The Department of Justice continues to reaffirm their commitment to ending any violence against women. October, the month dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence, follows the fifteenth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed into law September 13, 1994. According to the Department of Justice, since the passing of this act, “countless lives have been saved, the voices of survivors have been heard and families have been protected.” However, domestic violence continues in epidemic proportions across this country, without regard to socio-economic conditions. VAWA alone can not stop the violence.
Domestic Violence has traditionally been viewed as a private matter rather than a social matter requiring criminal justice intervention. Taken from an historical perspective, the criminal justice system has failed repeatedly to respond to cases of domestic violence, and have been has been cloaked in secrecy. Mandatory pro-arrest policies were initiated by many law enforcement agencies.
Such cases have evoked feelings of continuous frustration both from law enforcement responding to such calls, and from the battered women seeking protection. The policies followed were mediation or separation leaving batterers with impunity and victims without sufficient protection. Unfortunately, such policies have led to periods of silence by the victims. These victims have tended to hide their problems and to blame themselves. It has been referred to as “women-blaming” or “victim blaming.” Isolation and the feeling that they (the victims) are unique, make it harder for abused women to come forward and ask for help.
In the early 1970s it seemed as if the issue of battered women came out of the shadows. The feeling by judges was “let's kiss and make up and get out of my court.” With the passage of VAWA it was demonstrated that violence against women was to play a major role in the law. It continued to help women feel that they had the right to control their own bodies and lives, and spurred many women's hotline and crisis centers. On a practical level VAWA offered a remedy, which in some cases, was the only legal redress for violence against women, and avoided the effects of state tort immunities, marital rape exceptions, as well as unduly short statutes of limitations.
Constitutional challenges against VAWA were made, but have withstood most challenges. Understanding that three out of four women would become victims at one time in their lifetimes; that violence was the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44; that as many as 50 percent of women and children became homeless as a result of leaving violent situations at home; and battering being the largest single cause of injury to women in this country, has allowed this act to defeat its detractors.
With further prevention will come solutions. The recognition that there exists such a problem as domestic violence is a big first step. Battered women should have the right to self-determination, including the decision to stay or leave their men, and pick themselves up and start their lives over without fear of reprisal. Having trained professionals on hand be they in shelters or in organizations is an important step in stopping this problem. Women need to feel safe, and the use of more trained professionals is needed in addition to more battered women's shelters, safe homes, counseling and hotline services. The first step has been taken but more must be done. We still wait for that day when all women will feel safe.
Roslyn Muraskin, Ph.D. is Professor of Criminal Justice at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and Director of Long Island Women's Institute. She is the author and editor of “It's a Crime: Women and Justice” and an editor for “A Critical Journal of Crime, Law & Society.”