Building a Culture of Consent in Virginia

These past few weeks in Virginia politics have not been easy. It started with a manufactured scandal surrounding Delegate Kathy Tran’s bill that would have repealed harmful TRAP laws on abortion access, including 24-hour waiting periods, requirements to obtain multiple layers of physician consent, and requirements that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital. Soon after this, Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page surfaced featuring people in blackface and KKK attire. Just a few days later, Attorney General Mark Herring, who had joined in the chorus of statements urging for the resignation of Governor Northam, also admitted to donning blackface. And now, two survivors have bravely come forward to share their accounts of being sexually assaulted by Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax.

As these painful conversations continue to play out, the Action Alliance has released several statements, calling on advocates and social justice allies to address the injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia and to seize these public conversations on sexual violence and harm as opportunities to ground ourselves in a collective mission of building a culture of consent and disentangling our accountability processes from that of the criminal justice system.

As a statewide voice on issues of sexual and domestic violence, the Action Alliance works for a radically different future where survivors are met with compassion and respect and where public conversations on harm focus on reparation and healing and on the need to invest in sexual violence prevention.

Committing ourselves to sexual violence prevention and building a culture of consent

In the age of #MeToo, we as a society are finally grappling with what community accountability might look like for those who do harm and the importance of believing survivors. These are long overdue and critical conversations to have. However, what this age of reckoning and justice-seeking also calls on us to do is to explore the nuances of cultural norms that might nurture a future in which every person has the knowledge and skills necessary to practice informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent. This is the antidote to sexual violence and we believe every human is deserving of experiencing healthy and joyful sexuality, centered in pleasure.

Wood word yes on a grey background

If healthy, violence-free relationships are our collective desire, then the conversation around harm can shift to focusing on how we might channel that desire into building a world in which these healthy, violence-free relationships and interactions are the norm. Here are just a few ideas for how we might call on our neighbors, families, communities, and policy leaders to invest in the prevention of sexual violence and build a culture of consent:

Provide opportunities for consent education and healthy sexuality to be taught early, often, and in multifaceted and developmentally appropriate ways in our families, schools, and communities.

Call on policy leaders to invest in sexual violence prevention and promote thriving communities in which healthy sexuality and healthy relationships are core values.

  • Ask policy leaders and stakeholders to provide schools with the resources they need to teach Family Life Education/Sex education effectively.
  • Review Virginia’s Family Life Education curricula and talk to teachers, administrators, and students about whether this education is consistent with over 30 years of research + best practices in behavior-change and health promotion.
  • Support every community in the Commonwealth having access to sexual violence prevention programming. Currently, only 6 communities in Virginia are funded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for this life-saving work.
  • Call on policy leaders to support funding for community-based Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies to build and sustain prevention programming. There are no dedicated state funds for the prevention of sexual violence in Virginia.
  • Ensure that policy leaders are investing in accessible healthcare, including preventative care, for all Virginians.
  • Pay attention to whether your policy leaders are crafting and supporting tax and employment policies – like broadening paid family/medical leave and earned income tax credits – that support healthy families.

Right now, violence, harassment, and oppression are all around us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Families and communities have the power to support transformative pivots in our culture. We can discuss these nuanced and difficult topics (like consent) with friends and neighbors, with our children, and with relatives. And we can commit ourselves to dismantling practices and norms that sustain a current culture of silence, shame, and avoidance on these topics giving way to a future in which wholeness, health, and consent are the new norms.

We at the Action Alliance have a compelling vision for a world where all of us thrive. We believe this better world is possible. We believe we are the ones we’ve been waiting for to make this future happen. We choose all of us to be a part of this future.

We seek a radically hopeful future where:

  • individuals are free and have what they need to reach their full potential;
  • relationships, families, and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful;
  • government, institutions and systems are rooted in equity and justice;
  • all decisions are grounded in whether they will benefit our future descendants, as well as our beautiful, sustaining earth.

With your help, this vision for a radically hopeful future – where sexual violence does not exist – really isn’t too distant.

For more information and resources on our work to prevent sexual violence in Virginia, check out TeachConsent.org, learn more about our statewide prevention projects, and support the Building Healthy Futures Fund.

Both images: Adobe Stock


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. He also likes memes and baby animals.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

The Government Shutdown’s Impact on Survivors of Sexual Violence and Domestic Violence

As the nation enters the fourth week of an unnecessary partial government shutdown, federal funding for vital services to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors will come to an abrupt halt. As agencies cut back expenses to maintain essential crisis services, many of their other services and programs that provide vital support, resources, and healing are being temporarily reduced or eliminated.  

