09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Code Red for Women and Girls

In terms of risk to women and girls, the country is at Code Red.

In the midst of record job losses followed with months of paralyzing
unemployment, we are reminded of a basic pattern regarding violence against
women and girls
: incidents of domestic violence tend to rise during periods
of economic hardship. Tragically, it is precisely during such times that
services for women are less likely to get funds they need to meet the demand.
Right now, all around the country, funding for domestic violence shelters and
services is shrinking just as the need for help is skyrocketing.

Despite years of women's advancement in workplaces and educational
institutions, we must acknowledge that we have not conquered the underlying
attitudes that fuel gender-based violence. George Sodini's pointed attack on
women at a gym in Pennsylvania, along with his blog
postings outlining his anger at women in general
, demonstrated an extreme
and fatal strain of an attitude that courses through much of America's
popular culture. Whether one wants to call these attitudes "misogyny"
as Bob Herbert did in his insightful
column on the incident
, or a twisted sense of entitlement in relation to
members of the opposite gender, the results are the same, and they are
debilitating: women and girls are not individuals to be respected, but
convenient and easy targets for frustration, blame and abuse.

So, what does this mean amidst what some pundits are calling a
"Mancession," a phrase that, in and of itself obscures the fact that,
regardless of who is out of work, women and children share in the
sacrifice?  For those at risk of violence on the home-front, a job loss
and prolonged unemployment have darker repercussions than economic hardship:
more threats, more incidents of abuse and escalating levels of injury. Between
September 2007 and September 2008, the National
Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) saw a striking 21 percent increase in calls
for help
, and that was before the tidal wave of job losses
rolled across the nation. NDVH also found that, in a five year study, women
whose male partners experience two or more periods of unemployment are almost
three times as likely to be victims of intimate partner violence as were women
whose partners were in stable jobs.

While the repercussions are most acute and dangerous for women and children,
the negative impact extends onto the ledger sheets of companies and states,
with some simply unable to sustain the cost. Just a few weeks ago, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, in an attempt to deal with California's crippling budget problems,
eliminated $20 million of funding that supported the state's domestic violence
, a massive blow to the more than 90 organizations that provide life-saving
assistance to victims of violence. 

We have come a long way from the days in which police and legal institutions
treated violence against women as only a family or private matter. 
Likewise, general public understanding of domestic abuse and sexual assault has
improved, as advocates, educators and survivors have spent years explaining why
“she was asking for it” couldn’t be farther from the truth. A major testament
to this progress is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed 15
years ago, which identified violence against women and girls as a national
epidemic, requiring a national response. Under VAWA more than $9 billion has
been appropriated thus far to improve services for survivors of domestic
violence, sexual assault, stalking and teen dating violence and to educate law
enforcement and members of the judiciary to improve prosecution of these crimes
and the effectiveness of offender management. Still, this is only a fraction of
the funds necessary to sustain these services for the millions of individuals
and families in need.

With the current state of the economy, the rising levels of frustration, and
persistent attitudes that cast women as deserving targets, the reauthorization
, due for consideration in 2010, provides an important opportunity
to look again at what continues to be a national crisis. While George Sodini’s
actions were extreme, the sentiments he held are still disturbingly
commonplace.  The increasing rates of violence against women, coupled with
the relentless threat of sexual abuse and assault faced by women and girls,
constitute a sharp wake-up call that illustrates just how far the United States
has yet to go to protect the safety of one half of our population.

While we can applaud how far we have come, it is imperative that
policymakers and residents acknowledge that, for the more than 153 million
women in the country, the threat is real, and escalating.

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