Stop Domestic Violence

Domestic violence ... is simply criminal." Hillary Rodham Clinton was speaking last week before a conference organized by the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, making clear the problem is a shared one, and a "devastating one for too many people in our hemisphere" and the world.

That's been driven home over the past few weeks in Massachusetts, with news of the deaths of two women - both mothers - allegedly at the hands of their partners. Since the killings, the number of phone calls to women's shelters in Massachusetts has risen, advocates for battered women say.

Nationwide, an estimated 1,300 women are killed each year by their husbands, ex-husbands, or boyfriends. In every community, domestic violence remains the most underreported violent crime.

But it's no longer the most tolerated one. Consider some of the actions taken in just the past few months:

* The US Justice Department and the US Department of Health and Human Services have begun working together for the first time to improve reporting and defining of domestic violence.

* The administration announced a new campaign this month to put the toll-free National Domestic Violence Hotline numbers (800-799-SAFE or 800-787-3224) on the inside covers of 200 million 32-cent stamp booklets so women who are victims of violence will know where to turn for help.

* The San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund, part of the National Health Initiative on Domestic Violence, has produced a new palm-sized card to help health care workers identify, assist, and provide referrals for victims of domestic violence who seek medical treatment.

* The military moved last week to take personal and military arms such as pistols and rifles away from troops and civilian employees convicted of domestic violence. The action followed by a year the passage of a federal law prohibiting gun ownership by people convicted of domestic abuse.

Important steps, and not the first. There was the 1995 Violence Against Women Act, the Office of Violence Against Women, and the president's Advisory Council on Violence Against Women. And yet, domestic violence is on the rise, even as serious reported crime is down, according to the latest "State of Criminal Justice" report by the American Bar Association.

Clearly, more needs to be done. Tougher penalties for convicted batterers. More shelters and counseling services for victims of domestic violence and their children. And a greater understanding of what domestic violence is and why some men, in particular, become batterers. Education of children - both boys and girls - is crucial to this effort. Experts say abuse is a learned behavior, but it also can be unlearned.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month - a time, as the president put it, for Americans to reaffirm their commitment to stop the violence against women and their families. As the founder of this newspaper wrote, "In the order of wisdom, the higher nature of man governs the lower. This lays the foundations of human affection in line with progress, giving them strength and permanence." Surely, no other effort is more important.

It remains the most underreported violent crime, but it's no longer the most tolerated.

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