The point is not that we need fewer organizations providing important social services for victims of violence against women and children. The point is that we need to create many more organizations that are free enough of restrictive funding to reignite the feminist fight and fire.
This guide is for anyone who wants to work to end violence against women and children. It's for those who want to strike out in new directions, forge new strategies, advocate without compromise, confront the patriarchal roots of the violence, and be independent of government funds. It's for those who don't have access to big money. It's for advocates who have done this work before but who feel restricted by the current crisis center models. And it's for individuals who have never done this work, but who are burning to reignite the movement to end violence against women and change the world. And most especially, this guide is for those of you who have asked us to put together a few tips from our own experience establishing a low-budget, independent, activist center to end violence against women.
Whatever your ideas for advocating for individual victims or communities, and for securing non-violence and justice, we hope you consider the advantages and power of breaking out of the mold and of staying as independent as possible.
Part 1 of this guide explains why we believe there is an urgent need to reinvent independent advocacy and activism to end violence against women. Part 2 lays out some practical nuts-and-bolts tips from our own experience getting started as an alternative, independent feminist center. Our hope isn't that you'll necessarily copy what we've done. Rather we hope you'll see that it can be done, that it needs to be done, that you can do it in many ways, and that you can make a difference with minimal resources.
In addition to reading this text, we urge you to look around at the variety of other groups that have struck out on their own, in diverse directions, independent of constricting government funds. Here are just a few you can google: INCITE!, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Mujerescreando, Arte-sana, Ruralwomyn, Women and Girls CAN, etc.
We also highly recommend a recent paper by Women and Girls Collective Action Network titled Communities Engaged in Resisting Violence. It provides more in-depth and varied views on some of the related issues we only touch on here.
Part 1 ~ Why it's so urgent to reinvent independent advocacy and activism to end violence against women:
1. Because there is a need to break out of the restrictive funding that has frozen the violence against women movement in place.
Over the last 15 years, the U.S. violence against women movement has become increasingly embedded in the very institutions we most need to change. The feminist rape and domestic violence centers of yesterday have become morphed into the quasi governmental service agencies of today. The influx of federal funding with its many strings attached, combined with big budget hungry programs, are trends that are crippling our capacity to advocate effectively for victims' rights and to get at the root causes of the violence. There's no question that the current system of rape and domestic violence centers is accomplishing a huge task of providing some much needed services to literally millions of women. But the often restrictive requirements of big funders, especially government funders, combined with the compromising liaisons many centers have entered into with powerful patriarchal systems, in particular the justice system, have frozen the movement in place, institutionalized it, and stripped it from its roots in a feminist movement for social change.
When advocates and the agencies they work for are contractually bound to these government systems, as most are today, it becomes nearly impossible to apply the pressures needed to make those systems change. Sometimes abruptly and sometimes imperceptibly over time, advocates and programs that aggressively fight for women's rights have been weeded out, defunded, terminated, retaliated against, disciplined, or are no longer brought on board in the first place. Not the least of the consequences is that victims of violence against women turn to these centers believing they will have an advocate who is fully free to fight for her rights, completely unaware they are relying on someone whose paycheck is tied to the system's approval and control, someone likely to be fearful of stepping on toes.
In short, the violence against women movement has become involved in a profound conflict of interest between the goal of securing women's rights and the desire not to lose jobs and funding. The leading edge of the struggle to end violence against women has been blunted. The once vibrant feminist movement to end violence against women has been reduced to endlessly mopping up the human debris left in the patriarchy's wake.
The point is not that we need fewer organizations that can provide important social services. The point is that we need to create many more organizations that are free enough from restrictive funding to reignite the feminist fight and fire.
2. Because there is an urgent need for the many communities of women who have been left behind to establish their own programs to better meet their needs and philosophies.
