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It should have been a bipartisan no-brainer, something that politicians from all sides could unite around when there is so much else on the political agenda that is a source of division.

After all, it had spent eighteen years on the statute book with support from both the GOP and the Democrats. Indeed, when it was renewed in 2005, it passed the House of Representatives 415-4 and served as a legislative beacon in the civilised world of the real difference law-makers can have on the lives of the vulnerable and damaged.

Yet, this week, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives refused to take up the bipartisan Senate renewal bill S.1925 and its proposed revisions and so, for the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no longer on the statute book. Stop Street Harassment and other bloggers have reacted with understandable fury.

So what did the Violence Against Women Act do?

It wasn’t some wishy-washy social liberal piece of over-regulation. It was making a real difference to the lives of people that otherwise would have suffered silently, unable to seek redress against those that abused them. The Hotline, the national domestic violence hotline website, is clear about the progress that the Violence Against Women Act achieved in tackling domestic violence and other violence against women:

VAWA 1994 – Congress, in passing VAWA 1994, envisioned a nation with an engaged criminal justice system and coordinated community responses. VAWA 1994 fostered:

  • Community-coordinated responses that brought together, for the first time, the criminal justice system, the social services system, and private nonprofit organizations responding to domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Recognition and support for the efforts of domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and other community organizations nationwide working everyday to end this violence
  • Federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and sexual assault crimes
  • Federal guarantees of interstate enforcement of protection orders
  • Protections for battered immigrants
  • A new focus on underserved populations and Native victims of domestic violence and sexual assault

VAWA 2000 – Congress improved on the foundation established in VAWA 1994, including:

  • Identifying the additional related crimes of dating violence and stalking
  • The creation of a much-needed legal assistance program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Promoting supervised visitation programs for families experiencing violence
  • Further protecting immigrants experiencing domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, by establishing U- and T-visas and by focusing on trafficking of persons

VAWA 2005 – Congress took a more holistic approach to addressing violence against women. In addition to enhancing criminal and civil justice and community-based responses to violence, VAWA 2005 created notable new focus areas such as:

  • Containing provisions that exclusively serve to protect immigrant victims of domestic violence but also include immigration protections to alleviate violence against immigrant women that previous legislation had tried, but failed to alleviate
  • Developing prevention strategies to stop violence before it starts
  • Protecting individuals from unfair eviction due to their status as victims  of domestic violence or stalking
  • Creating the first federal funding stream to support rape crisis centers
  • Developing culturally-and linguistically-specific services for communities
  • Enhancing programs and services for victims with disabilities
  • Broadening VAWA service provisions to include children and teenagers

So what was it about the Senate bill, proposed in April 2012 by senators Pat Leahy (Democrat) and Mike Crapo (Republican) and approved by the Senate by 68 votes to 31, that was so objectionable? It ensured that there was proper protection for immigrants, LGBT communities and Native Americans. Clearly, this is something that the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives found objectionable and so they introduced their own bill,  H.R. 4970, which gutted the Senate bill of those provisions – even though the President had already indicated he would veto it for its inadequacies. Congressman Michael E. Capuano (Democrat) has a simple yet devastating summary of H.R. 4970’s weaknesses on his home page:

Among other provisions, the 1994 VAWA allowed immigrants who were being abused to petition for their own independent legal status. This part of the law protected individuals who were living in the country legally as the spouse of a citizen or a lawful permanent resident. It gave them the ability to report the abuse and remove themselves from a dangerous environment without fear of deportation.

H.R. 4970 weakens that provision in an important way. It eliminates a requirement that abuser-provided testimony or evidence be corroborated before denying a petition for independent legal status. What does this mean? Currently, abusers who deny that they are inflicting harm must submit some evidence that they are actually telling the truth – testimony from a family member, counselor or law enforcement personnel, something besides their own statement.