In Virginia, federal funds from the Department of Justice (DOJ) are the primary source of funding for these sexual and domestic violence services. These funds support crisis hotlines, accompanying survivors to hospitals in the wake of violence, legal advocacy and representation, emergency housing and transportation, trauma counseling for victims of all ages, direct financial assistance, and more. 

Domestic Violence shelters face an additional barrier since many of them rely upon funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for vital homeless prevention, shelter operation, and transitional housing services. Both DOJ and HUD are closed and staff that were brought in temporarily to process funding requests will be furloughed this week. 

 

Intimate Partner Violence is More Likely to Occur When Couples Are Under Financial Strain

Virginia is one of the jurisdictions most heavily impacted by the furlough which has resulted in curtailment of pay for more than 800,000 federal employees and the loss of work for an untold number of contractors.  Should the shutdown continue beyond January 25th, some of the more than 1,000 employees of Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies will also face the prospect of furloughs. 

Families that suddenly lose a substantial portion of their income, whether single parent households, couples with children, individuals responsible for elderly family members, or adults without dependents, can quickly tailspin into financial crisis. 

Two thirds of adults in the US have less than $1,000 in savings — and those losing their income as a result of the shutdown are no exception.  The financial stress of not being able to pay bills, heat your home, purchase fresh food, or keep your children in safe care while you are out of work can become a point of volatility in relationships. For survivors of intimate partner or sexual violence who are in the process of recovering from violence, financial stress triggers trauma responses that jeopardize healing. 

 

This Shutdown is Irresponsible and Dangerous to Our Communities 

No matter your politics, the partial government shutdown is unconscionable.  It jeopardizes public safety.  The shutdown throws individuals and families into crisis, and then pulls the rug out from under crisis services. It is not acceptable to demand that essential federal employees work without pay (something that would NEVER be tolerated in the private sector) and then refuse to do the job of governance.   

 

Your Support is Vital to Your Community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Agencies 

Make a contribution to your community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence agencies today! If you don’t know the name of your local agency, you can find the name and contact information on our web-site in the Help/Resources section:  Virginia SDVA Directory. 

Every dollar that you donate will stretch services a little further as the shutdown continues.  Agencies have had to cut back direct financial assistance for needs as varied as legal representation, trauma counseling, housing and medical care but local support could make a big difference.   

There may also be some unique needs for other types of donations or for volunteer help as agencies cut costs for travel, supplies and other semi-critical expenses. If you are available, reach out by phone or email and offer help.  

 

Policy Leaders Need to Hear from YOU 

You can also support your community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence agency by reaching out to your Congressional representatives and the President to tell them to end the shutdown.  The budget impasse is a manufactured crisis.  The sad reality is that this crisis is being fueled by a xenophobic and racist policy proposal (i.e. the wall). We need both a budget AND thoughtful and compassionate immigration reform, and our Virginia policy leaders are capable of both. 

This is also an important time to let your state legislators know that increased state funding for Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies is key to sustaining life-saving work throughout the Commonwealth. Please join us on Wednesday, January 30th, for Legislative Advocacy Day as we lift the voices of survivors and advocate for policies that will help prevent violence and ensure conditions where every person has the opportunity to thrive. 

Register For Legislative Advocacy Day (January 30th) Here: https://actionalliance.salsalabs.org/legislativeadvocacyday2019/index.html 

Find and Contact Your Representatives Here: https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/ 

Reach Out to the President Here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ 

 

 

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years.  

Responding to the Kavanaugh Hearing With a Commitment to Prevention

On September 27th, I watched Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of  the Senate Judiciary Committee in my mostly darkened office. The day was already gray, and only my small desk lamp and computer screen provided any sort of illumination. I watched as Dr. Ford described the sexual violence she experienced as a teenager, as she repeatedly apologized for not remembering every detail, as she politely asked for caffeine and then a break, and as she patiently and scientifically described the ways that this trauma imprinted on her brain. When I took my own break and walked over to a coffee shop to grab a drink, my eyes burned thinking about what Dr. Ford remembered most vividly—their laughter, “two friends having a really good time with one another.”

I then watched Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony. I watched as his face twisted and got red, his body seemingly unable to contain his anger, fear and defiance. I was immediately struck by his rage and how clearly he felt entitled to it. Writer, social justice facilitator, and healer adrienne marree brown reflected on this in a blog post titled “Dr. Ford’s Dignity” when she wrote, “Kavanaugh has been marked by his actions in public, his dirty hands showing, his rageful face showing precisely how a boy who sexually assaults a girl while he is drunk looks when he grows up. his true self showed today, and every survivor who saw his face, who heard Christine Blasey-Ford say she was once scared he might kill her, recognized him as a perpetrator.”

