

  • Women constitute 70% of the world’s poor – those living on less than one dollar a day;
  • One in three women worldwide will at some time during their lives be beaten or otherwise physically coerced into sex;
  • There are ten million forced child marriages per year and a total of one in seven girls in the developing world marries before she turns 15;
  • 77 countries have legislation on the books that make homosexuality a criminal offense, including five where it is punishable by death.

One organization in the US that is committed to fighting the discrimination suffered by women and the LGBT community is the American Jewish World Service. AJWS was established in 1985 when a group of rabbis, Jewish communal leaders, activists, businesspeople, scholars and others came together to create the first American Jewish organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe.

AJWS’ budget is over 50 million a year, and the organization supports grassroots organization on a worldwide basis with over 500 grantees, all of whom work at the community level in their home countries. Several years ago AJWS opened an advocacy Office in Washington, DC which cooperates closely with stakeholders in their field.

AJWS’ major current initiative is their ‘We Believe’ program, a national advocacy campaign which calls on the US Government to make to fight child marriage and violence against women, as well as ending violence directed against LGBT people. A central piece of the We Believe campaign is a concerted lobbying effort to get the he US Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). IVAWA makes ending violence against women and girls a priority and would permanently authorize the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, as well as the position of Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, which is responsible for making the fight against  gender-based violence a priority across the US Government.

During AJWS’s recent Policy Summit in Washington, DC, I was able to sit down with Timi Gerson, the AJWS  Director of Advocacy who has been coordinating the lobbying campaign to pass IVAWA to discuss both AJWS’s We Believe campaign, as well the Jewish values underpinning the organization more broadly.

What is the origin of the We Believe program, and how does the We Believe program ties into Jewish values or aspects of the Jewish religion or Jewish law more directly?

As a faith-based organization, everything we do is grounded in Jewish values. One example of this is the concept B’tzelem Elohim, which teaches us that each person has an inherent worth as a human being. B’tzelem Elohim tells us to value all human beings, and does not differentiate between whether you are gay or straight, man or woman, Jewish or not.

Another of our animating values is the concept of “Protecting the Stanger” which is both a Biblical and historical notion grounded in the Jewish faith that we as Jews owe the provision of care and support to those who are vulnerable. The principle of our obligation to protect and welcome the stranger is repeated more than 30 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment. Here in the US, we have developed a life that is in many ways quite privileged, but our own history where we have suffered from discrimination, violence and the utter horrors of the Shoah certainly teaches us that we have a responsibility to protect those are weak and vulnerable to exploitation. Here at AJWS when we look at the state-sponsored discrimination against LGBT people in Uganda or the tragedy of girls in India being forced into marriages that expose them to high risk of violence and the denial of their rights we as Jews believe we cannot just ignore this. Rather, it is imperative to act and that is a big part of what our We Believe campaign is about.

Finally, the concept of TikkunOlam – repairing the world by being engaged in social action to help repair a broken world in whatever way we can – is one of the founding values of AJWS. Of course, we cannot repair everything that is broken, but we can at least try to do our own small part. After all, small change – baby steps – can over time lead to something truly transformative.

Can you highlight in more detail what are some of the key points in the IVAWA legislation you are lobbying for?

Sure, IVAWA does a number of key things. The Obama administration has actually been quite active in making the fight against gender-based violence a major priority. The Office of Global Women’s Issues was elevated at the State Department under Hillary Clinton’s tenure, through the creation of the position of a hgh-ranking Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. Our big concern though is to make these institutional changes permanent. Administrations obviously change in Washington, and there is no guarantee that whoever follows Obama will have the put the same priority on these issues that his administration has had. Therefore it’s our belief is that it is critical to mm permanently institutionalize these positions, which is a big part of what IVAWA does.

Another thing IVAWA does is make the government’s work more strategic and accountable. This means setting some specific targets. For example, IVAWA mandates that the administration choose between five and 20 countries to focus in its efforts fighting gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination and to provide regular updates Congress on these efforts.

Finally, IVAWA mandates that at least ten percent of government aid programs for combatting GBV and child marriage go directly to local grantees at the grassroots level in their communities. Currently, aid tends to flow almost entirely through NGOs – many of which are western-based – and while most NGOs do wonderful work AJWS believes that a big part of combatting discrimination against women is to empower grassroots organizations directly. Even a small $20,000 grant for a grassroots organization can be game changing for a community.

From everything you’ve said Timi passing IVAWA seems like a no-brainer, why wouldn’t this be unanimously passed by Congress – why is a whole lobbying campaign necessary?

You would think this would be the case! Unfortunately as with everything in Washington it’s not that simple for a number of reasons. Here in DC we have a large segment of Congress that has a knee-jerk reaction against anything to do with more government. As a result, they look at the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues as creating more government. Where they are mistaken though is that both of these institutions have existed for several years, so IVAWA is not creating “new bureaucracy” as opponents argue.