H.R. 4970 rolls back that provision. Instead of requiring some supporting evidence, this bill simply requires that the word of the alleged abuser be weighed against the word of the abused. Just on the basis of that, a petition for independent legal status can be denied. I want to be very clear; this has nothing to do with illegal immigration. Anyone covered by this provision is already here legally. There is no credible reason to weaken a part of the law that has been in place since 1994.

H.R. 4970 does not include provisions that would protect Native Americans who are being abused. Currently more than 50% of all Native American women are either married to or living with someone who is not a Native American. However, tribal courts do not have the authority to pursue charges against non-Native Americans. Instead, someone who is abused is forced to seek help through federal or state law enforcement. That help is all too often located hours away, creating a barrier when it comes to reporting abuse. The Senate bill would simply have given tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native Americans who are accused of domestic violence against Native Americans.

H.R. 4970 also fails to adequately protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) victims. It does not include Senate-passed provisions that would prohibit VAWA-funded programs from discriminating based on sexual orientation. And it doesn’t add LGBT victims to the STOP Grant program, which funds domestic violence support initiatives. Studies have shown that members of the LGBT community do face discrimination when seeking services, including being turned away from domestic violence shelters. These provisions are simply about equality. Sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. Abuse is abuse and help should be there for everyone who needs it.

Over 100 organizations oppose the House version, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Bar Association, the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Congress of American Indians. I voted NO.

The debate on House Resolution 656 of 12th May 2012, seeking to authorise H.R. 4970, makes for depressing reading and gives a clear indication of the ideological divide that has led to the politicisation of an issue that should unite politicians, not divide them. In the words of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke:

This egregious bill is another example of this Republican-led Congress waging political warfare on women.

H.R. 4970 would roll back years of progress and bipartisan commitment on the part of Congress to protect vulnerable immigrant victims of domestic violence, stalking, sex crimes, other serious crimes, and trafficking. Choosing one type of victim over the other.

So the Violence Against Women Act has expired. The Senate Bill attempting to renew it with necessary extensions has been abandoned. And, rightly, the Republican-gutted substitute will go nowhere.

In the end though, whilst politicians wrangle, it is the victims of domestic and sexual violence who will suffer.

And for those of us across the Atlantic, who often see our cousins leading where in a few years’ time we follow, we should pay particular attention to the societal signals that this determination to put ideological considerations above the safety of women and communities sends us. Rather, we should be relentless in our desire to work across the political divide to tackle violence against women and recognise that by prioritising spending and political attention in this area all of society benefits.

To do otherwise is shameful.

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Someone I am close to recently sent me the link to One Billion Rising. The statistics are absolutely shocking.

One in three women on our planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. Just think about that for a moment. Think of the number of people that means. It is a staggering and numbing statistic which should be a call to arms for right-minded people everywhere.

One Billion Rising is an Internet movement harnessing the power of global social networking to take a peaceful stand across the world against violence against women, using the power of dance.

Surely it must be the responsibility of those of us who think we are right-minded to consider the consequences of cultural norms and narratives that perpetuate the circumstances in which such violence is perpetrated? Rape culture is not a figment of the feminist imagination. Yes, it is a shocking term  that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Yes, it switches many people off. But it is very real and silence is safety’s worst enemy.

And rape culture is not always overt. It is the rolled eyes of good people who embarrassedly dismiss the lecherous remarks and whistling of “mates” as offensive but harmless, effectively validating the objectification of women through inaction. It is the zealous liberalism that subordinates the fear felt by women on the street to the ‘right’ to say what we want, to whom we want, all in the name of ‘free speech’. It is the badly-lit subway or council estate built and not maintained without thought given to the safety of those who use them, providing instead havens for harassers and predators. It is the everyday language that excludes and belittles and generates a sense of inferiority.

John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm principle‘ has been fundamental to my liberalism since I first stumbled across it: the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against  their will, is to prevent harm to others. It is not an academic exercise. It is a practical guide to organising our communities and society and we urgently need to develop an understanding of how damaging our failure to act on behaviour that can lead to such statistics as those highlighted by One Billion Rising.

Why do I care? Why do I “bang on about it” (as one friend put it)?