For many of us who recognized Kavanaugh as a perpetrator, his confirmation a little over a week later, was not surprising, though still devastating. Just as so many things that have happened over the past few years have been not surprising, though still devastating.

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Image credit: Andrea Arroyo

In our own work, we must continue to show up for survivors. From Thursday, the day of the hearing, to the Sunday after, RAINN saw a 338% increase in hotline calls. While advocacy and direct services continue to be vital for the communities we serve and the survivors who come to us, it’s equally important to commit to primary prevention work.

At the Action Alliance, we define primary prevention as a set of practices and values that seek to shift attitudes, behaviors and norms that support and perpetuate the root causes of violence. Primary prevention uses anti-oppressive frameworks and understands that systems of oppression such as patriarchy and white supremacy are at the heart of sexual and intimate partner violence.

While devastating, the Kavanaugh hearing and Dr. Ford’s testimony provide us with clear examples of rape culture, one that normalizes and rationalizes sexual violence as inevitable and a part of “natural” human behavior rather than understanding it as structurally and culturally created and sustained. An understanding of rape culture allows us to see how the violence Dr. Ford experienced, that so many survivors experience, goes beyond what happened one summer night in a Maryland suburb. And when we use primary prevention practices we are able to prevent instances of violence and dismantle the culture that allows this violence to happen.

While devastating, the Kavanaugh hearing and Dr. Ford’s testimony provide us with clear examples of rape culture, one that normalizes and rationalizes sexual violence as inevitable and a part of “natural” human behavior rather than understanding it as structurally and culturally created and sustained.

With a primary prevention lens, we can see how misogyny and privilege build a culture where boys feel entitled to a young girl’s body, where they do not take her struggle seriously, where they in fact find the situation amusing, even fun. We see how this phrase that flows so easily out of some people’s mouths, “boys will be boys,” reinforces the idea that harm is inevitable and boys, specifically white boys, should not or cannot be held accountable for their actions. It is rape culture that sends the message to survivors that speaking publicly about the violence they have experienced is harmful or unfair to their perpetrator; it frames this unveiling of violence, abuse and trauma as a “scary time for boys” rather than the reckoning that it is.

We can better understand the differences in Dr. Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s demeanors on September 27th with a primary prevention lens because we understand how gender roles and stereotypes police behavior. It was necessary for Dr. Ford to be polite, courteous, and controlled because she is a woman and to be too emotional, angry, or frustrated would make her dramatic, hysterical and thus unbelievable. While Dr. Ford was dignified, Kavanaugh, as a man, was outraged; even, arguably, in excess. What are we teaching young women and trans or non-binary people when some are entitled to express their emotions to a point of a menace, while others must keep even the deepest parts of their grief contained and quiet?

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Image credit: Sharyn Lee

With a primary prevention lens, we can better unpack how the public perceived Dr. Ford in comparison to Anita Hill, a black woman who testified in front of an eerily similar Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Because with this lens, we know that racism is also a root of rape culture and sexual violence and that when a CNN pundit described Dr. Ford’s testimony as more resonant because she projected vulnerability while Anita Hill projected strength and poise, we know this is connected to racial stereotypes about black women.

The Kavanaugh hearing and subsequent swearing in prove the necessity for a deep culture shift. We want to live in a world where people understand and practice consent, where sexuality is joyful, where boundaries are respected, where open communication is expected. In this world, those who have harmed are held accountable and these harmful behaviors are transformed and changed. In order to get there, we must commit to violence prevention. We must invest in and value prevention trainings and education; community building, organizing and connection; and the work of people and organizations in other movements that fight for justice and liberation (National Network of Abortion Funds and SisterSong). As organizer and educator Mariame Kaba reminded us on twitter in 2017, “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.”

Thank you, Dr. Ford.

Thank you, Anita Hill.

We believe you.

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Image credit: Ashley Lukashevsky


Additional Reading:

We Still Haven’t Learned from Anita Hill’s Testimony (NYT) by Kimberlé Crenshaw

What Christine Blasey Ford Reveals about Womanhood (The Guardian) by Moira Donegan

Listen: Déjà vu All Over Again (NPR Code Switch)


Laura Chow Reeve is the Youth Resilience Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work at the Action Alliance, Laura worked with Girls Rock Camps, youth programs that use music and creative expression as a tool for social justice. She has a MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA and writes fiction.

 

Ending Child Marriage: A Priority to Ending A Cycle of Violence

Content warning: sexual assault, suicide, physical violence

On May 10, Sudanese courts sentenced a 19-year-old girl to death for defending herself and stabbing her rapist, whom she had been forced to marry at age 16. Although the sentence was overturned over a month later, Noura’s case has prompted international outcry and has further highlighted the need to address child marriage, which about 12 million girls experience each year.

