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A Culture of Violence Against Women: More Than Rape Kits

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Americans have recently learned that during the 1990s, Wasilla, Alaska, then under the mayoralty of Sarah Palin, charged victims of sexual assault for the rape kits used for evidence collection.

Attacks from progressives have been swift and harsh. There is good reason to hunt down the facts about the rape kits. But the larger issue - of rape, sexual assault and how we deal with violence against women in this country - has been overlooked.

First the facts:

Last week new evidence arose revealing that under Palin's administration, Wasilla cut funds that paid for the rape kits and shifted the burden onto the victims themselves or their insurance companies (kits generally cost between $500-$1200). Under Wasilla Police Chief Irl Stambaugh, the town had included the cost of rape kits in the budget. But Palin fired Stambaugh and replaced him with Charlie Fannon, who then took the money out of the budget - a budget Palin approved. Fannon evidently did not have a problem with billing victims, though he admitted that he would rather see the perpetrator pay for the rape kits (without elaborating on how that realistically or successfully might occur).

The town law did not change until Alaska state legislators got wind of what was happening (in Wasilla and other small towns) and introduced a bill, signed into law in 2000, making it illegal for "any law enforcement agency to bill victims or victims insurance companies for the costs of examinations that take place to collect evidence of a sexual assault or determine if a sexual assault did occur."

Fannon immediately objected, stating in an article on May 23, 2000 that "...the law will require the city and communities to come up with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams...I just don't want to see any more burdens on the tax payer." Fannon did not explain why rape victims should pay for their evidence collection kits while victims of burglary, for example, would not.

Since the story broke, Sarah Palin has been taken to task by progressives and rape victim advocates who are furious about the policy and demanding an explanation as to why Palin not only allowed this practice under her leadership, she oversaw its institution. Thus far, Palin's response to the issue has been denial. Said a spokesperson for her campaign:

"[Sarah Palin] does not believe, nor has she ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test...To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice"

Though no one, as far as I've read, has been able to successfully explain Wasilla's detrimental policy, conservatives have fought back, raising the fact that other states, towns and municipalities have charged rape victims for their kits as well. The National Review Online called out Illinois for "charging some rape victims." The practice of charging rape victims for evidence collection still occurs more often around the country than it should. US News & World Report recently reported on the problem:

In order to qualify for federal grants under the Violence Against Women Act, states have to assume the full out-of-pocket costs for forensic medical exams, as the rape kits are called. But according to a 2004 bulletin published by the NCVC [National Center for Victims of Crime], "[F]eedback from the field indicates that sexual assault victims are still being billed." [emphasis mine]

And while a policy charging sexual assault victims for any kind of evidence collection, treatment or care is heinous, there is a larger issue at play. It's easy to get caught up in the partisan anger - the volleying of stories back and forth that "prove" the deceitful intent of one campaign or another, the information that will surely reveal how evil one or another candidate truly is. But the media has been missing the most important part of the story.

To discuss the rape kit story without addressing what kinds of policies, as a nation, we must put forward in order to address violence against women - the causes of violence, the symptoms and how it can be curbed - does nothing to further the dialogue, find solutions and heal some of our most gaping wounds.

Bigger Questions About Rape and Sexual Violence in Alaska

According to Amnesty International, one out of every three women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In the United States, a woman is raped every 6 minutes. In global conflicts and wars, rape is widespread - a tool of war.

Instead of hashing and re-hashing a budget line under Sarah Palin's mayoralty, we need to put forward questions to be asked about and of the candidates that will allow us to understand what they have done or will do, concretely, to reduce violence against women, at home and abroad.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Alaska's rape rate is 2.5 times the national average. Alaska also has the highest rate per capita of men murdering women. Ninety percent of Alaskans would vote to increase funding for victim service programs because, according to the coalition, "programs are in dire need of more funding in order to serve the sheer volume of victims." Seventy-five percent of Alaskans have been or know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. Alaska's domestic violence shelters, sexual assault services and programs for survivors have seen a relatively small increase in funding. In 2008, the state budget included an additional $300,000 in funding for victims services programs. In 2009, according to Alaska's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Governor Palin's budget includes an increase in funds to help shelters offset the higher costs of fuel, utilities and insurance.

But the extraordinary levels of violence against women in the state of Alaska and the underlying causes still require a much greater level of state-level funding and oversight. According to the Alliance for Reproductive Justice, who lobbied to address Alaska's rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, when explicitly asked to address these issues in 2007, the Governor did not respond. The Alliance has this to say on their web site:

Governor Palin did not deliver and did not take a leadership role on any of these issues. In fact, this year, when there was a 7 billion dollar state surplus she did not step up to the plate for the women and children of Alaska...we were truly disappointed with her lack of action on this critical public health issue.

