By Jennifer Becker
We’ve heard the numbers—more than 1 in 3 women have been raped, physically assaulted or stalked by an intimate partner, and nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped in their lifetime. Violence against women is being perpetrated in the U.S. at staggering rates. Over the past few decades, laws aimed at combating this epidemic have been passed at the federal, state and local levels. Yet women are still being harassed, injured and killed. Women are still suffering violence that impacts their safety at home, at school and at work. Perpetrators are adapting their behavior to slip through loopholes in the law.
On the heels of a national election marked by alarmingly dismissive attitudes towards sexual harassment and violence, recent federal governmental policy has rolled back protections for survivors of gender-based violence. This makes local policy, and those we elect to make that policy, critically important. We are fortunate in New York State to have some of the most progressive laws in the country aimed at protecting survivors of domestic and sexual violence in the justice system, employment and education; New York City laws expand even further on those protections. Yet still violence remains a foremost concern for women in New York and across the country. Our laws have not gone far enough. We cannot sit back now. The work is not done, and those we elect to local and state government must be committed to continued progress.
Here are four top priority recommendations on which our state and local officials must focus:
New York State criminal and civil laws must be updated. Why? It is the only way to hold all perpetrators of gender-based violence accountable. As technology has advanced and become part of our daily lives, perpetrators have taken advantage of the internet and social media to target women and girls, coercing victims to engage in sexual conduct or create and share sexual images. Victims are suffering tremendous harm, and many perpetrators’ conduct narrowly slips through cracks in our laws, which were written before any of us could have imagined the role the internet would play in our lives. Simple amendments to New York State law would allow for more offenders to be held accountable. For more information, see Legal Momentum’s report and updates on the epidemic problem of sextortion.
Law enforcement must be adequately trained. Why? It is only with specific training on issues related to gender-based violence that law enforcement will be equipped to respond to, investigate, and analyze evidence in all kinds of cases that involve gender-based violence. Training to ensure that all law enforcement professionals use trauma-informed interviews and investigation techniques requires the allocation of resources and a commitment from leadership to prioritize these fundamental aspects of law enforcement work.
Training specific to gender-based violence must be mandatory for all judges. Judges in all court forums, not just criminal courts, across the state preside over cases that involve gender-based violence. Because judges come to the bench from varying backgrounds, training for the bench on issues for which they may have no prior experience is incredibly important. We must equip our judges with the information they need to fairly preside over and make decisions in these cases. Our courts need to prioritize funding to make this training available and easily accessible for every judge in New York. For information about the type of training that assists courts in adjudicating cases involving gender-based violence in a fair, informed manner, see the resources available from Legal Momentum’s award-winning National Judicial Education Program.
Our elected leaders must be committed to oversight and enforcement of laws aimed at curbing sexual assault in schools. Sexual assault on K-12 and college campuses is an epidemic. New York State has been a leader in trying to combat by passing the Enough is Enough law, which applies to colleges and universities. For this law to have meaning, it must be vigorously enforced. Protections must be expanded for K-12 students. For more information about campus sexual assault and Title IX, see Legal Momentum’s resources or contact us.
Now more than ever we need to build on the momentum in New York State. We must continue to prioritize ending violence against women in laws, policies, and funding at every level until every woman is safe at home, at school, and at work. This election season, we must ensure that the candidates we choose for positions at every level of government—state, county, city/town—are committed to protecting women and girls from violence. Ask your local candidates, whether it is a candidate for New York State Senate and Assembly, for local elected law enforcement positions, for elected judicial positions, for mayor, etc., What will they do to prioritize ending gender-based violence? How will they improve laws and policies from the position they seek?
Jennifer Becker is a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum.