Elayne Clift


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Expanding the Violence Against Women Act

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt., USA.  Her latest edited collection is Women, Philanthropy and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society (Tufts University Press, 2005).

In 1987, when Charlotte Fedders testified in a Maryland divorce court against her husband, a prominent figure in federal government, domestic violence was considered an oxymoron.  Police called to the scene by abused women considered the disasters they found private family disputes.  Judges imposed harsh sentences on women who finally defended themselves against their abusers and doled out lenient penalties to the abusers.

But Fedders’ 1989 memoir, Shattered Dreams, and her subsequent advocacy on behalf of battered women helped other women’s rights advocates secure passage of the Violence against Women Act passed in 1994.   “The Act was groundbreaking in that it recognized the responsibility of government to prevent violence and help victims,” says Sheila Dauer, Director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA.  “It provided urgent funding for services for the victims of violence and training for all law, judicial and social service officials on how to recognize, investigate and bring perpetrators to justice.  Thousands of women in the U.S. have benefited from this historic legislation.”

That legislation is due for its second reauthorization in September and a broad coalition of women’s rights advocates are working to add ten new areas to the Act, last reauthorized in 2000, that will further protect and assist women of diverse backgrounds.  Among the additions the coalition seeks are including dating violence and stalking as forms of violence, providing guidance to landlords and public housing authorities to protect women from eviction due to domestic violence, and stronger immigration protection for women who are victims of violence.  They also want to see the juvenile justice system better protect girls and youth as well as tribal provisions for Native American women who are abused.  Communities of color are pushing for better protection as well.

The data on violence against women in the U.S. are comprehensive and staggering.  One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape during her lifetime.  Nearly 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18 and three out of twenty are under age 12.  Domestic violence costs the country $4.1 billion annually in medical and mental heath care services and it is the number one cause of homelessness in most large cities.  In forty percent of abusive relationships the assaults begin during a woman’s first pregnancy; pregnant women are twice as likely to be assaulted as non-pregnant women.  Since 1995 the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received more than one million calls, while an estimated 73 percent of domestic violence cases go unreported because women lack faith in the justice system.  The unmet need is still huge.  In Missouri alone, more than 4,000 women and children were turned away from shelters last year because of inadequate space.

Pat Reuss, senior policy analyst with the National Organization for Women, remembered in a recent National NOW Times article what it was like in 1994 when, after four years of intensive lobbying, the Act was signed.  “On one of those perfect, early fall days in Washington, D.C., a handful of NOW Action Center staff members and activists trooped over to the White House lawn to witness the signing of a crime bill.  Tucked away in the omnibus crime bill was the long-awaited Violence against Women Act. Like obedient fans, we cheered at this bill signing, even though no one mentioned [specifically] this monumental Act.”  The Act was funded at $1.62 billion over a six year period, Reuss recalled.  But “a new Congress swept in that fall and refused to release the funds.  NOW’s massive rally against violence the following spring broke the log jam at last, and the changes began.”  During its reauthorization in 2000, another “exhausting battle” ensued to expand and improve the bill, despite the galvanized attention brought to domestic violence issues by the 1995 O.J. Simpson case.

According to Pat Reuss and others, there’s still work to be done in prevention and eradication, as well as in educating law enforcement.  Judges are often swayed by charming batterers while they frequently consider victims to be hysterical.  Advocates must also deal with a notable backlash generated by the men’s rights movement.  A U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down last month exempted police officers from legal action when they refuse to enforce valid restraining orders, even if their refusal results in death.  NOW president, Kim Gandy called it “a truly outrageous decision. The Supreme Court just hung a ‘shoot here’ sign around the necks of battered women and their children all across the country.”

The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence against Women, a coalition of 2,000 organizations that was central to the passage of the 1994 Act, notes that “For ten years, VAWA has provided needed support to women, children and men facing violence.  We need to continue the programs that have worked so well, and build on our success by revising and expanding the law.”

Front line workers like Melissa Emmal, a community educator at Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) in Anchorage, Alaska, couldn’t agree more.  Reauthorization of an expanded Violence against Women Act would have a major impact on the core services provided by agencies like AWAIC.  “We are always worried about funding,” Emmal says, “and violence is such a huge problem. It affects everyone and we all have to work together to solve the problem and to break the cycle of family violence.”