When discussing child marriage, it is imperative to recognize its connection to intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and other forms of abuse and exploitation. According to a UNICEF report, girls who marry in their childhood are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. In fact, girls who get married under the age of 15 are 50% more likely to suffer physical or sexual violence from a partner. Girls Not Brides further reports that ending child marriage would reduce rates of intimate partner violence by more than 10% in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Uganda.

Additionally, child brides are more likely to describe their first sexual experience as forced – as was the case for Noura. In fact, one study in northern Ethiopia found that 81% of girls who were married at ages 10-19 “described their first sexual experience as against their will.” Likewise, in India, child brides were three times more likely to be raped than those who married later. Other studies have reported that many women who were married young continue to be raped throughout their marriages.

As noted by Global Citizen, child marriage often forces children to be separated from their family and friends and “transferred to (their spouses) like a piece of property.” This can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors – all of which are associated with child marriage. Furthermore, child brides are often deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety, have a higher risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and are more likely to live in poverty. All of these conditions uphold a cycle of violence against the children, which continues into their adulthoods and oftentimes into the next generation. Child marriage also “ensures that (girls) remain dependent on others all their lives, strips them of their agency, and hands control over their lives to someone else” – therefore systematically disempowering them.

 

Source: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/GNB-Child-marriage-human-rights-infographic-1200px.jpg

On the contrary, girls who remain with their families and continue their education are able to become financially independent and “engage more fully with society.” In fact, just one extra year of primary education can boost a girl’s future earnings by 15%. Thus, by robbing girls of education and economic opportunities, child marriage forces girls into a cycle of poverty – the very poverty that oftentimes is the reason they were forced into their marriages in the first place.

 

Here in the United States, more than 248,000 children had been married, mostly to adult men, between the years of 2000 and 2010. In Virginia specifically, almost 4,500 children were married from 2004 to 2013. Of these children, 90% were girls, and 90% were married to adults. Virginia records additionally showed brides and grooms as young as 12 years old. Although the minimum age of marriage in most US states is 18, 48 out of 50 states have exceptions that allow children under 18 to get married. Furthermore, in half of those states, there is no minimum age at all below which children cannot get married – despite the fact that the age of consent, across the nation, ranges from 16 to 18 years old.

In 2011 alone, in New York, state data showed that a 14-year-old was wed to a 26-year-old, a 15-year-old to a 28-year-old, another 15-year-old to a 25-year-old, and a yet another 15-year-old to someone aged 35 to 39. Such age differences would typically result in third-degree rape charges, which occurs when a person over the age of 21 has sex with a child under the age of 17, a felony punishable with up to four years in prison. However, a current loophole exempts New York’s statutory rape law from applying to those who engage in sex with juveniles they are married to. As one author wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “marriage provides a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators, while doing nothing to protect the girls.”

Although some may argue that there is not much difference between an 18-year-old’s level of maturity versus a 17-year-old’s, Fraidy Reiss, the founder of the nonprofit Unchained At Last, notes an important distinction. “It’s about legal capacity. In most states, you’re not legally an adult until age 18, meaning you can’t take the legal steps you might need to protect yourself if you are married before then, including getting into a domestic violence shelter, retaining a lawyer, and getting a divorce,” Reiss told Global Citizen. “It puts the lock into wedlock.”

It was not until May 2018 that Delaware became the first US state to ban all child marriage, without exceptions. While several other states are in the process of following suit, there is still considerable – and urgent – work to be done. Girls Not Brides has reported that if child marriage is not reduced, the number of women around the world married as children will reach 1.2 billion by 2050 – “with devastating consequences for the whole world.”

Ending child marriage is a necessary component of ending sexual violence and intimate partner violence. There are many ways to join the movement to end child marriage, such as supporting girls’ education – a powerful tool to empower girls and allow them the opportunity to grow into confident and independent women.  It is also important to recognize that education alone will not end child marriage, as the issue is multifaceted and caused by various factors including gender inequality and poverty. Although the various, overlapping aspects of child marriage can make it harder to eradicate, they also allow for countless opportunities to get involved. Lawmakers can work to close loopholes in laws and policies that leave children vulnerable; teachers and community leaders can learn to recognize signs of child marriage, as well as form trustful relations with children they mentor so that children may feel comfortable seeking help from them if a harmful situation arises; and all concerned individuals can use their voices to call on global leaders and politicians to protect children.

If we work together to tackle child marriage, we can create a world where girls and women are empowered, in charge of their own destinies, and able to live their lives free of violence,” said Mabel van Oranje, the Princess of Orange-Nassau and co-founder of Girls Not Brides. “This is a world that makes all of us better off.”

