Tag Archives: Sexual Assault

International Women’s Day and VAWA Converge, Illuminating Progress and Struggles Towards Gender Equity

Credit: Dominik GwarekOn the eve of International Women’s Day – March 7 – President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law. And on March 8, folks around the world celebrated women’s achievements and ongoing struggle towards equality.

I find myself puzzling over the fact that there is no Violence Against Men Act, nor popular observance of International Men’s Day in the U.S. What does this inconsistency say about the genders? We’re not equal, but we’re trying?

The reauthorization, which first passed in 1994 with bipartisan support under President Clinton, recognizes to some extent the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault which disproportionately affect women. VAWA reauthorization did not pass easily this time around, and it got tabled a year ago amid bipartisan bickering over added provisions for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant victims. Those provisions made it into the now-law.

The VAWA reauthorization provides needed funding and services to victims of violence but doesn’t ultimately address the cultures of violence, the reasons women are often victimized, and why acts like rape continue to take place in high numbers throughout the world.

International Women’s Day derived from women’s labor struggles, which persist today. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Steph Solis quotes Carol Rosenblatt’s concern about the factory fires in Bangladesh that killed many female garment workers to demonstrate that women still work for low wages in poor conditions. In addition to freedom from violence and access to fair wages and work conditions, women around the world still fight for equal access from food and clean toilet facilities to maternal health care and parental leave after birth.

In the Guardian, a somewhat sour Suzanne Moore describes International Women’s Day events as, “a strange mixture of talking about female genital mutilation (bad) and then listening to some great women musicians (good).” Both of the Christian Science Monitor’s stories about the international celebration opened with descriptions of the Doodles designed for the day on the Google homepage (one of which makes the G out of the Venus symbol). I’m not sure of the value of Google’s recognition of the day, though it likely promotes awareness to those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Folks throughout the world celebrate International Women’s Day with different practices, some women get time off work, or additional help with housework from the men in their lives. This year in the U.S. women can take the day to appreciate ongoing support for victims of violence though the sentiment remains bittersweet – because the VAWA law and International Women’s Day serve as landmarks towards gender equity which inadvertently highlight the broad disparities that remain between men and women.

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Adult Witnesses of Child Abuse Held Accountable

On my parents anniversary a few weeks ago they reminisced about trying to secure a particular Catholic officiate at their wedding.  But the priest they selected was not permitted by his superiors to oversee a half-Catholic wedding, and besides, Ron Voss was already in trouble in the diocese for violating traditional practices like hosting mass in someone’s house.

The irony of the story, my parents continued, was that this priest’s most offensive act did not face sufficient punishment from the church. He molested children, and the church’s solution to the problem was to send him far away, to Haiti, where conflicting reports suggest Voss continued his abusive habits.

This anecdote from my parents revived an issue I’ve been mulling over since the Jerry Sandusky trial this summer. Protecting children from predators should be the understood responsibility of all adults. Standing by with knowledge of child abuse condones the crime and is criminal in and of itself. Within the unequal power dynamic of an abusive relationship, children cannot be expected to protect themselves from older, larger, and more influential figures in their lives who may try to hurt them.

The UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child (this is a human rights document) states that “The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.” While the US helped draft this declaration we have not ratified it and are not held to the terms. But many states on their own, have passed legislation naming mandatory reporters who monitor for suspicious treatment of children. Florida just passed an act that “criminalizes failure to report child abuse” in the state.

Reporting charges of child abuse can be painful to pursue. I don’t doubt this. No institution — be it the Roman Catholic Church, the legendary football program at Penn State, or any other establishment — wants to set aside their mission and reputation to deal with a scandal. And no individual witness likely wants to challenge people they’ve previously respected with an accusation of molestation.   Taking responsibility for knowledge like that requires courage, and for those who don’t have the will-power to speak up, the judicial system has started to hold them responsible. 

While former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky already received a conviction for sexually abusing 10 boys,  other cases are pending around the people who may have known of Sandusky’s abuses; related allegations include failure to report and perjury. A report from Louis J. Freeh, director of the F.B.I., outlined that many support staff suspected the abuses and choose to silence concerns, rather than address them. This alleged evasion of confrontation allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse minors over the course of several years.

