Reducing violence against women and girls
For too many women and girls, violence is a routine part of life. In 2004, California law enforcement reported receiving 186,439 domestic violence calls; 138 women in the state were killed by their husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends. Nearly 10,000 forcible rapes were reported to law enforcement in California in 2003. Women make the vast majority of calls about domestic violence, and although domestic violence is found throughout the state, some areas have a much higher incidence. In San Diego County, for example, there were 21,855 domestic violence incidents in 2002, averaging 2.5 incidents every hour of every day, more than double the number of aggravated assaults.
In 2003, there were 8,291 domestic violence-related calls for assistance in Fresno County. Fresno County ranked number one in the number of felony domestic violence arrests in California per capita. Throughout the state, Tour participants discussed the need to expand services and programs that address the root causes of violence, including poverty, cultural conditioning, and the proliferation of violent images in popular culture.
The intersection between images in popular culture and violent behavior
At each Tour stop, participants discussed the violence that has become ordinary fare in popular culture — on the Internet and television and in movies, music, music videos and video games. Since the 1950s, more than 3,500 research studies on the impact of media violence on behavior have been conducted in the US. All but 18 have shown a correlation between exposure to violent behavior in the media and violent behavior acted out in real life. Further, several studies have shown that violent video games desensitize children and adolescents to violence and increase their levels of aggressiveness and hostility toward others.
Tour participants echo the conclusions of these studies in their concern about the ways in which sexualized violence in particular contributes to the objectification of and violence against women and girls.
Response to victims of violence
Tour participants urged that local law enforcement agencies improve how they respond to women and children who are the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition, they recommend more outreach to undocumented residents about domestic and family violence services available to them. Regarding poor response by law enforcement, a report released in July 2005 by the California Attorney General’s Task Force on Criminal Justice Response to Domestic Violence identified myriad problems statewide and included frightening examples of local agencies that failed victims of domestic violence. Not only did agencies fail to enforce current laws, they were also shown to do little to hold abusers responsible for their actions.
For example, it is well recognized that a batterer can be prosecuted for violating a Family Court restraining order. Yet, according to a statewide database, in some counties up to 50 percent of these orders have never been served by law enforcement, leaving these batterers unaware that there are restraining orders against them. Even when served, these orders may be of little use; in all too many counties throughout the state such orders are rarely enforced. This lack of enforcement suggests that local law enforcement agencies do not take restraining orders seriously, and it provides little incentive for women to reach out to law enforcement agencies for assistance. Immigrant women face additional obstacles in accessing victim services or adequate assistance from authorities because of language and cultural barriers.
Preventive programs and services
Throughout the Tour, women and girls underscored the need for programs designed to prevent interpersonal and family violence and sexual assault. They highlighted the need for programs to begin in elementary school, when children are just beginning to learn about gender roles. Further, they emphasized the need to teach adolescents that domestic and sexual violence is not a women’s issue, but a societal problem that has grown out of a devaluation of girls and women alongside the distorted belief that it is acceptable for men to exert power and control over others.
Participants also recognized that this education cannot be addressed solely to women and stressed the need for such programs to involve adolescent boys and men. While Tour participants recognized that violence occurs in every social stratum, they identified a particular need for programs that explore the connections between family violence and poverty, unemployment, mental health and alcohol and substance abuse.
In the 1970s, the second wave of the US women’s movement began to transform domestic violence from a private issue cloaked in shame into a pressing public health concern. At that time, there was no hotline for a woman to call, no shelter in which to seek safety, no laws that would protect a woman from her partner’s rage.
Now, 35 years later, the domestic violence movement is a model of how grassroots, feminist activism can transform people’s lives. Advocates for women who were at that time called “battered” founded shelters that provide safe housing for women and their children, established state coalitions and nationwide networks to advance their work, lobbied for hundreds of new laws aiming to stem domestic violence and played a leading role in the development of new procedures for how police respond to calls involving domestic violence.
The most significant reform to date has been the passage, in 1994, of the national Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The result of more than a decade of intense lobbying by women throughout the country, this legislation made evident the government’s responsibility to protect victims of interpersonal violence. The federal law funds services for victims of rape and domestic violence, provides funding for special training programs for police and court officials and provides for a national 24-hour hotline for battered women. Since its inception in 1996, the hotline has answered more than 1,240,000 calls.
In California, activists have helped pass dozens of domestic violence laws created to broaden the impact of VAWA and improve the lives of women and girls. One of these laws, which was a focus of the Women’s Foundation’s 2003–2004 Women’s Policy Initiative fellows, requires that victims of domestic violence or abuse be informed that they have the right to have a domestic violence counselor or other support person with them when interviewed by any law enforcement authority or district attorney.
Other new laws include mandatory arrest policies for restraining order violations and a requirement that forms for reporting domestic violence be available in languages other than English. Family court decisions must now be made with the presumption that allowing a perpetrator of domestic violence to have custody is detrimental to a child, a dramatic policy-shift decades in the making. Throughout the state, a number of organizations have begun to educate youth and men around the prevention of violence.
The Support Network for Battered Women, in Mountain View, for example, a Women’s Foundation of California grant partner, is providing young women and men with leadership training to prepare them to be peer educators on domestic violence, healthy relationships, community resources and intervention strategies in Santa Clara County schools.
In recent years, the domestic violence movement has expanded to address the needs of women in same-sex relationships, facing the hard truth that women can be batterers as well. It has also raised awareness about dating violence among teenagers and elder abuse by family members as well as instilled an understanding that emotional and psychological abuse can be as damaging as a fist.
The movement is also no longer solely the purview of women nor limited to the United States. Today, a global network of organizations is working to eradicate violence by intimate partners, united by a call for universal human rights that recognizes that a fundamental requirement for women to be free and equal is the eradication of all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence.
Learn more about The Road to Equity Tour and keep your eye out for more articles in this seven-part series.