03/08/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Our Inheritance, on International Women's Day

Yesterday, I watched President Obama sign the Violence Against Women Act's reauthorization, to the cheers and applause of advocates and survivors. And, I kept thinking about inheritance -- the inheritance we possess as women who stand on the shoulders of so many who went before us, who fought for us, who won for us access to power, equality and full personhood. I thought of the other inheritance too, the inheritance of those victims of rape, exploitation, abuse, and coercion whose lives were snuffed out because of the violence done to them because they were women and girls. It is the inheritance of all of this, the generational victories and sufferings that allowed us to be there, in that room, while the President signed VAWA into law.

The original passage of VAWA in 1994 signaled a new discourse on domestic violence that reshaped how we as a nation both acknowledged and framed spousal abuse. But, now almost twenty years later, VAWA includes language that names sexual violence and the need for victim services, redefines trafficking of children as a form of sexual violence, ends the impunity of non-Native persons who rape and assault women and girls on tribal lands, and recognizes that LGBT individuals are also victims of domestic and sexual violence. That is evidence of our inheritance too -- a legislative contemplation of violence that includes the complex ways in which violence plays out in the lives of all women and girls.

And yet, still, one out every three American women has been beaten, sexually coerced or otherwise abused in her lifetime. The lives of African-American women are even more diminished by violence, as African American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white women. Overall, intimate partner violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S. That means more women are being harmed by violence than in car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.

The narrative of physical and sexual violence against women and girls continues to cut across the buffers of economic or educational privilege, and breeches every divide of race, class and ethnicity in America. It is a story whispered in the corners of mansions in affluent neighborhoods, in the best private schools and universities, behind the walls of women prisons and girl detention centers, and on the street corners where girls are sexually exploited and trafficked. Violence against women and girls remains a painfully American tale.

We are still being beaten, raped, trafficked, abused, and stalked despite the hard won legal freedoms and protections that we have inherited, and that we continue to fight for.

But our inheritance requires that we do not relent. The reauthorization of VAWA, the courage of Malala and all the other unknown Malalas, the massive protests in India opposing rape culture, the "1 Billion Rising" against gendered violence in different corners of the world, demonstrate that we must fearlessly and defiantly -- against the wolves of violence and denigration -- continue to believe and work towards the possibility of our inevitable equality, freedom, and safety. In the South Bronx and South Africa; in Indiana and India.