Because it matters. Simple as.

Everyone is entitled to live their lives peaceably and as they choose – and without fear, particularly of this most vile and humiliating crime.

So.

Join One Billion Rising. In their words:

RISE!

  • It is February 14, 2013. Leave your work, leave your school, interrupt the day, dance, and demand an end to the violence!

  • Make February 14, 2013 a “day of action” by organizing your friends or colleagues to volunteer at local women’s shelters or service centers – promote your plan on the OBR Facebook page and across your own social networks.

  • Consider the impact of your rising. What mark can you and those who rise with you leave behind in your community?  Organize to change a law, get more funding for women’s programs, or model new non-violent ways of being in your city, office, or college.

This is the message  I received on signing up:

Thank you for joining ONE BILLION RISING, V-Day’s most ambitious campaign yet.

When we started V-Day 14 years ago, we had the outrageous idea that we could end violence against women. Since then, hundreds of thousands of V-Day activists in audiences and on stages in over 140 countries have come together to demand an end to violence against women and girls. The funds we’ve raised together have kept organizations’ doors open, and the issue front and center in local media.

But still today, the United Nations states that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime that’s more than one billion women and girls alive today.

V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, showing them exactly what one billion looks like.

ONE BILLION RISING is a promise that on February 14th, 2013, we will ensure that millions of women and men rise up around the world to say, “ENOUGH. The violence ends NOW.”

Ben, there is so much more to come. But for right now, you can help us launch ONE BILLION RISING with a few simple actions:

ONE BILLION RISING will make the earth move by uniting us through dance across every country.

Ben, I look forward to dancing, striking and rising to end violence against women and girls together with you.

In solidarity,

Eve Ensler
Playwright, Founder of V-Day
One Billion Rising

Find your local Rising here.

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In 1992, the United Nations designated March 22nd as the World Day for Water in Resolution 193 of the Forty-seventh Session of the General Assembly.

The World Day for Water was first proposed in Agenda 21 for the 1992 Rio Summit, the meeting that hugely raised awareness of the role of local government and local communities in tackling global environmental and climate issues.

Since 1993 the day has been observed consistently, drawing attention to the plight of the estimated one billion people plus who each year have to rely on dangerous sources of water to survive.

Having travelled a little in India and Africa,  turning on a tap and being able to drink a handful of clean, cold water is still something for which I am profoundly grateful. Whilst it is easy to take it for granted, when I think about it I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to have it.

A year or so ago we had a small taste of what it was like to lose our mains supply for just a few hours. The sense of worry as you wonder when you might be able to wash clothes or make drinks again is out of all proportion to the scale of a relatively small inconvenience. It does, however, cause you to pause and consider how it would be to have to walk miles a day to a potentially polluted stream and draw water you’d be uncomfortable watering the garden with.

The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre reports the stark analysis of the World Health Organization:

Each year more than 1 billion of our fellow human beings have little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. This perpetuates a silent humanitarian crisis that kills some 3900 children every day and thwarts progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The consequences of our collective failure to tackle this problem are the dimmed prospects for the billions of people locked in a cycle of poverty and disease.

The root of this underlying catastrophe lies in these plain, grim facts: 4 of every 10 people in the world do not have access to even a simple pit latrine and nearly 2 in 10 have no source of safe drinking-water.

Thankfully, the appalling situation is not something that the UN/WHO are prepared to see continue:

To help end this appalling state of affairs, the MDGs include a specific target (number 10) to cut in half, by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation. In addition, the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation recently recognized that integrated development and management of water resources are crucial to the success or failure of all the MDGs, as water is central to the livelihood systems of the poor.

Among the more innovative ideas for drawing water to the surface, one particularly caught my attention, marrying the desperate need for fresh water to a completely different and endless resource: the playful, optimistic energy of children.

