Tag Archives: Violence

Pennsylvania is Failing Women

By Kate Michelman and Sue Frietsche

So much for Pennsylvania as the birthplace of freedom and democracy. A report last month from the Center for American Progress offered some alarming statistics about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the way   it treats the six million or so women who live here, assigning us a “C-” grade, and ranking our state 28th of the 50 states on women’s rights.

In fact, a quote from the report reads, “Pennsylvania stands out as one of the states that is among the worst in the nation for women. Across 36 factors of economic security, leadership, and health, Pennsylvania ranks 28th in the nation for how women are faring. This illustrates the long path ahead before women in Pennsylvania can get a fair shot at achieving economic security, reaching success, and living a healthy life.”

It goes from bad to worse in the report, whether it’s the fact that we scored a “D+” on economic factors for women (e.g., the 76 cents we still make to every dollar a man makes or the fact that 15% of us live in poverty), a “D” in leadership (our entire Congressional delegation contains one lone woman, and we hold less than 37% of the managerial positions in the state despite being 52% of the population), or a “C” in health (there is only one OB/GYN for approximately every 20,000 women in the state, we have the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the country, and our lawmakers are making it as difficult as possible for women to get reproductive health care).

It is beyond dispute that when the women of Pennsylvania do well, their families do well, their children thrive and communities prosper. That is reason enough for Pennsylvania to start climbing up from the bottom rungs of the 50 states.

But there is an even better reason, and simply put, it’s that Pennsylvania women deserve an equal shot at a good life. They deserve a state where they are treated equally at home, at work, and at school. They deserve a seat in the boardroom and at the table of government. They deserve a chance to live and work safely, with dignity – even when they’re pregnant or raising a family. They deserve the basic economic security essential to getting and staying healthy. They deserve the freedom to decide whether or not to have children in accordance with their beliefs, not under the boot of other people’s politics or religion.

So what can you do? Read the report, get motivated and do something about it. Get involved by getting smart about who you’re electing (or not electing) into office. Become an educated, vocal participant in exercising your civic duty, whether it’s visiting your legislators, writing letters to the editor, helping out at the polls – whatever inspires your civic passion. Above all, make your voice heard by voting, because Pennsylvania badly needs you in order to get back on the right track for our state’s women.

We’ve made great strides in the last 50 years, but a report like this shows we have miles to go. The women and men of Pennsylvania need to unite to effect real change for women, whether it is access to healthcare, economic security, or freedom from violence. And we need to pick up the pace while we’re at it. It’s simply taking too long to reach a place of true equality.


Kate Michelman is co-chair of WomenVote PA, an organization that educates, engages, and mobilizes Pennsylvanians to make equality a reality for women. She is also president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.”

Sue Frietsche is a senior staff attorney in the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Economic Justice, economic security, Family Violence, Health Care, Pennsylvania, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Violence Against Women, Voter turnout, women voting, Women's health, Women's Law Project, women's rights, WomenVote PA, working mothers, working women

Problematic “Stand Your Ground” Law: Does It Protect All Florida Citizens Equally?

By Nora Kenty, WLP Summer Intern

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, celebrities, pundits, and bloggers have all been commenting on Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which takes self-defense beyond the usual confines of one’s home. The Florida statute states: “A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself [...].” The statute, similar or identical versions of which are shared by 30 other states, is not only controversial due to its extended definition; it seems to be applied in a highly discriminatory way, as evidenced by a 2011 case in which an African-American woman in Florida was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the presence of her abusive husband. 

In July of 2010, Marissa Alexander felt she was in great danger when her ex-husband, Rico Gray, became enraged, tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her. She fled to the garage, retrieved a gun, and fired a single warning shot into a wall inside their home. She later said, “I believe when he threatened to kill me, that’s what he was absolutely going to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.” The judge, however, believed that re-entering the house was not consistent with someone in fear of their life, and the jury took only 12 minutes to decide on the 20-year prison sentence for the mother of three.

In both Alexander’s case and the more recent Trayvon Martin case, there have been complaints that the “institutional racism” inherent in Florida and its laws is to blame for the controversial decisions, which both display a significant bias against African Americans. Considering some of the details of Alexander’s case—she had no prior criminal record, did not kill or injure anyone with her warning shot, and was fleeing a lethally abusive man who had previously gone to jail for his violence toward her—a 20-year prison sentence certainly seems unjustified.

