Legislation Aims to Aid Victims of Rape and Abuse

More funding and stronger penalties would help stem growing rate of violence against women, many say

THE 6 percent increase in reported rapes in the United States last year, recently announced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, shows what people like Sharon Vardatira, director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), have known for a long time: Reports of violence against women are increasing. According to the committee's report, more than 100,000 women reported rapes to the police last year, a nationwide record, and the rate of sexual assaults is increasing four times faster than the overall crime rate. Even more startling is the increase in rapes reported to rape crisis centers, where women call for confidential counseling and medical and legal assistance.

This term, Congress may have the opportunity to help stem what is perceived as a growing tide of violence against women on the streets and in their homes. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, with 35 co-sponsors, recently introduced the "Violence Against Women Act" into the House of Representatives. This legislation is similar to that reintroduced in January, (after failing to pass last term) by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the committee that issued the report. Key provisions of the l egislation would:

Strengthen penalties for rape and spouse abuse.

Provide $300 million for local law enforcement efforts to combat sex crimes.

Triple funding for battered women's shelters.

Provide funds for rape crisis centers.

Target $25 million to increase lighting and emergency services in public areas.

Educate state and federal judges about domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender bias.

Make "gender-based" assaults a violation of federal civil rights laws, allowing victims to sue for civil (monetary) damages.

The Senate and House bills are currently in committee, where hearings will be held before the bills come before the houses for member votes.

"We're totally thrilled with this legislation. It's way past due," says Ms. Vardatira at BARCC's headquarters, a modest room full of donated furniture and postered walls in Cambridge, Mass. Rape statistics are difficult to obtain, she explains, because rape is a crime that often goes unreported. Only 3.5 to 10 percent of all rapes are reported to the police, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Many more victims call local rape crisis centers, such as BARCC's 24-hour hotline staffed by volu nteers.

"Going to the police to report a rape is a big thing. It's very scary. So is going to a hospital," says Vardatira, a victim of rape in her youth. "The majority of the women who call us do not report it to the police."

Last year 2,500 rape "survivors" were treated at BARCC, and roughly 300 "significant others" - husbands, boyfriends, parents - called for counseling. "We're just touching the tip of the iceberg right now. With more money, we could help many more women," says Vardatira. The BARCC annual budget of $210,000 - from state and private sources - is inadequate to meet the needs of more isolated victims, and to raise community awareness of the problem. Impending state cuts and falling donations from the private sector threaten BARCC's effectiveness, she says.

"We need to let people know how extensive this problem is, how tragic and how many women are affected," says Varditara.

Domestic abuse, too, is a growing problem, with an estimated 1 million women a year requiring treatment for injuries inflicted by abusive spouses. The proposed legislation would require all states to honor "stay away" orders, regardless of which state issues it.

While most funding in the legislation would help the victim, some would pay for mandatory counseling for those convicted of spouse abuse and of rape.

Linda Fairstein, head of the District Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit in New York, prosecutors in the Central Park jogger rape case, says national legislation would help prosecutors, victims, and the community. "People's attitudes about this crime really need to be improved, informed, educated, and enlightened. Until that happens, rape victims will continue to be stigmatized as they have been."

Of the estimated 3,000 rapes that are reported in New York annually, Ms. Fairstein says fewer than 600 led to arrests or investigations. The federally proposed funds would help hire more prosecutors and pay for evidence tests, such as DNA fingerprinting. "We'd not only prosecute more, but we'd do better with the cases," Fairstein says.

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