By Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter, Safe Havens' Co-Director
Imagine that it’s 1980, and your good friend, Shauna, is in love with Darryl. It used to be great, but now Darryl tells Shauna who she can talk to, what she can say, what to do, and even what to think. He controls the money and what Shauna is allowed to buy. Darryl has even separated Shauna from her family and friends and calls her many times a day to make sure she is where she said she would be. Not to mention the name-calling, insults, and threats she is hearing all the time. You even suspect that Darryl might sometimes strike Shauna, and you can see that the children are terrified.
For many generations, and even in the 1980s in some places, there were no words for Shauna’s experience. There were only euphemisms, like “stormy relationship” or “love-hate relationship.” People said, “opposites attract.” People said the challenging times were a “cross to bear” or a “test.” They said, “you made your bed, now you sleep in it.” Many people said “what happens behind closed doors is none of our business.” No one knew how to help. There were no domestic or sexual violence hotlines, no shelters, no advocates, no services, no information, no words to describe the tragic circumstances faced by Shauna and by survivors of domestic and sexual violence everywhere.
Before the advent of the grassroots domestic and sexual violence movements in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1995, this frightening and dangerous nightmare was the everyday reality, not only for Shauna, but for millions of people (most of them women) across the United States and around the world. These grassroots movements as well as the Violence Against Women Act gave us the language to describe coercive control, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, dating violence, elder abuse, and stalking. VAWA also provides funding to support training and technical assistance for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges as well as services such as hotlines, advocates, support groups, shelters, and legal aid.
These services could be really helpful to Shauna. In fact, with each re-authorization, VAWA is expanded to touch the lives of more survivors. This year, the LGBTQ+ and Native American/Alaska Native communities are more fully included in VAWA support and safety. VAWA funds have consistently been used to undermine the racism, ageism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred that can increase abuse.
VAWA has to be re-authorized every 5 years, and you can imagine how thrilled I was when it was re-authorized on March 14, 2022. And I was even more thrilled to receive an invitation to the White House to celebrate.
March 16, the day of the White House celebration, was a beautiful, warm, sun-drenched Spring day in Washington, DC. The tulips and magnolias were splashes of color, and the cherry blossoms were well on their way. It was a day filled with hope and inspiration as I walked into the White House. Just to walk in the footsteps of Presidents and world leaders and to see rooms and hallways that you have only seen on the nightly news is impressive.
And it only got better. President Joe Biden, who wrote the original VAWA (in 1995), spoke movingly of how his father taught him that “abuse of power” is the worst sin of all. He was eloquent in his insistence that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and human dignity. He strongly stated that there is no excuse for abuse. He thanked everyone who has worked tirelessly to provide services for survivors, to enact justice, and to bring about the re-authorization of VAWA. As President Biden has said in the past, we are “doing God’s work.”
Despite the hopefulness and wonder of a visit to the White House, I am not naïve. I know we have a long way to go. I know that there are still courtrooms without justice, police who trivialize abuse, college campuses where sexual assault happens with regularity and impunity, faith leaders who counsel survivors to “pray harder,” and communities that lack basic services. I also know that we have barely begun to unravel the hatreds and “isms” that are often used to excuse abuse.
However, I am old enough to remember Shauna’s nightmare scenario in 1980, and that also means that I am old enough to know that things are better post-VAWA in 2022. I have experienced a shift in community norms and services for survivors of abuse, so I know that change is possible. Working together, and in partnership with our local service providers and advocates, I know that we can continue to empower survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent abuse in the next generation.
This is the hope I live in and into. As Spring breaks, the natural world re-awakens in the Northern Hemisphere, and the three Abrahamic religions celebrate Ramadan, Passover, and Easter almost in unison, let us all re-commit ourselves to bringing safety, hope, and justice to survivors of abuse. It is my prayer that the world we pass down to our children and grandchildren will be a world in which hatred and abuse are unthinkable, in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and in which there is truly “no excuse for abuse.”