The Florida statute has not been found to be unconstitutional in its definition of self-defense. What is problematic is how the law is being applied, and the fact that those needing protection are unable to use the law to get it. This is not the first time a law’s interpretation has had a disproportionately negative effect on a specific minority group or class of women. Unfortunately it has happened before, and in our own state of Pennsylvania. Municipal ordinances governing rental properties punished victims of abuse who called the police on their batterers more than three times in one month. A woman in Norristown named Lakisha Briggs was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend, who hit her with a brick and stabbed her in the neck with broken glass. But Briggs had already called the police on her boyfriend twice in the past month, and they said one more incident of what the ordinance classified as “disorderly behavior” would be grounds for her eviction. So she bled on the floor rather than get kicked out of her home, and was eventually hospitalized. The ACLU successfully challenged the ordinance, but many municipalities across the country still enforce similar laws that disproportionately impact victims of domestic abuse.

The stories of Briggs, Alexander, and Trayvon Martin serve as a reminder that in many cases, our legal system punishes the victims of crimes, rather than placing the blame on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is only one example of the many unjust laws and ordinances that exist. With such laws coming under increased exposure and scrutiny, perhaps reform efforts soon will yield more fairly enforced legislation.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, profiling, racism, Violence Against Women

Stop Sexual Assault in the Military

By Hillary Scrivani, WLP Law Intern

When a woman signs up to serve her country in the U.S. military, she should expect to be honored and thanked for her service.  What she should not expect is to become part of the enormous group of women who are sexually assaulted in the military each year.  According to a survey released by the Pentagon, there has been a significant increase in the number of servicewomen who were sexually assaulted in 2012 from 2010.  The survey estimates that 6.1% of servicewomen were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 4.4% in 2010.

This systematic atrocity that is taking place in the U.S. military has captured the attention of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held a hearing regarding these issues on Tuesday, June 4, 2013.  At the hearing, senators–including female senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Kay Hagan (D-NC)—questioned U.S. military chiefs about the military’s inadequate handling of sexual assault cases.

In response to this problem, Senator Gillibrand introduced a measure that would require the more serious assault prosecutions in the military to be taken out of the chain of military command.  However, many military leaders do not think that the decision to prosecute and the handling of these cases should be taken out of the military chain of command.  Many senators agree with this line of thinking, as the bill was recently rejected by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It is expected that Senator Gillibrand will attempt to revive her measure in the fall.

A bill written by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, which would require a review if the commanders entrusted with prosecuting sexual assault cases elect not to prosecute them, and would make retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault a crime.

Additionally, the House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday, June 14, 2013, that would “strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial, establish minimum sentences for sexual assault convictions, permit victims of sexual assault to apply for a permanent change of station or unit transfer, and ensure that convicted offenders leave the military.”

The problem of sexual assault in the military, and the military’s poor handling of sexual assault cases, is not getting better: indeed, measured by survey released by the Pentagon, it is getting significantly worse. A bold new policy is needed to eradicate the culture that tolerates the sexual abuse of servicemen and servicewomen. There is no excuse for maintaining the status quo when the number of assaults of men and women who risk their lives to defend our country keeps increasing each year.

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Filed under Military, military women, Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

PA Superior Court Hears Argument on Insurance Claim of Domestic Violence Arson Victim

By Susan Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

Q.: What’s worse than having your house burned down by your abusive spouse?

 A.: Finding out your insurance company won’t cover the damage.

On April 2, 2013, the Women’s Law Project presented oral argument to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Lynn v. Nationwide Insurance Company, a case of first impression involving the insurance claim of a domestic violence survivor whose abuser intentionally set fire to their house.

At stake is the continued vitality of a 2006 Pennsylvania law (referred to by the Women’s Law Project as the “Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act”) that requires insurers to pay the claims of innocent co-insureds when their property is deliberately destroyed by an abusive partner. This statute was passed after a ten-year lobbying effort by dozens of domestic violence advocacy organizations led by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Terry Fromson, Managing Attorney of the Women’s Law Project. The passage of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act was part of a larger initiative to fight a host of insurance industry practices that disadvantaged or endangered domestic abuse survivors, described here.  The trial judge in the Lynn case misinterpreted this statute to require insurers to pay the property claim of a domestic violence survivor only when the claimant can show that the insurer’s reason for denying coverage was because of discriminatory animus against domestic violence victims—a showing that is virtually impossible to make.