Most of Alaska's funding for sexual assault and violence against women programs comes from the federal government.

Pro-Active Policy Addressing Violence Against Women

What does responsible policy look like for dealing with violence against women?

In Illinois one out of every seven adult women are the victims of forcible rape. This number does not include women who have been the victims of attempted rape, young women and men - including children - under the age of 18 years old, or male victims of rape.

In Illinois an amendment to the Crime Victims Compensation Act was passed in 2001, co-sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, to ensure that sexual assault victims (or victims of other violent crimes) can be reimbursed for expenses they may incur. In addition, Illinois has on the books the Sexual Assault Emergency Treatment Act, which mandates reimbursement for (among other services) STI testing, emergency contraception and rape kits if Illinoians don't have public aid or private health insurance.

Illinois legislators considered sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and other violent crimes where women make up the majority of the victims important enough an issue to address it pro-actively and with conviction. Illinois has enacted a range of legislation that seeks to address the multiple layers of responses needed to adequately address sexual assault including the Violent Crimes Victime Assistance Program, The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program, and the Illinois Victims Assistance Academy.

And while it is true that only three out of every 10 rapes go reported to law enforcement, Illinois saw a decline in the number of reported rapes and sexual assault from 1998 to 2006; from 6,146 in 1998 to 5,646 in 2006.

Candidates Take Stands on VAWA

The mother of all legislation dealing with violence against women is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), spearheaded by Sen. Joe Biden and after years of lobbying, passed in 1994. VAWA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, renewed in 2000 and expanded in 2005 (signed by President George W. Bush).

VAWA's intent is to improve the national response to domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA combines a series of federal sanctions and initiatives as well as national, state, and local resources to improve the response to crimes against women. These funds are committed to four specific areas: prosecution, law enforcement, victim service, and courts.

Sen. Biden foresaw the need for such legislation to, among many other things, infuse crucial funds into state systems to fight violence against women. In fact, Alaska's Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault relies on monies from this act. The act requires federal fund grantees (states, Indian tribal governments or local governments) to cover the costs associated with forensic medical exams (including rape kits) in order to receive any VAWA funds. In order to receive these funds, therefore, Alaska state legislators in 2000, under Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, instituted the state law banning law enforcement departments from charging rape victims for their rape kits.

Curiously, while Alaska receives crucial funds from the VAWA act in order to administer its sexual assault programs, Sen. John McCain voted against VAWA twice.

Sexual Violence Against Military Women, Native Women

There's another layer of complexity to any story about the candidates and sexual violence. John McCain's military service to this country is well known; his experience as a POW is a narrative he uses to explain how he has and will prioritize our military should he become president.

It is worth asking, then, how a leader for whom a soldier's life is so important will deal with the rates of sexual assault against women in the military. One in three women are sexually assaulted in the military. Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The situation is so dire Congress called a hearing this summer specifically to examine sexual assault in the military.

What about Barack Obama? In the wake of the congressional hearings, will he take a lead in examining what the Pentagon could and should do to deal with this issue?

These are not the only stories of rape and violence against women in this country. One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. Many of those women live on reservations where it is often the case that, because of bureaucratic confusion over just whose domain they fall under - Bureau of Indian Affairs, state government or federal government - perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.

What steps would Senators Obama and McCain take to address the devastating "maze of injustice" that Native women on reservations face when dealing with protection from or prosecutions for rape and sexual assault?

These are the questions to which I want answers. These are the central issues of a campaign, of an election to which Americans must pay attention. If rape victims have been charged for rape kits in municipalities, towns, cities and states around this country, we deserve to know why. But let's not sell ourselves short. We deserve to know a lot more than that. The system is broken. Revealing a hole here and a scratch there unearths some superficial problems. If women are going to decide this election, we should do so based on the policies that impact women most, and which candidates will actually help women outside of politics. We can do this by asking the important questions:

Which set of candidates understands best how to remedy the culture of violence perpetuated against women in this nation and globally? Which set of candidates pro-actively creates policies that address the root causes of rape and sexual assault? Which set of candidates do we trust to raise the status of women in this country and work internationally to do the same? Which set of candidates' legislative and leadership records reveal genuine attempts at fixing the problems their various constituents face when it comes to rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women?

Asserting these questions in media coverage and exploring the answers requires a deeper investigation. But the process will bring us closer to what we really need to know about how our candidates prioritize violence against women and the kinds of policies they would or wouldn't institute.

Rape kits are but one part of the story.