This week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed into law decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence, including first offenses that do not seriously injure the person. For those of us who have been advocating for laws of protection, this is a severe blow. Anyone working in this field knows that 1) less than 1/3 of women report domestic violence to the police, and 2) those that do report domestic violence typically only do so after multiple episodes and increasing severity. That first offense reported is unlikely the first offense occurring, and any injury from domestic violence should be viewed seriously.
What does this have to do with the US? We, too, have our legal protections against partner violence under siege. Reports indicate that the US Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) may be dismantled. This Office was created in 1994 via bipartisan support for victims of partner violence, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women by funding violence prevention interventions, improving standards and services for abuse survivors, and strengthening the training and capacities of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges to effectively prosecute cases. Their support has provided essential cross training so perpetrators of violence are held accountable and prevented from revictimizing, and also so victims of violence are supported with high quality services.
OVW, and the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 that created it, was developed because 1 in 3 women in the US has been a victim of partner violence, and more than 1 in 5 has been a victim of rape or sexual assault. The impact of violence against women is severe in myriad negative ways. Abused women are at greater risk for injury, trauma, and even death from their abusers, and children who see their mothers abused are at greater risk for health concerns, engagement in criminal activity, and repeating violence in their own adolescent and adult relationships. The human costs are great, as are the economic costs to society. Intimate partner violence alone costs the United States $5.8 billion per year, in health expenses and loss of women’s labor. It also depletes resources from social services, the justice system, health-care agencies and employers. Reducing violence against women does not just support healthier families and societies, it makes economic sense.
Unfortunately, over 20 years of evidence-based work to prevent and adjudicate more effectively against violence against women is being compromised because of short-sighted plans to reduce federal spending by eliminating the OVW. Politicians’ determination of OVW’s work as superfluous is driven by misguided beliefs that family or relationship violence is a personal matter and that legislation protecting women from abuse provides loopholes whereby immigrants can fraudulently claim violence victimization and be given easy access to the United States. The science and the evidence do not support these claims at all. In fact research documents the utility of these protections as a means of maintaining healthy families and safer communities. Unfortunately, many of the people who control the decisions regarding OVW, including our new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are not interested in the evidence on this issue. Jeff Sessions was in fact one of the minority of Senators that voted against reauthorization of VAWA in 2013. Given that he is now head of the very agency housing this office he voted against, we are deeply concerned about what may happen to these services.
We do not want to go the way of Russia. We have worked on these issues in Russia as well as the US, and can confirm that their system is not one to follow if elimination of violence and protection of women and children are our goals. We cannot roll back the progress we have made to improve laws and protections against violence against women in the US, or to stop providing prevention programs to alter the cycle of family violence in our country. We ask you to look at the data on how pervasive this issue is, and the costs both human and financial to our society. We ask you to think about the women you know (or even yourself possibly) who have experienced such abuse, and consider what the loss of funding for these services would do if they needed them now. We ask that you think about what you can do to help continue OVW and to support your local shelter and crisis services for the millions of women and children affected by this violence right now.
Here are our ideas- Call your congresspeople and tell them to maintain OVW and its protections. Give, to your local domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center, because they need that support- in time or money- more than ever. Stop this rollback and please stop thinking that this is not your business or that you cannot do anything to help, because you can help. We need you, and you can help!
Anita Raj, PhD, Professor of Medicine and Global Public Health, Director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health, UC San Diego; Board Member of the Center for Community Solutions, San Diego’s largest agency serving victims of partner violence and sexual assault.
Jennifer Wagman, PhD, MHS, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Global Public Health, Associate Director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health, UC San Diego; Deputy Director of the UC Global Health Institute’s Center of Expertise on Women’s Health, Gender and Empowerment
Verna Griffin-Tabor,LCSW, CEO of Center for Community Solution, San Diego’s largest agency serving victims of partner violence and sexual assault.