In the Lynn case, a woman drugged her two children, left her husband an angry suicide note, and set fire to the family home with herself and her children inside it. She did not succeed in harming herself or her children, fortunately, but the house was damaged, and the woman is currently incarcerated for these offenses. When her husband filed a claim under their homeowner’s policy, he was turned down, and among the grounds for its denial of the claim, Nationwide cited a clause in their contract that excludes coverage of damage caused by the intentional acts of anyone insured under the policy. As applied here, this intentional act exclusion essentially blamed the victim for the wrongs the abuser committed.

On appeal from the trial court order holding that Nationwide did not have to pay the husband’s claim, an all-female Superior Court panel (Judges Bowes, Donohue, and Mundy), sitting at a special session at the Beaver County Courthouse in western Pennsylvania, heard argument from attorney Gary Davis, representing the appellant Brian Lynn, and from Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, representing the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and two dozen other Pennsylvania non-profit organizations that serve domestic violence survivors. To read the amicus brief, click here.

If the lower court’s opinion is permitted to stand, the impact on domestic violence victims will be devastating. One of the primary reasons abuse victims cannot get out of violent relationships is economic: they face destitution if they leave. Permitting abusers to leave their victims homeless will make it very difficult for survivors to put their lives back together. It also violates the plain language of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act, a statute specifically adopted to avoid this very injustice. The Superior Court may issue its ruling at any time.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Insurance Discrimination, PA Superior Court, Pennsylvania

New York Times Reports on Dating Violence in Young Teenagers

Nikki Ditto, WLP Intern

An article published last week in the New York Times addresses the problem of dating violence among young teenagers, including those who have not yet entered high school. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, teen dating violence remains a significant problem, and the behaviors can begin to appear in teens as young as eleven and twelve.  

Studies that emerged over a decade ago showed that the group most at risk for dating violence and sexual assault was girls age 16 to 24. This report helped to increase funding and prevalence of programs aimed to educate teenagers about healthy relationships. While these programs have made an impact, reports show that they may not be starting early enough to catch the dangerous behaviors before they start.

A study conducted in 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed 1,430 seventh graders from eight middle schools across the country. The study found that three-quarters of the students had been in a relationship. One in three had already experienced psychological dating violence, and one in six had experienced physical violence.

Thankfully, this information has encouraged the development of new programs and resources that provide early intervention and instruction. These programs target middle school students, as well as their parents, in the hope that they can teach warning signs and good decision making early. While the reports and the new early intervention programs recognize that males and females can be both the abuser and the abused, women and girls are still disproportionately the victims of dating violence.

Psychologically and physically abusive relationships that begin in the early teenage years can cause long-term patterns of abuse that continue into adulthood.We discussed the adverse health effects of intimate partner violence in our report, Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women. While the report focuses on adult women, teenagers are at risk as well.

The New York Times article was released as Congress debates reauthorizing VAWA. This is the first time since the bill was passed in 1994 that reauthorization has been challenged, and support has been divided along party lines. In this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the age limit for participants in programs funded with federal grant money has been lowered to eleven. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also given $1 million grants to each of 11 schools nation-wide in order to establish programs in middle schools that educate students about healthy teen relationships. More than ever, funding and education are needed to help to stop intimate partner violence, and protect and provide services for victims.

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Filed under Girls, Violence Against Women

Women’s Law Project Releases Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women

The Women’s Law Project (WLP) released today a major report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, linking sex bias to adverse health outcomes in women.   The release of this report coincides with National Women’s Health Week (May 13-19th), during which time organizations around the country are raising awareness about the benefits of the health care law.

Inspired by the public debate on health care, WLP embarked on an examination of the relationship between the sex bias that women experience and their health, resulting in the publication of Through the Lens of Equality.  “As familiar as we were with ongoing bias and discrimination against women and with data on critical health measures for women, our in-depth examination of the linkage between the two truly shocked us,” said Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project.  “The focus is on Pennsylvania, however, the finding and recommendations have nationwide application,” she added.

“For all of the years that I have been involved in women’s rights and women’s health care, I have never seen the connections between health and equality more dramatically demonstrated that it is in this report,” said Kate Michelman, former President of NARAL Pro-Choice America and long-time Pennsylvania resident who served as a consultant to this project.

Through the Lens of Equality examines the health impact of sexual and intimate partner violence, caregiving responsibilities, poverty, and bias in the workplace, school, and health care.  The report delves into the politicization of women’s reproductive health care and shows how women are harmed by limited access to abortion, contraception, and maternity care.  It repeatedly points to the importance of implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) to expand access to better health care for women, while acknowledging the ACA’s serious gaps, including not mandating abortion coverage.

