From the tall windows on the 17th floor of the Zions Bank Building, you can see practically every grout-stained, whitewashed rooftop in downtown Boise. From that height, even the State Capitol seems diminutive. But Feb. 26, advocates from across the Gem State gathered to discuss a problem that's oversized, even in such a grand setting: the fight against domestic battery and sexual assault.
As part of a national tour in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, Bea Hanson, principal deputy director in the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, swung by Idaho to talk about what's new with VAWA and the law's expanding horizons.
"Idaho is at the forefront of an emerging multi-disciplinary approach to violence against women," Hanson said.
The multi-disciplinary approach includes expanding services to at-risk women establishing new statewide legal protections, and attempts currently underway to raise Idaho's minimum wage, which some advocates say will give more women the financial independence to leave abusive relationships.
$71 million in VAWA funds have been received by Idaho nonprofits, governmental agencies and tribes in the fight against domestic abuse and sexual assault. Since 1995, $5.7 billion in funds have been disbursed nationwide, and Hanson told the audience that "finding answers to the problem of domestic violence and assault are a priority" for the Obama administration.
Director of the Coeur d'Alene Tribal STOP Violence Program Bernie LaSarte said that on some reservations, the rate of sexual assault is near 100 percent. In 1995, LaSarte's sister was killed in a domestic violence incident. Today, the fight against these kinds of crimes is personal.
"I cannot say how grateful I am to provide funding," she said.
When Idaho Supreme Court Justice Daniel Eismann began practicing law, however, domestic violence was a "non-offense." New laws and sophisticated advocacy programs are now changing how such crimes are investigated and prosecuted—and how their victims are cared for after the fact.
VAWA's 2013 reauthorization helped restore tribal authority to prosecute sexual violence, protect immigrant women and extend its purview over the LGBT community, but according to U.S. Attorney Wendi Olson, "We need to learn to understand the lived experience" of people affected by violence.
Following a press conference, Hanson talked to Boise Weekly
about problems particularly affecting the Boise community, and said that new funds and efforts by advocates can address violence earlier, help people pursue healthy relationships and extend support to marginalized populations. She also discussed the massive underreporting of sexual assaults
on college campuses.
"It's a huge issue and there's a lot of work to be done," she said.
Talk about rape culture and a growing national discussion about sexual assault on college campuses are functions of new and better information coming to light about the extent of the problem. According to Hanson, "We're just counting [sexual assault] better."