Women television executives, actresses, and legislators announced a joint campaign last month to end domestic violence and sexual assault against women.
The goals are to raise public awareness of the effects of violence on women and their families and encourage Congress to increase funding for programs to assist victims and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault.
Carole Black, CEO of Lifetime Television for Women, announced at the Capitol Hill briefing that the entertainment network is creating online educational resources about domestic violence and sexual assault and broadcast programs on the effects of violence on women and their families.
Eve Ensler, founder of the V-Day antiviolence movement (V-Day stands for Valentine’s Day) was praised by Black and others at the Capitol Hill briefing for her play "The Vagina Monologues."
Ensler first performed the one-woman play off-Broadway four years ago, which features musings on the word vagina and testimony of women who have been raped. The monologues are now performed by different actresses in at least six cities in the United States and abroad. A portion of the ticket sales goes to organizations assisting women victims of violence, according to Ensler.
Pat Reuss, vice president of government relations for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Psychiatric News that the public is becoming more aware that domestic violence and sexual assault occur frequently in the United States.
An estimated one-sixth of women and girls in the United States have been beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime, according to a report last year from the National Institute of Justice.
Reuss attributed the public’s increased awareness to ad campaigns on buses and other types of public transportation, benefit concerts for victims of violence, television programs, and outreach by nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, and other community groups.
Ensler and Black were joined at the briefing by several legislators (men and women) who had sponsored the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and its reauthorization last year.
Congress authorized $1.6 billion from 1995 through 2000 to establish local shelters and the national domestic violence hotline; train more police officers, prosecutors, and judges about violence against women; advocate for policies encouraging the arrest of perpetrators; and provide victim services, education about rape, and community prevention programs.
The law defines violence against women as domestic violence, sexual assault including rape, and stalking. It also allows battered immigrant women to apply for permanent resident status without the sponsorship of their abusive husbands.
Congress authorized $3 billion for the 2000 version of VAWA to fund programs for 2001 through 2005. Amendments resulted in dating violence’s being included in the definition of violence against women and funds for transitional housing and support services being added.
Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Connie Morella (R-Md.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and other legislators at the briefing agreed that the bills were a good first step, but much more needed to be done.
Conyers complained at the briefing that the final reauthorization bill doesn’t include the funding increases the House approved for rape prevention and education, civil legal assistance programs, and the Services, Training, Officers, Prosecutors (STOP) program.
"I want to assure you that we have not stopped fighting on Capitol Hill for these important priorities," said Conyers.
The STOP program provides money to states to develop victim service programs, train law enforcement officers how to respond to victims of domestic violence, and expand the number of police and prosecutors to deal with domestic violence.
According to a 1999 report by the Urban Institute, the STOP grants have improved community responses to physical and sexual assaults. However, better collaboration among law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim service agencies is still needed, according to the report.
Conyers also wants to restore a provision in the 1994 VAWA that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last May. His bill (HR 429) introduced last month would allow women who were victims of violence to seek compensatory and punitive damages and injunctive relief against their assailants in federal court.
Conyers rewrote the VAWA provision to correct two constitutional defects found by the Supreme Court. To bring a cause of action in federal court against a perpetrator under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, the bill now requires that a perpetrator must have crossed state lines or interfered in the economic activity of the victim.
To sue under the 14th Amendment, which relates to due process and equal protection under the law, the bill now requires that the United States attorney general bring a civil suit against any state or state employee found to have a pattern of discriminating in the investigation or prosecution of rape or domestic violence, according to counsel in the House Judiciary Committee. The original VAWA wording incorrectly allowed a private cause of action under the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court said.
Laura Fochtman, M.D., who sees domestic violence cases in a psychiatric emergency room in Stony Brook, N.Y., commented to Psychiatric News, "The police have become more willing to pick people up for domestic violence, but this may have more to do with negative press than increased funding."
Fochtman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, added, "Women often stay in abusive relationships because they don’t have enough money to leave. That problem is compounded by the general lack of social services and support available for the disadvantaged in the community."
Reuss echoed Fochtman’s comment. "With the welfare reform law, public assistance to low-income women has been cut. Although the law entitles victims of domestic violence to receive public assistance, it’s up to the states to offer special waivers for these women, and some choose not to," said Reuss.
Reuss pointed out that "women who are abused often are reluctant to report it to the welfare office because confidentiality may not be kept." Instead, women are turning to domestic violence shelters, which are already overloaded, for help in obtaining support services, she said.
Tougher laws are needed to protect victims of sexual and physical assault on college campuses, said Reuss. "If a student files a complaint with law enforcement, the perpetrator is often back in [the student’s] class or dormitory the next day. Another problem is that universities and colleges vastly underreport incidents of physical and sexual assault to avoid negative publicity."
Fochtman pointed out that women with serious and persistent mental illnesses are a unique high-risk group. They are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse because many of them were abused as children, she said.
"Because of their mental illnesses, they are not readily accepted into domestic violence shelters or programs," said Fochtman. "To make matters worse, fewer inpatient psychiatric beds and services are available for them to provide an alternate protective environment."
A summary of the 1994 VAWA law is available at the Web site of the Violence Against Women Office at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/vawo/laws/vawa/vawa.htm. The 2000 version can be found at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/vawo/laws/vawo2000/. The 1999 report on the evaluation of the STOP grants by the Urban Institute is available at www.urban.org/crime/vaw99.html. ▪