In 1987, when Charlotte Fedders testified in a Maryland divorce court against her husband, a prominent figure in the US federal government, domestic violence was considered something of an oxymoron. Police called to the scene by abused women labelled the disasters they found 'private family disputes'. Judges imposed harsh sentences on women who defended themselves against their abusers and doled out lenient penalties to the abusers.
But Fedders' 1989 memoir 'Shattered Dreams', and her subsequent advocacy helped secure passage of the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994.
"The Act was groundbreaking. It recognized the responsibility of government to prevent violence and help victims," says Sheila Dauer, Director of the Women's Human Rights Programme at Amnesty International USA, an international human rights NGO. "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 US have benefited from this historic legislation."
The Act had been waiting for its second funding reauthorization by the US Congress since September. The reauthorization was finally passed on October 4. (The timing is fitting, for October is Domestic Violence Awareness month in the US.)
A broad coalition of women's rights advocates have worked to add 10 new areas to the Act, last reauthorized in 2000, that will further protect and assist women of diverse backgrounds. These changes include 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. The coalition has also demanded improvements in the juvenile justice system to better protect girls and youth, as well as tribal provisions for Native American women who are abused. Communities of color were also pushing for better protection.
Violence against women in the US is staggering. One out of every six American women suffers rape or an attempted rape during her lifetime. Nearly 44 per cent of rape victims are under age 18, and three out of 20 are under 12. Many rape cases go unreported because of fear or shame: In 2003, only 39 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police. In 40 per cent of cases, assaults begin during pregnancy.
In the last 10 years, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received over one million calls, while an estimated 73 per cent of domestic violence cases go unreported because women don't trust 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.
Domestic violence is also an issue in the American military where it is downplayed and batterers are directed to anger management classes or couples counselling, viewed as ineffective in reducing the incidence of domestic violence.
The landmark legislation passed in 1994 was foreshadowed by a case brought before the New York court in 1978 when 12 battered women won damages for inadequate police protection. The following year, a group of 200 women developed a diagnostic tool - the Power and Control Wheel - that defined abusive behavior, and a study conducted in Minnesota found that batterers are likely to repeat their abusive behavior within six months of serving jail time. In 1987, a court in Connecticut awarded a domestic violence victim over US$ 2 million when police refused to arrest her husband. Then Charlotte Fedders revealed that her prominent lawyer husband was beating her.
"The lid was off and the closet door was opened," as one women's health educator put it.
Pat Reuss, senior policy analyst with the National Organization for Women (NOW), 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 a perfect, early fall day in Washington DC, a handful of NOW Action Centre 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 VAWA. Like obedient fans, we cheered at this bill signing, even though no one mentioned [specifically] this monumental Act. While waiting for someone to acknowledge VAWA's existence, we reminisced about the intense four-year effort to make it a reality."
The Act was funded by the US Congress at US$ 1.62 billion over a six-year period so that individual states could carry out its mandates, Reuss recalled. But "a new Congress swept in that fall and they 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.
After the reauthorization, US$ 3.9 billion will be available over the next four years to a variety of programs included in VAWA.
According to activists, there is still work to be done in areas of prevention and eradication, as well as in educating law enforcement. Judges are often swayed by charming batterers, while they frequently consider the victims hysterical. Advocates must also deal with a backlash generated by the men's rights movement. A US Supreme Court ruling handed down in June 2005, for example, exempted police officers from legal action when they refuse to enforce valid restraining orders, even if their refusal results in death. "This was a truly outrageous decision," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "The Supreme Court just hung a 'shoot here' sign around the necks of battered women and their children all across the country. Abusers may feel they have a green light to ignore restraining orders, and police departments under budget restraints could see domestic violence enforcement as a 'no penalty' area to cut resources."
A statement last spring by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women - a coalition of 2,000 organizations that was central to the crafting and passage of the 1994 Act - said, "For 10 years, VAWA has provided needed support to women, children and men facing violence. We are urging Congress to quickly reauthorize the essential legislation. We need to continue the programs that have worked so well, and build on our success by revising and expanding the law."
Frontline 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 VAWA would have a major impact on the core services provided by agencies like AWAIC, which wants to initiate a prevention programme for children in conjunction with the school system. "We are always worried about funding," Emmal says, "and violence is such a huge problem here. Alaska is first in the nation for women being killed by men. It affects everyone and we all have to work together to solve the problem and to break the cycle of family violence."
(Elayne Clift writes from Vermont, USA. Her latest edited collection is 'Women, Philanthropy and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society'; Tufts University Press, 2005.)
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service