Human Rights Watch Responds to Data on Violence Against Women; New Initiatives to Spot Abusive Dating Behavior

By Christine Cupaiuolo — January 6, 2009

Recent stories and new government statistics provide an alarming snapshot of violence against adolescent girls and women.

The 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey, which was made public in December, shows domestic violence increased by 42 percent and sexual violence by 25 percent over 2005 figures.

Human Rights Watch reports that the survey indicates that at least 248,300 individuals were raped or sexually assaulted in 2007. In 2005 the figure was 190,600. The projected number of violent crimes against women committed by intimate partners increased from 389,100 in 2005 to 554,260 in 2007. The survey is conducted every two years.

The survey’s authors say the new numbers reflect more accurate methodology, not an increase in gender-based violence. Regardless, a committed response to the epidemic of violence against women is long overdue.

HRW offers some specific suggestions for the new Obama administration:

  • The Obama administration should appoint a special adviser on violence against women in the US;
  • Congress should restore full funding to the Office on Violence Against Women;
  • The Department of Justice, through the National Institute of Justice, should authorize comprehensive studies that more accurately track sexual and domestic violence in the US, especially among individuals who are least likely to be surveyed by the National Crime Victimization Survey;
  • Congress should increase funding for sexual and domestic violence prevention, intervention, and treatment programs;
  • Congress should amend the federal Debbie Smith Act, a grant program designed to eliminate the rape kit backlog, but that states can and have used for other kinds of DNA backlogs;
  • The US should ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which obligates states to prevent, protect against, and punish violence against women.

In other news, The New York Times on Sunday reported on increased efforts to identify the warning signs of dangerous dating behavior among teenagers and young adults.

“We are identifying teen dating abuse and violence more than ever,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, who does research on abuse in teenage dating relationships.

The story references a number of state initiatives, some prompted by high-profile murders:

Texas recently adopted a law that requires school districts to define dating violence in school safety codes, after the 2003 stabbing death of Ortralla Mosley, 15, in a hallway of her Austin high school and the shooting death of Jennifer Ann Crecente, 18, two years ago. Rhode Island in 2007 adopted the Lindsay Ann Burke Act — prompted by the murder of a young woman by a former boyfriend — requiring school districts to teach students in grades 7 through 12 about dating abuse.

New York recently expanded its domestic violence law to allow victims, including teenagers in dating relationships, to obtain a restraining order against an abuser in family court rather than having to seek help from the criminal justice system. Legislators were moved to act after a survey by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that dating violence had risen by more than 40 percent since 1999, when the department began asking students about the problem.

Although there are no definitive national studies on the prevalence of abuse in adolescent relationships, public health research indicates that the rate of such abusive relationships has hovered around 10 percent. Experts say the abuse appears to be increasing as more harassment, name-calling and ridicule takes place among teenagers on the Internet and by cellphone.

The story also notes that calls to the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474) and visits to its website,, doubled in November over the previous month. The help line was launched in November 2007.

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