While we are absolutely, truly delighted that President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act last week, it's also clear that the legislation never should have been allowed to lapse in the first place. The fact that it was even used as a political chess piece is a disturbing indication of the low priority that sexual and domestic violence have in this country as a national issue.
Just this month, we learned of a medical team from the University of Mississippi that has reportedly cured an infant of HIV. For activists in the trenches of the 30-year fight against AIDS, this is much more than a medical victory. It's a victory for our society's willingness to transcend stigma, transcend silence, and recognize and address a major public health issue.
Early activists realized that if a cure or effective treatment was to be found, we could not, as a society, allow prejudice and bigotry based on sexual orientation to push AIDS into the shadows. Silence wasn't an option, and in order to stem the tide of this issue, more public awareness was needed.
It did not happen easily. Addressing something so intensely personal never is. But visibility -- through discussions, activism, grass roots campaigns, advertisements, and the ubiquitous, now iconic, red ribbon -- was key to unifying people around an issue that society was initially reluctant to confront.
We must now turn that sense of urgency, soul searching, and unified national mission to bring visibility to violence against women in America.
With this in mind, Safe Horizon and more than 20 corporate and nonprofit partners have joined in a unified effort this week to launch NO MORE, a new symbol for domestic violence and sexual assault, in effort to start a national discussion about these pervasive and hidden issues. Working collectively, NO MORE will catalyze awareness in every area of our communities -- including corporations, sports teams, schools, college campuses and among everyday men, women and teens -- enlisting their commitments to take action around these issues which affect so many.
Studies have shown that more than one in four women (26 percent) in the workplace identify as being a victim of domestic violence and one in four (24 percent) know a coworker who is a victim. Each year, approximately 12.7 million people are physically abused, raped or stalked by their partners. These are intolerable, outrageous numbers. More horrendous are the actual stories of each victim, only a small fraction of which are reported, and an even smaller fraction of which come to public light.
The launch of NO MORE coincides with the trial that began this week in Steubenville, Ohio, of two teenage boys for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl. The assault, to some degree, was also photographed and distributed via social media. Perhaps most chilling, other teenage boys were reported to have watched the assault happen and did nothing to intervene and did not report the crime to police.
To hope that the trial will result in a conviction and severe punishment is not enough. To look at this case as a horrible yet relatively unusual incident involving a few bad apples would sadly miss the point. Last year alone, Safe Horizon provided services to tens of thousands of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in New York City. The vast majority of these cases never made the news. They didn't have movements behind them to galvanize public support. These victims suffered quietly behind closed doors.
But because their cases aren't publicly known doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge that they exist, or can't talk about why this type of violence happens at all. We must develop a better understanding of how we can prevent these incidents in the first place, and how we can reach out to and support current victims.
These are discussions that must start early in schools, youth athletic organizations, religious organizations -- anywhere that members of a community intersect. One of the most powerful tools to fighting domestic and sexual violence is being able to recognize when someone in our peer group is a victim, understanding our shared responsibility to intervene, and knowing how to help.
The perception that these are private affairs -- most incidents of domestic and sexual violence take place in the home or between intimate partners -- and therefore "none of our business" is perhaps the biggest deterrent to progress. These are attitudes that need to -- and can -- change.
We can't eradicate violence from human existence the way we can eradicate a virus. But we can take a deeper look at ourselves and each other to make a broad social change and let the silent victims among us know that they are not alone.
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