Category Archives: Violence Against Women

Legal Assistance for Survivors Could Help Fight Domestic Violence

Survivors attempting to escape an abusive relationship are often faced with an overwhelming number of legal issues. Foremost, they may need to secure a protection order, a legal document that bars abusers from continuing physical violence and contacting a victim. Protection orders can also include economic provisions such as granting the victim possession of a home or vehicle or requiring the offender to pay for rent, utilities, medical expenses or damaged property. In addition, survivors may need to resolve legal issues including child custody, child support, spousal support, divorce, immigration and housing to keep themselves and their children safe from harm and economically secure. Unfortunately, many survivors find themselves without representation or the resources they need to navigate a complex legal system. A new report from the Center of Public Integrity explains how increasing the amount of free or subsidized legal services available to survivors would not only increase access to legal protections and help keep survivors safe from further abuse, but would also lower the overall rates of domestic violence and its substantial cost to society.

Many survivors have limited options when trying to secure legal protections from abusers. Since women in the lowest income households are seven times more likely to experience abuse than women in the highest income households, costly private attorneys are inaccessible for many survivors. They may choose to represent themselves in court as a pro se litigant, but the level of knowledge, financial resources and time needed for fees, court filings and hearings can seem insurmountable for an inexperienced litigant. Family court judges have reported that it is common for pro se litigants to fail to receive the justice they deserve due to confusion surrounding court processes and their mishandling of cases. This is particularly problematic in domestic violence cases, where judges may perceive a victim’s inability to remember details, delays in reporting and choices not to leave an abusive partner as a lack of credibility rather than a typical response to a traumatic situation. This lack of legal expertise can lead to a pronounced difference in the outcome of a case: one study found that litigants represented by an attorney received a protection order in 83% of cases, as opposed to 32% of unrepresented litigants.

Currently, there are some free and low-cost legal services available to survivors, but they do not come close to meeting the vast demand for services. Legal aid attorneys are federally funded to provide free services in civil cases for anyone making under 125% of the poverty line. However, they turn away over 1 million clients per year due to limited capacity, leaving eight out of ten eligible people without any form of legal representation. Domestic violence service providers attempt to meet some of the demand, but a recent census of providers found that only 11% were able to offer their clients legal representation.

The need for increased free or subsidized representation for domestic violence survivors is clear. As the report describes, the cost of providing legal assistance to survivors is outweighed by its benefits. Domestic violence accounts for more than $9 billion per year in health care expenses, lost productivity, lost lifetime earnings, criminal justice involvement and social service usage. Expanding legal assistance can significantly lower rates of domestic violence by creating pathways out of abusive relationships for more survivors, which results in lower economic costs. While there is still a need for further research around how to best expand and deliver these services, free or subsidized legal assistance is a promising approach to provide critical support for survivors during one of the most challenging periods of their life while benefiting society as a whole.

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New HUD Report Illuminates Options for Survivors of Domestic Violence

This week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in partnership with Vanderbilt University, released the short-term findings of their Family Options Study, which followed more than 2,000 families experiencing homelessness over an 18 month period. Their research evaluated the effect of several types of interventions on housing stability and the well-being of homeless adults and children. The families in the sample were randomly assigned one of the interventions: housing choice vouchers, community-based rapid rehousing, project based transitional housing, and care as usual. The study found that housing choice vouchers, which grant families permanent subsidies to use in the private housing market, had the greatest effectiveness. While the vouchers were of similar cost or less expensive than the other interventions, they decreased rates of future homelessness, lowered psychological distress and improved mental health. They were also shown to decrease the prevalence of domestic violence. In the six months prior to the survey, families receiving housing choice vouchers had half the incidents of domestic violence as those families receiving care as usual. This result supports earlier HUD qualitative research in which housing subsidy recipients reported that their subsidies helped them escape abusive situations and establish new lives independently.

