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Love and Violence: For Too Many American Women, Life Is Not a Bed of Roses

What can we do to protect women from abuse?

What can we do to protect women from abuse?

On Valentine’s Day, lucky American women will receive roses as a show of affection. But for too many, violence, intimidation, and abuse are the norm. In 2007, as in 1993, more than three-quarters of people killed by an intimate partner were women. During 2010, 15 women were murdered as a result of intimate partner violence just in the state of Minnesota. One in three Native American women is raped during her lifetime, and three in five are physically assaulted. Women soldiers who are sexually assaulted by someone else in the military are four times more likely to talk about the crime to their families than to their military command. Women in prison face not only the deprivation of their liberty and the threat of sexual assault, but also the loss of parental rights.

Women in the United States continue to suffer violence at the hands of people they know, love, live with and work with. This fact, which may startle many American observers, was the focus of the recent mission to the United States by Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Over the course of two weeks, she traveled to five states and the District of Columbia, spoke with women, advocates, and government officials at every level, and visited prisons and family law courts.

Ms. Manjoo’s work takes her to several countries each year. In each, she is asking whether the country could do a better job of ensuring that the safety of women is a priority. In the United States, she found important improvements in policies and resources, although not in legal rights. She also found room for improvement in every sector.

For example, most crimes against Native American women are perpetrated by non-Natives. Prosecutors at both the state and federal level have failed to respond effectively, with the result that offenders probably feel that their conduct is not all that bad. The Attorney General is now assigning more prosecutors to Indian territory with the task of investigating these crimes.

Numerous studies within the military and by the media have highlighted issues affecting women soldiers and veterans who suffer violence and sexual assault at the hands of their comrades in arms. Despite profound changes in policies, however, sexual assaults continue to occur and women soldiers continue to have problems getting their commanders to hold perpetrators responsible, military health systems to respond to their injuries, and appropriate attention from the Veterans Administration. The Rapporteur was told that only 16% of women veterans use VA medical services and that many report experiencing sexual harassment and hostility at VA facilities.

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Nearly a million women are either in prison or under the supervision of the criminal justice system. At both the state and federal level, many women prisoners are subject to violence and sexual assault. No national standards have been adopted about protecting their safety, promoting effective reporting systems or holding perpetrators accountable. The Attorney General is about to propose standards which will be binding on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In a federal system such as ours, however, states have no duty to comply with the standards. Hopefully, advocacy for women prisoners and the risk of losing some federal funding will encourage states to do what’s right.

Some of the violence incarcerated women experience is emotional rather than physical. Many prisoners are mothers of children, and they want to continue to do whatever parenting they can from behind bars. They face sometimes insuperable barriers to staying in touch with their children, such as the inflated price of phone calls and the long distances between prison and home. Few people are asking, as the Rapporteur does, why it is necessary to incarcerate so many women, why their parent-child relationship is undermined rather than supported and, finally, why it is so easy to terminate their parental rights during their incarceration.

Violence against women comes in many forms and happens in many contexts. In every situation, it is a grave human rights issue. It cannot be tolerated in the United States at any level or in any environment. Ms. Manjoo’s mission helps both the progress that has been made and the problems that remain to be solved.

For more information about the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, I encourage you to go here. Ms. Manjoo’s full report to the United Nations Human Rights Council will be presented in June 2011.

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