“This is not a publication about diseases, but instead an exposition of how biased environments in which women live, work, study, and receive health services are infected with outdated notions about women’s role in society which in turn have negative health consequences for them,” said Amal Bass, staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project.

The publication also provides a series of recommendations tailored to both overcoming sex bias and improving women’s health.  “Numerous targeted interventions well beyond improving access to insurance through the ACA — are necessary to cure institutional and individual prejudices about women,” said Terry Fromson, Managing Attorney of the WLP.  “Failure to do so will result in significant inequitable and avoidable health problems for women,” she added.

Through the Lens of Equality acknowledges the impressive strides that have been made in women’s rights over the past fifty years, but shows that past victories are not enough.  “Looking to the future requires insistence on equal treatment, equal access, and equal opportunity to achieve not just healthy women, but a healthy society,” said Susan Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney

The Women’s Law Project is a legal advocacy organization based in Pennsylvania.  Founded   in 1974, its mission is to create a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives.  The Law Project engages in high impact litigation, public policy advocacy and community education.   Through the Lens of Equality is available at http://www.womenslawproject.org/NewPages/wkTLE_Base.html.


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Filed under Domestic violence, Economic Justice, Education, Employment, Equality, Family Planning, Family Violence, Gender Discrimination, Health Care, Reproductive Rights, Sex Discrimination, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Violence Against Women, Women's health

Monica Henry: Women and Girls Still Bear Brunt of Domestic Violence

Recently, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett wrote a guest post for WeNews which cited Mary Straus’s research findings that women and men tend to instigate violence in roughly an equal number of domestic violence instances.  Monica Henry, who holds a master’s degree in gender and peace building and has served as a domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and elder abuse victim advocate for the Quileute Tribe since 2006, wrote a response to Rivers and Barnett’s article, finding flaws in Straus’s research methods and emphasizing that the kinds of violence women and men usually instigate do not equate.

Rivers and Barnett stated that “surveys of U.S. households have found rates of wife-to-husband violence “remarkably similar” to those of husband-to-wife violence.  And an early cross-cultural survey did not find that men were significantly more aggressive than women.”  However, Henry takes issue with the data they cite, noting several critiques of studies showing similar rates of violence committed by women and men that Jack C. Straton, Ph.D. noted in his article “The Myth of the ‘Battered Husband Syndrome.’”

Straton, in critiquing studies Straus co-authored in 1980, said that researchers used a “set of questions that cannot discriminate between intent and effect.  This so called Conflict Tactics Scale (or CTS) equates a woman pushing a man in self-defense to a man pushing a woman down the stairs.”  The studies also “excluded incidents of violence that occur after separation and divorce, yet these account for 75.9 percent of spouse-on-spouse assaults, with a male perpetrator 93.3 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Department of Justice,” and did “not include sexual assault as a category although more women are raped by their husbands than beaten only.  Adjusting Straus’ own statistics to include this reality makes the ratio of male to female spousal violence more than 16 to one.”  Numerous other critiques of the study can be found within Straton’s article.  Henry also notes that “[t]he survey’s finding is also based on claims of innocence by friends and family members on behalf of the accused. [However,] [t]here have been several cases where the accused admits to committing domestic violence or sexual assault and family and friends continue to deny it simply because they can’t handle the thought that their loved one could commit such an act.”

While Rivers and Barnett noted that women usually suffer more severe injuries than men in instances of domestic violence, Henry gives more detail to illustrate the severity of the disparity.  She states that “[a]fter analyzing the results of the U.S. National Crime Surveys, Straton writes that ‘sociologist Martin Schwartz concluded that 92 percent of those seeking medical care from a private physician for injuries received in a spousal assault are women.  That same study shows that one man is hospitalized for injuries received in a spousal assault for every 46 women hospitalized.’”  Henry ends her article by stating that “I am very aware that there are male victims of domestic abuse and I strongly believe that we need to provide them with support…I am also aware that people sometimes make false accusations.  But neither of these facts should be used to minimize the degree to which girls and women take the brunt of household violence.”

To learn about efforts to end domestic violence in the U.S. and what you can do to help in the effort, visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence website.  You can learn about what the Women’s Law Project has done to “improve system responses to violence against women” here.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Violence Against Women