More effective services are essential to ensure that every domestic violence survivor has the opportunity to access safe housing. In the new HUD study, nearly half of their sample had experienced physical abuse or threats of physical abuse from an intimate partner. Other studies have found even higher rates of violence:  one study in Massachusetts found that 63% of homeless women were victims of intimate partner violence. Other studies have found that between 22 and 57% of women become homeless as a direct result of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Although domestic violence survivors make up a disproportionate share of homeless individuals, they do not always receive the services they need. In 2014, a 24 hour census of domestic violence service providers across the country found that although around 36,000 women were receiving residential services, another 6,126 women were turned away in a single day, largely due to lack of funding and limited resources. The ability for survivors of domestic violence to access housing assistance after leaving an abusive situation is critical. Abusers often isolate their victims from social support, so they may not have friends or family who could take them in. In addition, abusers will frequently control their victims’ finances, limit their access to cash and credit, and prevent them from working, so they may have little or no money available to pay for another place to stay. Without access to shelter, they may have few other options than to sleep on the streets or in their car or return to their abuser. Studies in two different cities found that 44% of homeless women have stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go.

The need for improved services and better funding for homeless individuals fleeing domestic violence is clear. Domestic violence survivors need secure, stable housing options to keep them safe from harm and to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Research like HUD’s Family Options Study is an encouraging step in identifying innovative and cost-effective methods of enabling housing security and preventing future incidents of domestic violence. While the long-term results of the study will not be released until 2017, these early findings lay the groundwork for smarter housing policies and more informed services for families experiencing homelessness.

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Supreme Court Decision Protects Against Housing Discrimination

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a number of critical decisions that impacted millions of Americans. While the nation is still buzzing about their decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, another ruling that plays a major role in the fight against housing discrimination received less attention. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Supreme Court confirmed that housing policies that have a “disparate impact” based on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or family status are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. This applies to policies that may not explicitly intend to discriminate against certain groups but still create a pattern of discrimination. The disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool in dismantling institutional racial discrimination in housing and lending, and although less well known, it has been a valuable asset for survivors of domestic violence.

The Fair Housing Act was first used to prevent domestic violence housing discrimination in the case of Alvera v. the CBM Group, Inc. After Tiffani Alvera was attacked by her husband and hospitalized, she gave a copy of her protection order to the landlord to have her husband evicted from their shared residence. The landlord responded by ordering both her and her husband to vacate the property within 24 hours. She was told that a member of her household “inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants,” which was grounds to terminate her lease. The fact that Alvera herself was the victim of this violence did not deter her landlord from ordering her out. When she filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, the court agreed that although the policy was not directly intended to discriminate against domestic violence victims, it still had a disparate impact and amounted to gender discrimination.

There are many ways landlords can discriminate against tenants currently experiencing or with a history of domestic violence. They may refuse to rent to applicants with a history of DV. For current tenants, they may fail to renew their lease, evict them or raise their rent as punishment for their abusers’ actions. Some localities also have nuisance ordinances which heavily fine or punish landlords who have the police called to their buildings too many times. This puts pressure on landlords to discourage tenants from seeking help or to evict them if they call the police multiple times. In one case, Lakisha Briggs was warned, after calling the police for violence committed by her ex-boyfriend, that she would be evicted from her apartment if she kept calling. She endured two more brutal attacks from her ex-boyfriend out of too much fear to report it, but was evicted anyway when other residents called the police. Although this case was settled in court and the ordinance repealed, these types of policies are still popular across the country. One study of Milwaukee found that in a single year, 157 nuisance citations were given to landlords for domestic violence incidents, disproportionately directed at women from low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. In the majority of these cases the landlord responded with immediate eviction.

Currently, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes protecting against some form of domestic violence housing discrimination. However, many of these statutes are narrow and do not cover the full range of possible discrimination, leaving many victims unprotected by state policies. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision ensures the Fair Housing Act can continue to offer relief for anyone affected by discriminatory housing policies and prevent domestic violence victims from having to make the impossible choice between keeping their housing and protecting their safety.

Source: ICPH, Source: Legal Momentum, State Law Guide: Housing Protections for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, June 2013.

 

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The Heavy Cost of Revenge Porn

Last week, the fight against revenge porn had several major victories, as Vermont, Oregon and Texas all passed laws criminalizing revenge porn. Google also announced that it would allow victims of revenge porn to request that their images be removed from its search results. Revenge porn is the practice of publicly sharing nude or sexual photos and videos taken in the context of an intimate relationship in order to seek revenge on a former partner. These photos can be uploaded to a website with a global audience within minutes, but the repercussions for the victim can last a lifetime. In 59% of cases, these images are posted alongside private information such as full names, links to social media profiles, phone numbers and home addresses, leaving the subject open to a wide range of harassment, discrimination, stalking and violence.

Revenge porn victims suffer from severe consequences after having their private photos shared online.  One survey found that 93% of revenge porn victims reported significant emotional distress, and many experienced psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Victims can also experience major threats to their economic security. Their photos are widely accessible online and if co-workers or employers find the images, it may put their career in jeopardy. Many victims report losing their job after their pictures were discovered and some offenders will even send the photos directly to victims’ workplaces in an attempt to get them fired. These pictures may also complicate the search for a new job, since 80% of employers conduct web searches on potential new hires before an interview. A photo posted with identifying information may come up in search results, influencing employers’ hiring decisions. Some victims must also take drastic and costly steps to protect their safety, including changing their names, leaving their jobs or schools, or moving to new residences to escape pervasive harassment.

In states without revenge porn laws, victims may face staggering financial hurdles in their efforts to have their photos removed from the internet. Many victims have to rely on civil suits to attempt to receive compensation, and must hire a lawyer for a lengthy legal battle that may draw even more attention to the photos. Others may claim that they have a copyright over nude images that they took themselves, and send takedown notices to each website hosting their images, which may also require a lawyer to draft an effective letter. The cost of these legal services may be prohibitive for many victims. Even for those who can afford an attorney, winning a single suit or having one website take their photo down is not the end of the battle. Photos can be continually shared and reposted, making legal efforts to locate and remove the photos a process that can last years. This can exhaust a victim’s resources without any guarantee that the photos and the resulting harm and stigma will be gone for good.

Fortunately, the national climate around revenge porn is changing. States are rapidly implementing revenge porn laws that give victims a greater opportunity for justice and discourage perpetration, and sharing revenge porn is now a criminal offense in 23 states. Google’s new policy may also have a powerful impact in freeing victims from the fear that their images will pop up in web searches by employers, family, friends or romantic partners, particularly if other major search engines follow Google’s example. While the costs and consequences of revenge porn can be high, these changes provide hope that soon victims across the country will have the protections they need to take back control of their lives and keep revenge porn from damaging their happiness, safety and economic security.

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Student Domestic Violence Leads to Future Economic Insecurity

Recently, the conversation around campus sexual assault has drawn national attention to issues of campus safety. However, as Katie Baker at Buzzfeed pointed out last week, domestic violence on campus is often overlooked despite being as pervasive as sexual assault. Domestic violence can include sexual assault, but can also include physical, emotional, psychological or financial abuse. Women ages 20-24 have the highest lifetime risk of domestic violence, followed by women ages 16-19. A 2014 survey of dating college women found that 43% reported experiencing some form of abusive dating behaviors, with 22% reporting physical abuse, threats of physical abuse or sexual violence. Younger students are also affected: a new CDC survey found that one in five teen girls has experienced dating violence, as well as one in ten teen boys.

Students may be less equipped to recognize and report dating violence due to lack of experience with healthy relationships: around 57% of college students reported finding it difficult to identify dating violence. However, reporting and intervention is critical, since domestic violence among teens may cause long-term harm to educational and career prospects. As students in this age group are in the process of gaining an education that is essential for their future careers and economic security, domestic violence can be a severe barrier to success. Abusers may destroy their partners’ books or school work, or cause injuries that keep them from going to class. They may be emotionally abusive and discourage or attempt to stop their partner from pursuing certain goals. Adolescent girls in abusive relationships are also three times more likely to become pregnant than girls not in violent relationships, which can drastically affect their education and financial stability. Only 38% of girls who have babies before age 18 finish high school by age 22, and they earn $84,000 less during the first 15 years of motherhood than those who give birth at age 20 or 21.

These factors all combine to seriously impact the future earnings potential of a survivor. One ten year longitudinal study found that teen survivors of physical and sexual violence had poorer academic performance and lower academic attainment, which was linked to lower labor force participation, occupational status and income in early adulthood. While this study did not identify whether or not violence was perpetrated by an intimate partner, another recent study of low-income single mothers found that survivors of domestic violence that occurred during adolescence obtained significantly less education than their peers. Each year of education lost was associated with a decrease of $895 in earnings per year.

Although domestic violence among teens and young adults can have negative effects on their future, there are resources to help. Title IX protections, widely publicized for their role in campus sexual assault cases, also apply to domestic violence. Students can contact their Title IX coordinators for accommodations to keep them safe, such as adjusting their class schedule or switching their dorm room. Students may also be able to contact the police, pursue a disciplinary hearing against their abuser, obtain a protection order or access off-campus domestic violence services. However, for any of these resources to work, there must be increased awareness about what domestic violence looks like for young adults and what options are available. Better education is essential for students, families, and school staff and faculty to help recognize domestic violence and provide early intervention so that survivors can succeed academically and prepare for a bright future. WOW’s brief on Adolescent Survivors & Economic Security offers more suggestions on how service providers, justice system professionals, policy makers and educational institutions can better address the needs of teen and young adult survivors.

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The Fight for LGBTQ Economic Equality

There is a lot to celebrate this LGBT Pride Month. The nation is waiting to hear the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether or not same-sex marriage is protected under the Constitution, which could potentially strike a decisive victory for equal rights and extend marriage equality across the US. Regardless of the outcome, the fight for marriage equality has already achieved significant wins at the state level: 37 states and DC have marriage equality laws, protecting 71% of the population. Considering that no state allowed marriage equality prior to 2004, this rapid progress is a testament to the power of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Marriage can provide significant financial benefits to same-sex couples by giving them access to each other’s social security benefits, health insurance and pensions, and by allowing them to make joint decisions on financial planning and tax preparation.

However, there is still work to be done to ensure equality for LGBTQ individuals in areas such as employment, access to services, and judicial and police protections. Currently, only nineteen states and DC ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment (see map below), housing and public accommodations, with an additional three states banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. This leaves more than half the country without anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals. This discrimination can lead to harsh economic realities for LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately likely to live in poverty: single LGBTQ adults with children are three times as likely to be near the poverty line as non-LGBTQ singles with children, while LGBTQ couples with children are twice as likely to be near the poverty line as their non-LGBTQ counterparts.  Around 15% of transgender individuals earn less than $10,000 per year, compared to only 4% of the general population.

Source: Movement Advancement Project

These economic struggles complicate the experience of domestic violence within LGBTQ relationships. If survivors are reliant on an abusive partner for shelter, transportation, food and other needs, it may be extremely challenging for them to leave and start over independently. In 74% of cases, economic insecurity contributes to a survivor staying with an abuser for longer. Studies have found that the rates of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships are the same or higher than for non-LGBTQ couples. The National Violence Against Women survey found that 21.5% of men and 35.4% of women living with same-sex partners experienced physical domestic violence. This was higher than the rates for cohabitating opposite-sex partners, at 7.1% for men and 20.4% for women. Transgender survivors are almost twice as likely to experience physical violence in an IPV situation as other LGBTQ survivors.

In addition, LGBTQ survivors may face unique barriers towards accessing essential domestic violence services.  LGBTQ individuals may be wary of calling the police due to fear of discrimination or the possibility of dual arrest, in which both parties are arrested instead of a primary aggressor. A 2007 study found that dual arrest occurred in 27% of same-sex DV cases, compared to 0.8% of cases with a male offender and female victim, and 3% of cases with a female offender and male victim. In 2013, 20% of LGBTQ survivors were turned away from domestic violence shelters and 41.7% were denied access to a protection order.  These resources are particularly critical for economically insecure survivors, who may have few other options to protect themselves from abuse.

Clearly, while the LGBTQ community has made great progress, the fight for equality does not end there.  Policies should protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. There also needs to be an attitude shift towards LGBTQ survivors to recognize that they need the same protections from police, the courts and service providers. Wider Opportunities for Women offers more information about the unique relationship between violence and economic security for LGBTQ survivors as well as recommendations for how we can continue to make improvements.

 

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Connecting to a Lifeline: Technology and Survivor Safety

Access to technology like phones and the internet are critical for domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking survivors’ safety. Cell phones allow survivors to call law enforcement or an ambulance to the scene of a crime, which may stop that violent incident and start the path to recovery. They allow survivors to stay in contact with the criminal justice system, whether to cooperate with a prosecution, communicate about upcoming hearings or receive notification about an offender’s release. In addition, phones and the internet are primary methods for survivors to research and contact appropriate services in their community, including health care, child care, shelters, rape crisis hotlines and other survivor services that are specific to their unique needs like languages or disabilities. If survivors still live with an abuser or had to relocate because of violence, this technology may be even more necessary to stay connected to these vital sources of information and economic justice.

Technology is also essential to achieving economic security, which is directly linked to survivor safety and independence. Not only is reliable internet needed for job searching, it is also increasingly necessary to apply for such opportunities. Currently over 80% of job positions with Fortune 500 companies must be applied for online and over 60% of American workers use the internet for their job duties. Information and applications for training and education programs, benefit programs and other financial services are often only accessible online as well. Furthermore, one study estimated that the typical American consumer saves $8,800 a year by accessing bargains and comparison shopping on the internet.

Unfortunately, low-income survivors may not be able to afford this technology. They may have lost their jobs due to an abuser’s interference or they may be facing high health care, housing, childcare or other costs stemming from violence. An abuser may have destroyed previous cell phones or computers as a means of control and intimidation and the cost of replacement can be prohibitive, especially to replace a phone out of contract. Survivors who leave an abusive partner may be struggling to make ends meet on their own while no longer benefiting from the economies of scale that couples experience.

For these reasons, WOW recognizes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking steps this week to expand their valuable Lifeline program, which is currently helping over 12 million low-income American households pay their landline or cell phone bills. One of the new proposals before the FCC would allow broadband internet to also be subsidized for participants. To qualify, household income must be at or below 135% of the federal poverty line or they must take part in a federal assistance program such as Medicaid, TANF or SNAP. A preliminary vote  is anticipated in mid-June with a final vote possible by the end of the year.

Survivors and service providers may also benefit from programs such as Verizon’s Hopeline, which collects cell phones and accessories and donates them refurbished to domestic violence organizations for survivors. However, although technology may be essential for survivors to access services and achieve independence, it can also be used as a tool by abusers to control, harass and stalk survivors. Advocates and survivors should be aware of resources such as the Stalking Resource Center’s Use of Technology to Stalk website and course and NNEDV’s Technology Safety Plan Guide to help protect survivors against abuser manipulation of these tools. 

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Improving Women’s Health Requires Fully Addressing Violence

The first thing most people think of when asked about the economic cost of abuse is health care. This is not surprising considering the enduring stereotypes – the image of a domestic violence victim with a black eye and broken arm or the rape victim going to the ER after being attacked by a stranger. This immediate focus on health care costs is also not without good reason: intimate partner violence (IPV) results in two million injuries for US women every year and medical costs ranging from $2.3 billion to $7 billion within one year of violence. Consequently, women experiencing physical abuse faced health care costs 42% higher than non-abused women.

It is essential that women receive affordable, quality treatment for these health costs so that they may remain safe and economically secure, which means looking beyond the stereotypes to address every aspect of health-related impacts, including the following.

