Mrs. Obama, There's a Call from Australia

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Mrs. Obama,

I know you have a large staff to handle the enormous demands of being the First Lady of the United States and that each public issue to which you devote your time is carefully vetted. Please consider a cause, not nearly as shiny as nutrition or military families, but nonetheless a cause that will explode once you shine the light of awareness on it. Under different circumstances I would ask a politician, such as your husband, to take up this cause, but as far as I know, not a single recognizable candidate has ever addressed this issue in a speech, much less made it part of a platform. I have watched the way you have protected your family since the Hope campaign began, the way you treat your daughters with such love, respect and affection. Yes, you are a natural for this work. If you would just say the words, millions of women and children would feel like you are reaching your famous strong arms out to them. Can you only imagine what that would be like?

Knowing you would have to learn about how government could get involved in such an issue, I refer you to a great role model. Australia has recently made a national commitment to fight sexual abuse and violence against women that is remarkable in its scope and promise. A government website outlines the plan, known as Time for Action. that, according to a media statement, "is designed to tackle the unacceptable levels of sexual assault and domestic and family violence in Australia, and gives all governments and the community clear directions about helping Australian women live free of violence, within respectful relationships and in safe communities".

Through their research, they have learned that violence against women will cost the economy $13.6 billion this year alone. My thinking is that if our country can't bring itself to speak about such sensitive issues out of compassion and a sense of responsibility to its citizens, maybe the related cost to society in hard dollars will finally push open that door.

The Australian government is investing in a new 24/7 national telephone and online crisis service run by professionals who will make referrals to available resources. They are also investing in prevention by creating programs for school age children to teach about respectful relationships as well as launching a public information campaign designed to change attitudes and behaviors that contribute to violence. The plan also addresses treatment for perpetrators, consistency of laws, and will establish the Violence Against Women Advisory Group.

In the plan's cover letter, Libby Lloyd, Chair of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, states that "during our investigations, we found a widespread belief that this issue was pressing and serious, and manifested itself in great suffering that directly affected individuals, communities, and impinged on the well being of our society." The national plan focuses on the understanding that women have the right to be safe and free from violence in their community through respectful relationships and should that safety be compromised, they must have access to quality resources. If women require the protection of the legal system, it must treat her with dignity and hold the perpetrator accountable.

It was thrilling to hear the words "national plan" and "violence against women and their children" in the same report. It is gratifying to know that a country has stepped up to acknowledge this devastating and deadly problem and put a plan in place to begin the long process of providing respect, protection and education for its citizens. The very existence of such a report and its ensuing promises speaks to the significant number of citizens impacted by this issue. I doubt there is any other national cause that could offer you, as First Lady, mother and wife, an opportunity to be of such enormous value to so many American women and children.

There are many centers and organizations throughout America that are doing the hard work of supporting victims of sexual abuse and violence. Unfortunately, way too much time is spent in pursuit of funding to insure that the doors stay open. In the case of one large urban center, during the economic downturn, they lost all of their funding and were forced to lay off their entire staff with the exception of the Executive Director who stayed on alone to rebuild the funding base from scratch, leaving their clients without services for some time.

Santa Fe, New Mexico has a vibrant Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center that is also feeling the effects of the downturn in the economy. Grant applications are a high priority for the Executive Director and her staff as they struggle with less funding and keeping costs under control. On a recent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting staff members and hearing about their work in the community. Celedina, an upbeat young woman, handles the education outreach to schools. She has a 4th grade program about appropriate touching and learning to say no, and a kindergarten puppet program. She delighted in telling me that she recently ran into a little girl who remembered her from the puppet show and shouted that she was the lady who taught her that "my body belongs to me!" Celedina's father, is Mayor David Coss, that rare politician who integrated sexual abuse and violence issues into his campaign platform and upon taking office, established a Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse liaison position. While visiting the center's website, I couldn't help but notice that they receive funding from a number of sources, but the one that really stood out was the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Can you believe, Mrs. Obama, that an American rape crisis center must rely on funds from a British charity to serve its community?

Please consider standing up for the millions of women and children who desperately need an advocate of your stature and influence. This is the United States of America. We owe them support, encouragement, validation and dignity. It seems we could learn a lot from our friends in Australia. Maybe you could give them a call?

Thanks in advance for your consideration.


Trish Kinney

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