Water for People provides a very clear explanation of how these amazing inventions work:

  • While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round (1), clean water is pumped (2) from underground (3) into a 2,500-liter tank (4), standing seven meters above the ground.
  • A simple tap (5) makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole (6).
  • The water storage tank (7) provides a rare opportunity to advertise in outlaying communities. All four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, with two sides for consumer advertising and the other two sides for health and educational messages. The revenue generated by this unique model pays for pump maintenance.
  • The design of the PlayPump water system makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical, keeping costs and maintenance to an absolute minimum.
  • Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 meters, it is effective up to a depth of 100 meters.

Innovations such as this, which show the application of creative, lateral thinking, create a real hope that the challenge of providing clean water can be met. Days such as the World Day for Water play a crucial part in alerting all of us to the need to act sooner – not later.

The video below, again from Water for People, is quite uplifting.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Finally, by way of a footnote, I clearly should have written this yesterday – but being tired after a long day I didn’t. So my apologies for lateness (something I seem to do far too often).

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Elections are distracting affairs and somewhere along the line I missed the return to the internet of one of the most important resources for freedom of information campaigners of recent years: WikiLeaks.

Having survived the attempts of the US intelligence services to destroy its activities, WikiLeaks suspended itself at the beginning of the year in order to raise funds to ensure its staff could be paid and that a more robust framework for its vast quantities of information could be established.

Wikileaks has become a vital tool of the campaigning trade, especially when attempting to expose the sometimes questionable dealings of multinationals, governments and banks. For instance, WikiLeaks recently reported on the efforts of big pharmaceutical companies to spy on the World Health Organisation.

Take a look – and offer any support you can.

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More news from Eva Sajovic, who writes regarding a new exhibition for Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, this time remembering the Holcaust against the Roma and Sinti in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Hosted at the Mile End Art Pavillion,  the exhibition promises to be a shockingly intimate and comprehensive documentation of the disenfranchisement, persecution and genocide of the Roma and Sinti communities, the photographs and personal testimonies challenging viewers to consider this episode in the context of post-war prejudice and persecution across Europe.

Lead-managed by the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, the official launch being hosted by the German Embassy, the exhibition is intended to raise awareness of the murder of 500,000 people by the National Socialists, a fact which many forget in their consideration of the horrors of the Second World War:

The Arts Pavillion
Mile End
London E3 4QX
Exhibition open 2 – 20 June
Tue-Sat 12-6 pm
Sun 12-4 pm
Closed Mondays

Read more about the exhibition below:

Read more about the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma below:

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June 2010 will be the third year that Britain has celebrated Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.

There is a shocking amount of ignorance about the historic and cultural identities of the travelling communities in Britain. Few who are concerned about the impact of travellers on the greenbelt will pause to think about traditions that extend back half a millennium, more rooted in the history of the British isles than many would ever imagine.

As Jake Bowers writes on the GRTHM website:

“Quite simply, ignorance about who we are and where we come from leads to ruined lives.  Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month celebrates our culture and history by tackling the negative stereotyping and prejudices that have led to this situation.”

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, History Month has gained international significance, Gay McDougall, United Nations Independent Expert on Minority issues, issuing a statement welcoming the United Kingdom’s commitment to recognising the contribution of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to British society [see the PDF below].

This year promises to offer the widest range of activities to engage the settled community yet. I hope it crosses your path in places other than this blog. More than anything, I hope we are all big enough to rise to the challenge of considering Gypsy, Roma and Traveller issues with an open mind.

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Eva Sajovic has emailed to say that her phenomenal and moving exhibition about the lives of the travelling community now has two new exciting venues.

If you missed it the first time around, you now have an opportunity to see the work of an extraordinarily talented artist as she brings to life stories that would ordinarily be lost to most of us, even though they are written in the fabric of the community about us.

You can see this exciting exhibition, that tells the story of some of the most persecuted communities in our country, at the following locations:

Exhibition 27th May – 30th June 2010

Central Hackney Library, 1 Reading Lane London, E8 1GQ

Tel: 020 8356 5239

Exhibition 1st – 30th June 2010

West Norwood Library, Norwood High Street, London, SE27 9JX

Tel: 020 7926 8092

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