On the morning of Feb. 28, I awoke at 6 a.m. and began watching debates on the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nearly three hours later, I happily and tiredly turned off C-Span after the "yea" votes quickly added up, resulting in the legislation's passage. After months of fierce political debate, we could breath a little easier knowing that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking would continue to be served by the Violence Against Women Act.
The significant media attention given to the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization was justified by the bill's historical impact on improving intervention responses and prevention of violence against women. First authorized under the Clinton administration in 1994, it has addressed the issue from nearly every angle: it has provided training to law enforcement officers and judges on the dynamics of violence; allowed rape victims to demand that their assailant be tested for HIV-AIDS; created measures for the U.S. Postal Service to keep battered women's shelters and victim's personal addresses safe; and established new offenses and penalties for committing Violence Against Women Act-related crimes. The latest reauthorization expanded protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, immigrant, and Native American victims, ensuring more women are able to access resources and gain safety than ever before.
Of the nearly $10 billion allocated through the Violence Against Women Act since its inception, much of it has also supported victim service centers, including Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County.
Despite 19 years of progress under the Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking remain pervasive, sometimes deadly, problems. National studies indicate that more than 1.3 million women experience physical abuse by an intimate partner each year. Locally, the number of calls since Jan. 1, 2013, to the Bellingham Police Department regarding domestic violence and sexual assault is nearly identical to the number of calls regarding traffic accidents.
Women come to Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County every day for help, reminding us that while the Violence Against Women Act exists on paper, the problem of violence against women is devastatingly real.
It was certainly real for a woman I'll call Sarah, who came to our Whatcom County agency for the first time two years ago. Her husband had become increasingly emotionally and physically abusive throughout their marriage and had punched her in the face during an argument the night before. She was worried about the safety of her teenage daughter and was concerned she would "think it's okay for a guy to treat her like dirt."
Sarah began meeting with her advocacy counselor every week and after two months, she had devised a plan to leave her husband. While he was at work, Sarah packed her things and she and her daughter moved in with a relative. With her advocacy counselor's help, she obtained a protection order against her husband that demanded he stay away from her. And because the effects of abuse often last much longer than the abuse itself, Sarah joined a domestic violence support group where she found that there were other women who'd had the same feelings of isolation, hopelessness and fear that she did.
Because of the Violence Against Women Act, Sarah was never alone during this transition. Every step of the way, she had an advocacy counselor giving her encouragement, helping her cope with the effects of trauma and assisting her in creating a plan to reach a new life. Although we hope that no one ever has to experience the type of abuse that Sarah did, the Violence Against Women Act ensures that any woman who does will have somewhere to turn.
If you or someone you know has ever been affected by domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County can help. Advocacy counselors are available to answer questions, provide emotional support and assist victims in reaching safety through the 24-hour helpline at 360-715-1563 or in-person during business hours.
While the the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization was a tremendous victory in Washington D.C., we are here for all of the women still awaiting victory in their own homes.
Jenn Mason is the development and education director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County, 1407 Commercial St. Bellingham. For more information call 360-671-5714 or go online to dvsas.org.