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COMMENTARY: Women's History Month a reminder of need for local services

BY florence hedeen


March is Women's History Month. In the wake of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. Since then, women have played an essential role in the human rights movement, as advocates, organizations, journalists, politicians, teachers, and lawyers.

"Some are women's rights activists; most are human rights activists who happen to be women. As women, they face unique challenges, from sexism to cultural bias to repression, which often takes the form of gender-based violence. But time and again, women activists refuse to be silenced," - Elisa Massimino, President and CEO Human Rights First.

Locally, the Headwaters Intervention Center (HIC), Battered Women's Services was organized in 1978 by area women who recognized domestic violence as a serious problem. From its humble beginnings in a small room at Riverside United Methodist Church in Park Rapids, the part-time director and a small group of volunteers, trained as advocates, began serving battered women. In 2011 over 300 women, children and men victims of domestic violence received support from HIC staff and volunteers to break the cycle of violence in their lives. The job isn't over, but many more victims are surviving and thriving in violence-free relationships.

The terms battering and domestic violence refer to the pattern of violence that affects the level of fear and quality of life for all women - it encompasses both physical and sexual violence and includes pervasive emotional abuse and threats, control over finances and access to transportation; manipulation of and often harm to the children; and social norms that persist today that a man has the right to put his partner in her place. While these same dynamics are also present in same sex relationships and on rare occasion women use similar tactics against their male partners - it is the broader social institutions that support this pervasive and historically-sanctioned pattern of behavior that HIC and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women seeks to change.

The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW) is a well-established, membership organization with 90 member programs located throughout Minnesota, including the HIC, with a strong history of effectively carrying out programming that advances women's safety and security. MCBW has existed for almost 30 years as the state's primary voice for battered women. The Coalition has a dedicated and experienced staff, and its capacity is strengthened by the leadership of its members and by a deeply committed and involved board of directors.

During Women's History Month, we're reminded that to ignore the vital role that women's dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us - and those remarkable women working among us today. They are part of our story, and a truly balanced and inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society. The National Women's History Project, founded in 1980, is an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to recognize and celebrate the diverse and historic accomplishments of women by providing information and educational materials and programs.

Advocates and professionals from the battered women's movement, sexual assault advocates, victim services field, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, the courts, and the private bar urged Congress to adopt significant legislation to address domestic and sexual violence, The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Re-authorization is again before Congress in 2012. VAWA was developed and passed as a result of extensive grassroots efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Since its original passage in 1994, VAWA's focus has expanded from domestic violence and sexual assault to also include dating violence and stalking. It funds services to protect adult and teen victims of these crimes, and supports training on these issues, to ensure consistent responses across the country. One of the greatest successes of VAWA is its emphasis on a coordinated community response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking; courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services, and the private bar currently work together in a coordinated effort that had not heretofore existed on the state and local levels. VAWA also supports the work of community-based organizations like HIC that are engaged in work to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Additionally, VAWA provides specific support for work with tribes and tribal organizations to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking against Indian women.

The Headwaters Intervention Center and its Executive Director Becci Leonard, staff, volunteers, and Board of Directors, and the victims of domestic violence they serve are grateful to the women who saw the need for local services to battered women in 1978 and acted to address that need.

No one deserves to be abused. If you or someone you know or love is a victim of domestic violence, contact HIC, Monday-Friday at 218-732-7413, or through the 24-hour Crisis Line, 1-800-939-2199.