Featured image source: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/delaware-child-marriage-ban-us-first/

 


Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

On The Violence Against Women Act: Ensuring We Don’t Harm Those We Seek to Help

“VAWA has changed the landscape for victims who once suffered in silence. Victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have been able to access services, and a new generation of families and justice system professionals has come to understand that domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking are crimes that our society will not tolerate.” –  The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization in 2018. While helping to establish essential, coordinated responses to sexual and intimate partner violence, some advocates believe VAWA’s affiliation with the criminal legal system has also resulted in unintended consequences that harm survivors. VAWA reauthorization this year offers us an opportunity to create a VAWA that gets us closer to the world we want.

THE GOOD: VAWA PROVIDES MANY IMPORTANT, LIFE-SAVING SERVICES

First established in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has had a lasting impact on survivors of sexual and domestic violence, as well as the communities serving them. The Act has provided life-changing services for the survivors of violence. These services include:

Through these services, VAWA has not only worked to prevent violence through tools such as education, but also played a significant role in easing the burden on survivors. This is exemplified through its housing protections, as well as its ban on states charging rape survivors for forensic sexual assault examinations, among many other provisions.

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of IPV against females [1] declined 53% between 1993 and 2008, after the passage of VAWA. Similarly, the IPV rate against males declined 54%. Furthermore, between 1993 and 2007, the number of homicide victims killed by intimate partners fell 29%. Based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1993 and 2008, the reported rate of rape or sexual assault against females declined by 70%, and the reported rate of rape or sexual assault against males declined by 36%.

THIS YEAR, VAWA IS DUE FOR REAUTHORIZATION – A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY FOR REVISIONS TO THE ACT

Every five years, VAWA expires; with the last reauthorization of VAWA taking place in 2013, the Act is due for reauthorization this year. Over the past two decades since the initial passage of VAWA, the Act has been successfully reauthorized three times – each time with a set of revisions. VAWA’s first reauthorization took place in 2000 and allowed for additional protections for immigrants who are survivors of violence, a new program for survivors in need of transitional housing, funds for rape prevention and education, and an inclusion of survivors of dating violence. In 2005, VAWA’s reauthorization added programs for indigenous people who are survivors of violence. VAWA’S latest reauthorization, in 2013, added provisions targeting human trafficking, provisions for LGBTQ individuals, and provisions for tribal courts to have jurisdiction over domestic or dating violence offenses committed by non-Native people.

THE BAD: VAWA HAS HAD UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES THAT COULD HARM THE VERY PEOPLE IT SEEKS TO HELP

While VAWA has generally grown more inclusive and comprehensive over the years, it has also had unintended and unfortunate consequences. Passed with the intent to recognize and treat domestic violence as a serious crime rather than a private family matter, VAWA has contributed to the expansion of the role of the criminal legal system in cases of gender-based violence. Furthermore, the Act “encouraged states to adopt mandatory arrest policies that allowed domestic violence cases to move forward without the cooperation of victims.” One of the unintended consequences of such policies is that if police are unable to detect the primary aggressor at the scene of an altercation, they can simply arrest both parties – thus further contributing to additional trauma for victims of violence.

Mandatory arrest policies can also discourage some survivors from reporting domestic violence due to the fear that their partners, who may be the family’s only earner, will be immediately arrested and jailed. This means that domestic violence victims can actually be in even more danger, as they feel unable to seek help. In fact, a Harvard study, which used FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports, found that mandatory arrest laws actually increased intimate partner homicides – thus “harming the very people they seek to help.”

ADVOCATES SUGGEST REALLOCATING MORE FUNDS TO SERVICES FOR SURVIVORS INSTEAD OF INVOLVEMENT IN THE CRIMINAL LEGAL SYSTEM

Many advocates hope the next reauthorization will disconnect VAWA’s funds from its close involvement in a criminal legal system that often marginalizes people of color and breaks up families, thus leaving people more vulnerable to violence. Researchers have noted that VAWA’s connection to the criminal legal system fails to address the actual causes of intimate partner violence (IPV), which are highly correlated with economic distress. Additionally, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes that “lack of employment opportunities, low wages, lack of affordable housing and social supports such as childcare dramatically affect the ability of battered women to escape violence and rebuild their lives.” If VAWA funding devoted to the criminal legal system could instead be reallocated to services – such as transitional housing – that help survivors of IPV leave abusive partners, we would be closer to achieving a victim-centered approach and ensuring that, in our response to violence, we do not promote a cycle of incarceration that ultimately results in more violence.

As we envision the future we hope to live in, we dream up a world where everyone is able to live safely without the threat or fear of domestic and sexual violence. Safety also means a nation where mass incarceration no longer traps more than 2.2 million people behind bars, leaving them and their families vulnerable to economic hardship and more violence. By reauthorizing VAWA this year, and de-carcerating it in the process, we can be one step closer to making this dream a reality.


Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

[1] The report does not address transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

Featured image source: http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/04/debate-over-violence-against-women-act-centers-on-the-vulnerable/

Empowering Survivors, Curing Stigma: Trauma-Informed Advocacy for Survivors Living with Mental Illness

This May marks the 69th anniversary of Mental Health Month in the United States. The purpose of Mental Health Month is to increase awareness of mental health issues and to empower individuals who live with mental health issues; to challenge stigma; and to help those who suffer heal emotional and psychological wounds.[1]

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence can have significant mental health consequences for survivors.[2] As attorneys and advocates who work with survivors, it is our responsibility to be aware of the signs of trauma in our clients, to ensure that our representation does not worsen the harm done to a client or create additional harms, and to zealously advocate on our clients’ behalf. Many, if not most, survivors who live with mental health, substance use, or trauma-related issues are fully capable of engaging in survivor-driven representation. These clients can make informed decisions about their case, and can understand, deliberate upon, and reach conclusions about matters affecting their own well-being.[3]

Wellness Cairns

There are myriad ways that advocates and attorneys can challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness and offer concrete assistance to survivors who have experienced trauma resulting from multiple victimizations. Attorneys for survivors who are dealing with mental health issues can assist clients by:

  • Recognizing that survivors may be unable to recall all the details of the abuse or violence;
  • Providing options and the time and space for survivors to make fully informed decisions;
  • Validating the survivor’s feelings throughout the process;
  • Being responsive to a survivor’s requests for information and support, even if she asks for the same information several times;
  • Partnering with survivors to identify alternative coping strategies if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors;
  • Finding supports for developing alternative or additional coping strategies;
  • Connecting survivors who are experiencing a mental health crisis with a trusted mental health referral/resource;
  • Offering support to survivors who are using alcohol and/or drugs by safety planning and strategizing to the greatest extent possible at the time (including assessing risks and developing strategies that mitigate the risks posed by alcohol and drug use) and encouraging them to contact you again;
  • Gaining an understanding of the ways in which a client’s unique challenges may impact her ability to engage in the advocacy process;
  • Tailoring interviewing and counseling approaches to meet the needs of and maximize the self-determination of each individual client;
  • Developing a basic understanding of trauma-related and mental health conditions that survivors may experience;
  • Being skilled in listening and asking questions to understand a survivor’s perspective and needs; and
  • Understanding what information and options to offer to meet those needs.[4]

Survivor-driven advocacy requires that attorneys tailor their advocacy approach to meet the unique needs of survivors. It is within the context of a respectful, survivor-driven relationship that lawyers can provide opportunities for survivors experiencing trauma and mental health challenges to access the resources they need and to exercise greater control over their own lives.


Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors (PES) at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. You can reach Janice and the rest of the PES team at legal@vsdvalliance.org.


[1] Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may (last visited May 4, 2018).

[2] See, e.g., the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/ (last visited May 4, 2018).

[3] See, e.g., Comment 1 to Rule 1.14 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, available at http://www.vsb.org/pro-guidelines/index.php/main/print_view (last visited May 4, 2018).

[4] See Seighman, Mary M., et al., “Representing Domestic Violence Survivors Who Are Experiencing Trauma and Other Mental Health Challenges: A Handbook for Attorneys” (2011), available at http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AttorneyHandbookMay282012.pdf (last visited May 4, 2018).

Healthcare is a Human Right

Ignoring medical need is violence.” – Coretta Scott King

As Virginia’s General Assembly began a special session last Wednesday to approve a state budget, all eyes were on Medicaid expansion. While we continue our fight to #SupportSurvivors and #ExpandMedicaidVA, it is imperative we remember that the latter is critical for the former.

From STI/HIV testing and treatment to forensic rape exams conducted by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and ongoing visits with primary care physicians or counselors, survivors of sexual violence need access to a range of medical services not only in the immediate aftermath of violence, but over the span of their lives. These physical and mental healthcare services reduce the effects of trauma and help survivors rebuild their lives.

Although Medicaid currently provides health insurance coverage for almost one million Virginians, hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia remain uninsured. If Virginia does not expand Medicaid, many will remain in a coverage gap – having incomes above the Medicaid eligibility limits (in 2017, the limit was at or below $28,180 for a family of three), but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits.

