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Violence Against Women Act: Why is Progress Stalling On the Fight Against Rape, Violence, and Domestic Abuse?

Last week, President Obama signed the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act into law. The new law expands protections from sexual and domestic violence to more groups and funds training for police and for judges, strengthening the criminal justice system's response to crimes against women. The legislation, combined with increased police awareness regarding rape and sexual abuse, has seemingly been somewhat effective in dealing with sexual violence against women.

According to a new report by the Justice Department, sexual violence against women and girls age 12 or older fell 64% in the last ten years. However, the rates have remained stable for the last five years. Even while rates of violent crime have steadily decreased, rates of rape have stopped declining. According to the report, "Rates declined from a peak of 5 per 1,000 women in 1995 to 1.8 per 1,000 women in 2005. The figure remained unchanged from 2005 to 2010."

Women and girls across the country experienced 270,000 rapes or sexual assaults, compared to 556,000 rapes or sexual assaults in 1995, according to a survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to women’s equality and ending sexual violence against women, sees the Justice Department’s findings as proof that the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act is having an impact on the level of sexual abuse against women and girls. "We have a ways to go," Smeal pointed out. "It is clear there is still too much violence and too many are fearful to report it."

The report does much to dispel common myths about sexual abuse. For instance, the report debunks the idea that once a victim of rape or sexual abuse reports the crime, the attacker will apprehended and punished. According to the report, "Out of the 283,200 annual average rapes or sexual assaults in the period from 2005 to 2010, only about 12 percent resulted in an arrest. That was for both incidents reported to police and those that were not reported." This low figure is not due to false rape reports, as the actual rate of false rape reports is only around 2-4%.

The report also sheds light on the commonly held assertion that women and girls are often attacked by strangers. The study found that women are much more likely to be attacked by someone they know. In 2005-10, 78% of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend, or acquaintance.

From 2005 to 2010, women who were age 34 or younger who lived in lower income households or rural areas experienced some of the highest rates of sexual violence, the report found.

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