As part of Women's History Month and the release of the Women in America report, the White House focused on the status of crime and violence against women. In the following Q&A, Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, discusses the Administration's ongoing efforts to bring an end to the cycle of abuse facing women of all ages across the nation, as well as Vice President Joe Biden's long history in combating domestic violence. As the author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, then-Senator Biden exposed high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking experienced by women every day in this country -- redefining the way domestic violence is handled through changes in law enforcement, improvements in the criminal justice system and the establishment of shelters and services for victims.
This post comes just after the Vice President's visit to the University of New Hampshire on Monday, April 4, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to call attention to the high rates of sexual assault and violence committed against young women in schools and on college campuses across the country. During their visit, the Vice President and Secretary Duncan introduced new guidance to help schools, colleges and universities understand their civil rights obligations to better prevent and respond to sexual assault.
Rahim Kanani: In June 2009, Vice President Biden announced your appointment as the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, a position dedicated specifically to advising the President and Vice President on domestic violence and sexual assault issues. How did this position come about, and why is it important to have an advisor that targets domestic violence and sexual assault directly versus other issues facing women and girls?
Lynn Rosenthal: I am honored to have been chosen for this position and to be working closely with Vice President Biden. The Vice President held the first hearing on domestic violence and sexual assault in the Senate in 1990, and worked over the next four years to pass the Violence Against Women Act. This legislation transformed the response to violence against women at the local, state and federal level, but we still have much to do to fulfill the promise of the Act. The Vice President wanted someone in his office working every day to bring attention to these issues and to broaden the response across the federal government. When you consider all of the ways violence affects women's lives, you can see the need for this coordinated approach. Responding to violence involves many different systems -- not only the criminal justice system, but schools, social services, health care, child welfare, housing, and the workplace. We have a wealth of knowledge within our federal agencies about all those systems, and I work to link them together and build on that expertise. Most of all, having this position in the White House reaffirms our commitment to the fundamental right of women to live without violence.
Rahim Kanani: What are the three issues you want U.S. law and policymakers to internalize and act upon?
Lynn Rosenthal: We need to work together to make a meaningful difference towards ending sexual assault. One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and our youth are at the greatest risk. Young women ages 16-24 have the highest rates of sexual assault and the effects of this trauma can last a lifetime. We need to develop a more comprehensive response to help survivors recover from trauma and get the practical support they need to rebuild their lives. In his 2012 budget, the President proposed targeted funding to better serve victims and improve the law enforcement response to sexual assault.
We also need to focus on preventing domestic violence homicides. Three women are still killed every day by abusive husbands or boyfriends, and for every woman who is killed, researchers estimate that nine more are nearly killed. We know today that stalking, sexual assault, attempts at strangulation, and threats with weapons are indicators that the situation is growing increasingly more dangerous. We can use this information to help victims understand their risk and build the capacity of law enforcement and other systems to respond with heightened attention. These initiatives don't have to cost a lot of money -- by training everyone who already interacts with victims, we can build this capacity.
We can't stop with just intervening in the emergency, however. Our work has to extend beyond the criminal justice system -- we need to help survivors find long term housing and economic stability so that they can rebuild their lives.
If I can add a fourth, I would say that there is a great need for better data collection and more research so that we understand more about the extent of violence, the experiences of various communities, and what works to prevent and intervene in violence. This issue needs more attention at the federal level.
Rahim Kanani: If your audience was the country's women, what would you say?
Lynn Rosenthal: The women who are being abused are not strangers -- they are our mothers, our daughters, our coworkers and friends. Most of us know someone who is experiencing abuse, but we often don't know how to help. I would say become informed, know the resources in your community, and don't be afraid to tell someone that you are concerned about them. If you are being abused yourself, you are not alone, and people stand ready to help.
I also want to commend all the women who have made this issue their life's passion and who are working hard every day to end the violence. Many women over the years have come forward and shared their own experiences with violence to motivate and inspire others to get involved. I want to commend all the women who have taken this courageous step, because they have brought us to where we are today.
On another note, I would also urge parents -- moms and dads -- to talk to their teenagers about teen dating violence and how to build healthy relationships. There are often red flags in a relationship that things are not right, and young people need this information. You don't have to be an expert -- you just have to know some basic facts and be willing to talk about it.
Rahim Kanani: And if your audience was the country's men, how would your message differ?
Lynn Rosenthal: First, we need to highlight the fact that most men are not violent or abusive in their relationships. To these men I would say -- speak out. Let it be known among your peers that you do not support or condone abuse. This is important, because men who use violence in their relationships often assume that the men they know do too. We need to change that belief system, and its other men who can most effectively get that message across. In some of the gang rapes we have heard about, many people knew what was happening, but chose not to intervene or get help. I know that it is not easy for men to step forward, but it can make a real difference.
Many men get involved in this issue because they have daughters, and they want their daughters to be safe and secure in the world. Other men get involved because they witnessed their mothers being abused. I also want to reach men who were themselves physically or sexually abused as children. Men are much less likely than women to reach out for help with these traumatic experiences. To these men I would say -- it is okay to tell someone what happened to you and to reach out for support, even if it happened a long time ago.
Rahim Kanani: Perhaps to better engage men and boys, alongside your position as White House Advisor on Violence against Women, there should be, in parallel, a White House Advisor on Redefining Masculinity, or some variation of?
Lynn Rosenthal: I think President Obama and the Vice President are great role models for other men. Both these men demonstrate love and respect for the women in their lives, and as fathers of daughters, they are committed to changing the culture to end abuse. As leaders of our nation, their example speaks volumes.
Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the trend of violence against women and sexual assault in the United States over the last decade, and are we moving in the right direction?
Lynn Rosenthal: We are moving in the right direction, and the Violence Against Women Act is a large part of the reason. When the Vice President started this work in 1990, domestic violence was still a hidden crime. He identified attitudes within the criminal justice system that blamed victims while allowing offenders to escape consequences, and sought to change that. Since the passage of the Act, the annual incidence of domestic violence has declined by 53 percent.
I should also say, however, that we have strong evidence from the local level that domestic violence has ticked up somewhat during this period of economic downturn. We don't know the exact cause, but we do know that when fewer community resources are available, victims become more isolated. It will take several years to analyze the data and understand what happened, but it is an important issue to be aware of for the future.
We don't know as much about trends on sexual assault, because our data in this area is less reliable. General crime victim surveys chronically underreport sexual assault, and law enforcement data captures only that small percentage of crimes that are reported to police. I do think that sexual assault has emerged as an important policy issue, and negative attitudes towards victims are challenged in the media more than they used to be. We still have a long way to go to change attitudes that support violence against women, however, and especially among youth.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, what is the toughest part of your position, and how do you maintain that spark of optimism?
Lynn Rosenthal: I come from the grassroots, so I must say that my job is nowhere near as tough as taking a hotline shift at an abuse survivor shelter or rape crisis center. So many people have stepped forward since I have been at the White House to ask what they can do to help, and that keeps me motivated. I have met many survivors over the years, and every morning when I walk in to the White House, I bring their stories and experiences with me. I meet people from all around the globe and learn what they are doing to end violence. When I meet rape survivors from countries with armed conflict, or young girls who have been trafficked, or abuse survivors who have rebuilt their lives, I am inspired by their courage. And, I really do believe that anti violence work brings people together and can bring out the best in all of us.
This post is a follow-up to an in-depth interview with Valerie Jarrett, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, on the state of women and girls in the United States.
Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary