Legislation Aims to Aid Victims of Rape and Abuse More Funding and Stronger Penalties Would Help Stem Growing Rate of Violence against Women, Many Say

Article excerpt

THE 6 percent increase in reported rapes in the United States last year, recently announced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, shows what people like Sharon Vardatira, director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), have known for a long time: Reports of violence against women are increasing.

According to the committee's report, more than 100,000 women reported rapes to the police last year, a nationwide record, and the rate of sexual assaults is increasing four times faster than the overall crime rate. Even more startling is the increase in rapes reported to rape crisis centers, where women call for confidential counseling and medical and legal assistance.

This term, Congress may have the opportunity to help stem what is perceived as a growing tide of violence against women on the streets and in their homes. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, with 35 co-sponsors, recently introduced the "Violence Against Women Act" into the House of Representatives. This legislation is similar to that reintroduced in January, (after failing to pass last term) by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the committee that issued the report. Key provisions of the legislation would:

- Strengthen penalties for rape and spouse abuse.

- Provide $300 million for local law enforcement efforts to combat sex crimes.

- Triple funding for battered women's shelters.

- Provide funds for rape crisis centers.

- Target $25 million to increase lighting and emergency services in public areas.

- Educate state and federal judges about domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender bias.

- Make "gender-based" assaults a violation of federal civil rights laws, allowing victims to sue for civil (monetary) damages.

The Senate and House bills are currently in committee, where hearings will be held before the bills come before the houses for member votes.

"We're totally thrilled with this legislation. It's way past due," says Ms. Vardatira at BARCC's headquarters, a modest room full of donated furniture and postered walls in Cambridge, Mass. Rape statistics are difficult to obtain, she explains, because rape is a crime that often goes unreported. Only 3.5 to 10 percent of all rapes are reported to the police, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. …