[In an interesting side note, a primary witness in the case against Sandusky, filed his own suit against the university. Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, claims that Penn State used him as a scapegoat, damaging his reputation. His testimony played an important role in the trial, though his subsequent strife illustrates why some may be reluctant to expose the crimes of superiors.]

The Sandusky trial wasn’t the only sexual abuse case to come out of Pennsylvania this summer. In July, a Catholic official, Monsignor William J. Lynn, was sentenced to 3-6 years for concealing sex abuses by priests. This trial marked the first conviction of a Roman Catholic official in the U.S.  — although charges of sexual abuse of minors in the catholic church arose frequently over the last few decades.

A petition through Change.org started circulating recently to address a parallel issue in a Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Bishop Robert Finn “shielded a pedophile priest,” reported the New York Times. And the author of the petition, Jeff Weis, wants the bishop to resign his post.

I don’t think this is a tall order, requesting the removal of someone convicted of protecting adult offenders over vulnerable children. The criminal justice system must be careful of newly criminalizing offences, but when it comes to child abuse someone must advocate for children.  That means expecting adults to take information they probably didn’t seek or desire and share it with authorities to prevent further abuse. If adult witnesses don’t take action, more and more children will be subject to the predation of abusers.

FYI: Jerry Sandusky faces sentencing this Tuesday, October 9.

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Delving into the issue of Sexual Assault in Native Populations

Last spring, Jacqui Callari-Robinson visited Sawyer County in Wisconsin, which hosts the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe and the Oakwood Haven shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence. She worked with a focus group of women to determine what services tribal communities needed to protect against these issues. Ten women of various tribes throughout the state participated and shared their own experiences.

All ten of the women were victims of sexual assault. They did not receive physical or emotional treatment, nor legal justice. Callari-Robinson holds onto this memory as she strives for full sexual assault response coverage throughout the state. I too grasped onto this story.

Callari-Robinson, the director of health services for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA), keeps an eye on all the SANE certified nurses and SART teams throughout the state. SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, a national certification for nurses who conduct forensic exams and collect evidence from victims of sexual assault. The exams play a crucial role in the medical treatment of victims and subsequent cases against their perpetrators. Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) consist of medical personnel, law enforcement, and advocates within a community who work together to help victims of assault.

Many of the eleven Native American tribes in Wisconsin do not have SANE nurses or SART programs on their reservations. Callari-Robinson forged relationships over the last 14 years with tribal community members and advocates to try to develop these programs.

My discussions with Callari-Robinson mark the beginning of my investigation into domestic violence and sexual assault programs in Indian country. A report from Amnesty International pulled me further into this issue. Maze of Injustice documents the high volume of indigenous American women who experience assault. This report came out in 2007, and the CDC confirmed in their 2010 Survey  that native women still experience assault more frequently than women of other races.

Why is this problem so pervasive in Native communities? Maze of Injustice reports that in our American history of colonialism rape became a tool of conquest placing Native women in a position vulnerable to abuse. And some Native Americans report that they inherited abuse practices from colonizers. Boarding schools which indoctrinated indigenous youths with a punitive system taught them to be ashamed of their culture. When these “reformed” Natives returned to their communities as adults, they brought punitive methods with them. C.J. Doxtater, an Oneida member and employee of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence shared this theory with me, and the anecdote that Native children who spoke their indigenous language were punished with pins in their tongue.

Many Native groups have sprung up in response to reports of high numbers of sexual and domestic abuse against Native American women and children including Mending the Sacred Hoop, a group based in Minnesota. They strive to disrupt the cycles of abuse that affect Native communities. Other groups addressing this issue include American Indians Against Abuse in Wisconsin and the national Indian Health Service. These groups work hard to address sexual assault and domestic violence on tribal land. Prevention of abuse remains a priority. And considering the focus group with ten out of ten women retaining the trauma and memory of abuse, these organizations work for healing and recovery on the individual and cultural level.

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Tribes Fight Violence Against Women

Enjoy News from the Margins’ first podcast! M. Brent Leonhard, tribal attorney and supporter of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), presented on the impact of VAWA on tribal sovereignty. He spoke at UW-Madison for the Indigenous Law Students Association’s Coming Together of Peoples Conference on March 23, 2012.

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