Another challenge is that in a time of fiscal retrenchment here in the US foreign aid is an easy target for those wanting to cut budgets. What people don’t realize though is that foreign aid is a tiny part of the national budget. The UN has proposed that rich countries spend 0.7 percent of GDP on foreign aid; the US currently gives only around 0.2 percent which puts us last among the world’s wealthiest countries. Finally, IVAWA has in the past been caught up in the whole domestic debate over abortion. IVAWA doesn’t touch on this subject at all though – it is covered under current U.S. law that forbids U.S. aid dollars being spent on abortion except in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother and it does nothing to change this current law. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there, so it is really a constant challenge to re-educate politicians about  what the bill does and does not do.  Lastly, international issues like this often slip off the radar in Washington not because so many people oppose them, but simply because they are bumped off the agenda by more domestic concerns. It can be difficult to get foreign affairs topics that are not seen as directly related to national security concerns on the agenda of a Congress that is overwhelmed with so many domestic priorities.  So as you can see, there are a lot more issues to lobby for with IVAWA then might be apparent at first glance.

You mentioned that AJWS works with over 500 grantees worldwide. How do you choose which organizations to support and how can you keep track of so many grants to make sure money is being spent properly?

First of all, many of our grantees are long-time partners of ours’, so we know how they work and have confidence in them.  For new grantees, we look for organizations that have strong leaders; are transparent; and have deep connections at the local level.

Historically, most of our grantees are local organizations, and the majority of our money goes to the grassroots. However, some of our recent initiatives have involved a tiered approach, where we provide larger grants to bigger national or even regional NGOs. These larger NGOs can support many of the grassroots organizations by assisting them to build their capacity to become self-sustaining. Larger NGOs can also work much more effectively at the national level by forming alliances with like-minded organizations to lobby for changes around issues related to gender violence, child marriage and LGBT rights.

Can you give me an example of one or two of the larger NGOs with whom you’ve worked?

Sure, one good examples is an Indian NGO called Nirantar. Nirantar is one of the leading Indian NGOs working to promote the rights of women and girls and LGBT community in that country. We recently received a $15 million grant for our work on early/child marriage in India from a private foundation, and  Nirantar received one of our initial grants to complete a groundbreaking study on this issue in India. Nirantar found that far from some of the more common perceptions of the causes of early/child marriage,  much of the practice in India is motivated by economic insecurity, and a desire on the part of Indian families to protect their daughters from poverty or other forms of violence. Going forward, Nirantar will focus on ways to fight the practice of early marriage, including lobbying for better policies against the practice, as well as practical grassroots efforts with community-baesd organizations in four Indian states with high prevalence rates.

Another great example is the Congolese Women’s Fund (Fonds pour les femmes Congolaises-FFC). Their executive director is Julienne Lesenge, a leader who founded a grassroots organization in the Eastern region of the country where conflict has brought levels of gender-based violence that have earned Congo the title of “rape capital of the world.”  Having learned first hand how little resources end up in the hands of highly effective groups doing work at the community level, in 2007 she decided to work to create a national organization dedicated to funding grassroots work that would be based in the capital and could serve as a liaison between local groups and international donors. In addition to their grantmaking, they also provide capacity and training for local groups to build the overall sustainability of women-led initiatives and strengthen the Congolese women’s movement more broadly.

Both Nirantar and FCC are emblematic of national groups that are part of our tiered strategy to do grant-making at multiple levels with an eye toward supporting the vibrant, grassroots-based civil society and networks around the issues AJWS is focused on in the countries where we work.

Finally Timi, does AJWS work with any Jewish communities or Jewish grantees?

This is a question we are frequently asked. While there are certainly many wonderful Jewish organizations working directly with Jewish communities worldwide, our mandate is to focus purely on the developing world. From our perspective, and as we discussed earlier from the perspective of Jewish values, just because those suffering discrimination are not Jewish doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to help try and support communities facing these problems.

As I noted earlier, one of the important aspects of Judaism is that it is  culturally and historically rooted in the values of social justice, and we believe that there is a strong theological argument as well that indicates that the religious concepts B’tzelem Elohim or ‘Protecting the Stranger’ do not apply to Jews alone.

That’s a really good point Timi. You know, just hearing you talk it reminds me of how the Israeli military has played a huge but overlooked humanitarian role treating victims of the Syrian civil war in Israeli field hospitals. Many of the victims brought to Israel for treatment are children. Of course, the vast majority of those Israel has saved are Muslims, but no one is asking if the IDF should act or not – it is simply a Jewish imperative to do so. Seems like AJWS is motivated by similar values.

Anyway, thank you so much for your time Timi, and best of luck finally getting IVAWA passed.