For survivors who fall in this coverage gap and are left without health insurance, there may not always be many options to receive the proper care and medical attention they need. In fact, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the estimated lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 per survivor, or a population economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion over survivors’ lifetimes (based on data indicating >25 million U.S. adults have been raped) with $1.2 trillion being attributed to medical costs. If Medicaid is expanded, 400,000 Virginians could get access to quality, affordable health insurance, which would result in more access to life-saving medical services for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence.

93 percent

Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

Furthermore, Medicaid benefits include family planning services, comprehensive maternity care, treatment for chronic conditions, treatment for breast and cervical cancer, and long-term care services and supports. Additional services covered by many state Medicaid programs also include case management, transportation, and childbirth and infant education services. This means that if Medicaid is expanded, the burden on sexual and domestic violence programs to fulfill these needs would be reduced.

Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

In fact, in 2016, 93% of survivors accessing sexual and domestic violence services reported receiving help with healthcare coverage/costs. This not only shows that healthcare is among the top priorities for survivors in Virginia, but further illustrates how Medicaid expansion may reduce the service burden for local sexual and domestic violence agencies.

Additionally, according to a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women who have experienced domestic violence are 8o% more likely to have a stroke, 70% more likely to have heart disease, and 60% more likely to have asthma than women who have not experienced domestic violence. If Medicaid is expanded in Virginia, more survivors of violence would have access to the life-saving medical services they need.

Regardless of income, all survivors of violence should be able to receive the medical and mental health services needed to help them heal. Expanding access to healthcare means better safety and wellness for survivors. Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

Featured image source: Associated Press


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite

Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week Is Here!

Join us online for statewide Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week (#VLAW18)! Starting Monday (the week of February 5-9), we will #AmplifySurvivorVoices and take to Facebook, Twitter, email, and phones to advocate for policies that enhance violence prevention and education, improve services for victims and communities, and support offender accountability.

You must register for Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week to gain access to our 2018 Virtual Advocate’s Toolkit, a handy interactive document which offers legislator contacts, sample messages and scripts, images, infographics, and strategies for how best to engage your legislators.

Why is legislative advocacy important?

Lawmakers can’t be experts on all issues all the time. Who are the experts on sexual and intimate partner violence? People who have been directly affected by sexual and intimate partner violence–and the professionals who help them–which is us! It’s our job to make sure that lawmakers who vote on issues affecting survivors are knowledgeable about the issues before they vote.

VLAW logo-red coverIs legislative advocacy a good use of my time?

Yes…because lawmakers listen to their constituents. Pretty much every contact you have with a legislator and/or their staff is noted in order to keep track of where constituents stand on any given issue. Lawmakers want to be accountable to their constituents…and it’s also in their best interests to do so. Plus, your voice/ knowledge/point of view is worth sharing!

Action Alliance Policy Priorities for the 2018 General Assembly Session

We know that the voices of survivors are amplified when advocates speak out. Take a look at our legislative priorities for the 2018 General Assembly session. See what issues resonate most with those you serve in your agency, which policies may have a direct impact in your area, and how you can contact your legislators and law makers in your area to advocate for changes that are trauma-informed and center the safety, privacy, and dignity of survivors.

Newcomer to legislative advocacy? This webinar’s for you!

If thoughts of interacting with your legislators terrify you, or trying to keep up with the legislative process throws you into a tizzy, this webinar (presented in PowerPoint style with voice prompts) may help you navigate some of the murky waters of the General Assembly.

You will be guided through learning about how Virginia’s government functions, how bills flow through the legislative process to become laws, and how to stay informed through the process. Click here to access the presentation.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

Bridging the Justice Gap in Virginia

The Action Alliance’s newly-launched Project for the Empowerment of Survivors (“PES”) helps to bridge the justice gap in Virginia by connecting survivors of intimate partner violence with the legal services they need.

Since 1993, the Action Alliance has provided sexual assault and domestic violence survivors with emotional support, safety planning, and other trauma-informed services through its toll-free statewide hotline. Over the years, the hotline (and the demand for hotline services) has grown by leaps and bounds, including by adding a dedicated LGBTQ+ helpline, expanding hotline hours to provide 24/7/365 support, and increasing the number of multilingual advocates who are available to answer calls from survivors.

The PES, the hotline’s new legal services division, is a natural outgrowth of these existing services. Survivors often have legal questions in addition to other inquiries. While some callers can access the legal services they need through Legal Aid or other pro bono resources, numerous studies confirm the ever-widening justice gap in Virginia and elsewhere.

