Young Activist Defends Abused Women

Award winner seeks pardons for women convicted of killing abusive partners

EVERY day as Stacey Kabat drove home from her job as a battered-women's counselor at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution for Women in Framingham, Mass., the stories of 10 women played over and over in her mind like a broken record.

The women, who are serving prison sentences for killing their batterers, told horrifying accounts of domestic abuse. Each says she acted in self-defense.

"I started hearing the same stories I've documented as human rights violations [in other countries]," Ms. Kabat says, her voice rising with intensity. "These women told of having teeth knocked out with hammers, being punched in the side of the head so hard their eardrum was damaged for life; all tell of being raped."

After these women broke their silence three years ago about the abuse they suffered, Kabat and eight of the women - known as the Framingham Eight because they have appealed for pardons of their murder convictions - "took a pact that if there was anything to do to stop this, we'd do it," Kabat says.

They formed Battered Women Fighting Back! - a community-based task force of 100 volunteers that under Kabat's leadership has been instrumental in getting the public, press, and politicians in Massachusetts to pay more attention to what she terms a "national emergency."

"Stacey has put this issue on the front page herself and that's an amazing thing," says Susan Howards, a volunteer lawyer for BWFB!

Kabat, a daughter and granddaughter of battered women, is passionate when it comes to this subject, and her ability to garner support is a grass-roots success story. She first approached lawyers, law students, and paralegals and built what is now a 50-person legal team. These volunteers lobby the Massachusetts legislature for better laws to protect battered women and have helped win commu-tation hearings for the Framingham Eight. So far, Gov. William Weld (R) has recommended commuting the life sentence o f one of the women, Eugenia Moore.

But what's unique about Kabat's work is her approach.

A former Amnesty International worker, Kabat says domestic violence is a human rights abuse. "If this happened to any other group of people in any part of the world there would be an international outcry," she says.

TWO years ago she began recording the deaths of Massachusetts women and children at the hands of batterers as a human rights activist would. She often sent that documentation to the news media and read it aloud while speaking to politicians and community groups. "That was very effective in putting a name to every one of the murders," says Sarah Buel, director of the Domestic Violence Unit for the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. Local newspapers began placing stories about domestic-violence vic tims on Page 1 instead of burying them in the back of the paper, Kabat says.

Kabat also maintains that women serving prison sentences for killing batterers in self-defense are deprived of their human rights in many cases by a criminal-justice system that not only fails to protect them from harm, but also fails to recognize the legitimacy of their defense. (See related story, Page 13.) She has vowed to get the Framingham Eight freed and was barred from the prison temporarily for making such a statement.

Last December, Kabat, who is 29, won the Reebok Human Rights award, given annually to several individuals under age 30 who have improved human rights conditions in their communities.

Internationally, a movement of women is looking at domestic violence as a human rights abuse, says Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. But few people have acknowledged it as such in the United States.

"I think it's very important that people in the US ... start to recognize that violence against women in my opinion is the largest, most pervasive human rights abuse in the world," Ms. Bunch says.

Statistics for the US reveal how often battering occurs. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a woman is beaten every 15 seconds, and Surgeon General Antonia Novella states that domestic violence causes more injuries to women than rapes, muggings, and car accidents com- bined. Each year, 1,500 women are killed by their partners - approximately four per day - according to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia.

"We have a national emergency here - we have for years," says Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse. "It is open season on women and children in this country, and we have got to say this has to stop."

In Massachusetts last year, 44 women, children, and bystanders were murdered by boyfriends or husbands. That number was up from 26 such murders in 1991. Such sobering statistics prompted Governor Weld to announce plans to double to $16.25 million funds allocated for programs related to domestic violence. The state has also joined 30 others in implementing an anti-stalking law, making it a crime to threaten or follow someone.

BUT while public awareness of domestic violence in Massachusetts and other states is growing, the pace of legal reforms to protect women is grindingly slow, advocates say. And creating better laws, many add, is just one step.

"Men have got to stop hurting women," Ms. Osthoff says. "We have to move to a place where we alter our world so dramatically that I really do mean it - the true answer is that it has got to be where [domestic violence] is just not tolerated." That includes developing education programs that address the violence in society as well as having more community involvement, she says.

On the national level, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts are sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act of 1993. The bill, first introduced three years ago, would provide $300 million to police, prosecutors, and courts to combat violent crimes against women.

Battered-women's advocates say domestic violence is so pervasive it needs to be tackled on a federal level. They express concern at the diminishing resources for programs to help victims.

"The finances in the domestic violence area have been devastated," says Estella Ortiz, fund raiser for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver. States and federal programs have been cut, she says. The National Domestic Violence Hotline - an 800 number for battered women - was disconnected last year because there was not enough money to keep it going.

Kabat, Osthoff, and other battered-women's advocates met with Hillary Rodham Clinton last month to discuss the severity of the problem. "She talked about the need for a presidential commission on violence. She was concerned," although Mrs. Clinton emphasized that resources are scarce, Kabat says.

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