  • Mental health care: Whether survivors experience depression, anxiety or PTSD, mental health needs can be just as costly and impactful as more visible physical needs. They may also affect survivors’ ability to maintain their jobs and care for themselves or their families.
  • Long-term health care: Health care costs continue to be 19% higher for survivors than for non-abused women even five or more years after physical violence. Mental health needs, especially for sexual assault survivors, may also take years to appear, long after survivors are eligible for crime victim compensation (CVC) or other financial assistance. In addition, trauma from domestic and sexual violence often leads survivors to engage in other risky behaviors, such as abusing drugs or alcohol and unsafe sex, with far-reaching consequences on their health.
  • Access to health insurance: In order for survivors to weather the added costs of physical and mental health care without falling into dangerous economic insecurity, they must have adequate health insurance. However, survivors may receive insurance through their abusive partner, which complicates their decisions to leave or seek treatments that their abuser could find out about. Survivors with employment-based insurance may be at risk of losing it if their jobs are in jeopardy from an abuser targeting them at work. Survivors may also be suffering abuse or harassment at the workplace in order to keep their jobs and health insurance.

This week is National Women’s Health Week and WOW is thrilled that “Talk to my doctor about any domestic or interpersonal violence” is a recommendation for every age and that mental health is a priority. Considering the immense impact of violence on health, it is critical that doctors have the training to respond to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Rather than checking off whether they asked about domestic violence, they should be able to recognize the signs of each form of violence and take appropriate action, such as by directing survivors to mental health professionals and community resources. Adequate and supportive policies are also needed at every level. Health care professionals, direct service providers and policymakers should account for the importance of health insurance for survivors’ economic security and the added complications that survivors may face in acquiring or accessing it. In addition, policies should address the long-term and diverse health impacts of violence. For example, survivors would benefit from having access to CVC funds long after the crime itself and insurance coverage for contraception or STI treatment that may be needed following reproductive coercion or sexual assault.

National Women’s Health Week is a good start towards a great mission, but until the proper training, infrastructure and policies are in place, a simple annual check-up is not going to significantly address the health-related consequences of violence.

 

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Looking Beyond Campus Sexual Assault

The stats are alarming. Nearly 15 percent of American women are victims of rape. And girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than the general population. With these statistics, it is understandable why prevention efforts often focus on college-aged women, especially considering high profile sexual assault cases including the Columbia University student who has garnered national attention for carrying her mattress around campus and the recent spring break gang rape in Panama City, Florida. New resources and efforts have emerged to combat violence on campuses. The White House’s new initiative, “It’s On Us”, seeks to raise awareness and engage the community to take a stand against sexual assault. The recent FY16 budget proposed by the Obama Administration included a $14 million increase in funding for campus violence programs while sexual assault programs as a whole were budgeted at $3 million less than in FY15. These campus prevention and response efforts are clearly necessary and warranted, but it is important that they don’t diminish resources directed toward survivors who do not fall into the population of young women in college.

A recent report from the US Department of Justice, Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013, found that nonstudents were raped at a rate that was 1.2 times higher than students. And there are other differences. Rural nonstudents experience much higher rates of rape than rural students – 2 times higher. And while women aged 18-24 have the highest rates of sexual assault of all age groups, the remaining 62.6% of rape survivors were under 18 or over 25 years of age at the time of their assault.

SA Chart 2013Young women aged 18-24 who are nonstudents will likely have few resources and be less economically secure than their peers in college. Women with a high school diploma earn an average $21,968 a year, which is 72% of the income needed to be economically secure. The physical and psychological care, new safety measures and other resources needed to move forward and recover from violence are often out of reach for those who are economically insecure. Furthermore, those in the workforce with lower incomes – especially women and minorities – also often lack the necessary workplace protections such as sick leave so that they can attend to their safety needs.

Rural survivors also face challenges to safety and economic security due to geographic isolation, absent or deficient resources, and depressed economic opportunity. Not only are rural women more economically insecure than their urban peers, they have less access to critical victim services. While survivors on campus access to basic health services on campus and support services as required by Title IX, in rural parts of the country such services either don’t exist or require survivors to travel significant distances for help. In a survey of rural prosecutors, two-thirds report that there were no rape crisis services in their jurisdictions and that 62.5% lacked trained sexual assault nurse practitioners.

These survivors need adequate resources and supports so they can move forward and recover from violence. While the attention and resources that campus sexual assault is receiving is necessary and welcome, it shouldn’t be at the expense of or overshadow the needs of other survivors. As this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month concludes, we mustn’t forget the other victims of sexual assault.

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