The “justice gap” refers to the civil legal needs of low-income Americans, versus the legal resources available to meet those needs.[1] In Virginia alone:

  • Over 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals go unmet;
  • One in eight Virginians is eligible for free legal services from Legal Aid, but there are not enough Legal Aid attorneys available to meet the need for services;
  • There is one Legal Aid lawyer per 7,237 low-income individuals in Virginia; and
  • Individuals who have attorneys are twice as likely to have a favorable outcome in court, versus individuals who are unrepresented.[2]

The need for free or low-cost legal services is particularly acute for survivors of intimate partner violence, where “[i]ndirect and lasting economic consequences ripple throughout survivors’ lives long after the abuse has stopped, compounding their effects and creating increased vulnerability to future abuse.”[3]

Open sign-james-sutton-199643

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

The PES seeks to bridge the justice gap for survivors in the following ways:

  • By partnering with local sexual assault and domestic violence agencies to identify survivors who need legal services;
  • By employing dedicated legal interns and advocates to answer legal questions and provide legal information to survivors;
  • By employing on-staff attorneys to provide free legal counsel and advice to survivors;
  • By referring survivors to community-based private attorneys who agree to take cases on a reduced fee or pro bono basis;
  • By training attorneys and advocates to provide trauma-informed legal services and legal advocacy; and
  • By helping survivors from marginalized communities pay for private attorneys through the use of our Legal Fund.

If you are a survivor in need of legal services, please call our Statewide Hotline at (800) 838-8238 and ask to speak with a member of our legal team. We are here to help.

If you are an attorney who is interested in providing pro bono or reduced fee services to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, please contact Carmen Williams, PES Project Manager, at (804) 377-0335, or email us at legal@vsdvalliance.org.


Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.


[1] See Legal Services Corporation, America’s Partner for Equal Justice, https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

[2] “Access to Justice: Free and Low Cost Legal Resources in Virginia,” Virginia State Bar, available at http://www.vsb.org/docs/probono/access-guide.pdf (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

[3] Shoener, Sara J. & Sussman, Erika A., “Economic Ripple Effect of IPV: Building Partnerships for Systemic Change,” Domestic Violence Report (Aug./Sept. 2013), available at https://csaj.org/document-library/Shoener_and_Sussman_2013_-_Economic_Ripple_Effect_of_IPV.pdf (last accessed Nov. 17, 2017).

Study Finds Majority of Crime Survivors Support Shorter Prison Sentences, Alternatives to Incarceration

A first-of-its-kind national survey released by the Alliance for Safety and Justice bucks conventional wisdom regarding the views of crime victims/survivors on incarceration.

Despite popular assumptions that crime victims/survivors support long sentences and prison expansion, the National Survey of Victims’ Views finds that survivors would prefer the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation than punishment by a 2 to 1 margin.

In fact, 61 percent of crime survivors support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation to long prison sentences. The vast majority of survivors also prefer investments in education, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training to more spending on prisons and jails.

Alternative to incarceration

By a margin of nearly 3 to 1, crime survivors believe that time in prison makes people more likely to commit another crime rather than less likely. These views cut across demographic groups, with wide support across race, age, gender, and political party affiliation.

Support for reform and a new approach to safety and justice policy is strong even among survivors of violent crimes. The survey, which interviewed 800 crime survivors across the country, included both survivors of non-violent crime and survivors of violent crime including the most serious crimes of rape or murder of a family member.

“More than 2.2 million people are in prisons and jails across the country and the U.S. spends more than 80 billion dollars each year locking people up,” said Robert Rooks, Vice President, Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Yet the findings show that America’s investments in our current criminal justice system do not align with the views of crime victims or meet their needs.”

The survey finds that survivors of crime experience significant challenges in recovery and healing—8 in 10 report experiencing at least one symptom of trauma. The survey found 2 out of 3 survivors did not receive help following the incident, and those who did were far more likely to receive it from family and friends than the criminal justice system.

One in four people have been victimized in the past 10 years, but that impact is not evenly felt across the country. The study finds survivors of crime are more likely to be low-income, young and people of color; furthermore, people with the lowest levels of education, income and economic status are more likely to experience repeat victimization and serious violent crime.

New Safety Priorities

Instead of more spending on incarceration, survivors want a wide range of investments in new safety priorities:

  • By a margin of 15 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in schools and education to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 10 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in job creation to more
    investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 7 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in mental health treatment to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 7 to 1 victims prefer increased investments in crime prevention and
    programs for at-risk youth to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 4 to 1 victims prefer increased investments in drug treatment to more investments in prisons and jails

Everyone agrees

The full report, survivors’ profiles and a video featuring crime survivors are featured at
www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org.


Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ) is a national organization that aims to win new safety priorities in states across the country. ASJ partners with state leaders, advocates and crime survivors to advance policies to replace prison waste with new safety priorities that will help the communities most harmed by crime and violence. Reprinted press release from Alliance for Safety and Justice.