The needs of women of color, rural women, poor women, prostituted women, immigrant women, women with new ideas; the needs of women who are doubly marginalized one way or another, are too often pushed to the back burner in the current rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. Even when individual staff within these centers are sensitive to these needs, they're often hamstrung by the center's policies and programs that have been designed from day one around what works for middle income white women. The biases are already hard wired into the structures of these programs, making the established practices very difficult to change from within. It's a task made even more difficult by the fact that the government funding and large foundation funding these centers depend on usually dictate program structures that maintain the status quo.
For example, an immigrant community may feel that budget money would be better spent hiring interpreters or providing transportation, rather than on maintaining a 24 hour crisis line. But if funding and historical mandates of the existing center require a 24 hour crisis line, there is very little flexibility in that system to make the change. Or, a center whose funding and policies have set a priority on counseling services, is very unlikely to get behind street demonstrations to pressure the police to stop participating in immigration raids so Latina victims won't be afraid to report rapes.
Rates of violence against women are highest among women who have the least resources to escape it. Yet it's those same populations of women whose needs are most chronically unmet by the current system of crisis centers. Common sense alone says it should be the other way around. Center resources should be concentrated on the needs of those women and communities most oppressed by the violence. It's crucial to continue insisting that existing rape and domestic violence shelters make the deep structural changes needed to properly serve all women. But it's also urgent to develop new forms where marginalized women can establish control of their own programs now.
For more information on the critical frustrations that women of color staff are experiencing in the established rape and domestic violence centers see Call to Action Statement 2008, by Women of Color Advocates and Activists.
For structural changes we felt needed to be made to better serve the Latino community in our county see, Improving Services and Outreach to the Latino Community
3. Because there is an urgent need to create models and strategies that can function effectively on low-budgets.
It's usually true that the more money you have the better. It's also true that most women's groups in low income communities, as well as women's groups in all income communities, encounter many obstacles to generating big funding support. And Its also true that big funders, particularly government funders, are unlikely to fund projects that set out to rock the boat even a little, let alone fund programs that set out to foment radical social change. And ending violence against women, more than anything else, is going to require ongoing, widespread, radical social change.
So there is a great need for new strategies and structures that can be effective on a small budget. It's also important that strategies and programs be created that can be adapted by the vast majority of the women of the world who live in poor communities and countries; women who cannot begin to think of recreating the models of rape and domestic violence shelters currently in vogue in the US.
Moreover, big budgetary requirements, in and of themselves, can sink you. Just knowing you have to keep up the feeding of a budget hungry program inevitably ties you to conservative forces, corrals you into safe agendas, makes you too watchful of stepping on toes, and of shouting out the all important truth to power.
The good news is that there are many ways to promote social change on minimal funds, and many more yet to be invented. One woman we know used nothing more than a telephone, a robust organizational name, and well designed letterhead. Back at the time when sexual harassment in schools was barely a blip on the radar, her well placed letters to public officials on behalf of victims did much to push the community to respond in more enlightened ways.
At the same time, it's also important to compensate the women who do this work as best as possible. So the goal is twofold, i.e., to be able to raise adequate funding while avoiding a dependence on restrictive funding.
For some excellent and thought provoking factsheets on funding facts for women's organizations see "Where is the Money for Women's Rights"
4. Because there's a need to develop new organizational forms that better fit the unique features of women's oppression, so all women can participate.
Women have understandably adopted many of the organizing structures and tactics that have worked most successfully for other oppressed groups. But women's oppression itself is structured very differently from that of most other oppressed groups. Many otherwise effective organizational methods in one setting don't fit women's condition well enough to allow all women to join in the struggle for her liberation.
For example, women aren't pressed together in ghettos, colonies, nor on reservations as are most other oppressed groups. Quite the opposite, women's oppression around the world is marked by the critical absence of 'women space' and of women controlled institutions. Women don't have their own neighborhoods, their own churches, or any other of the natural gathering places that make for the easy, ongoing retreat together needed to sustain organization. Just getting together requires a first step of creating the space anew again and again. We need to continue to create women's institutions and place. But we also need new organizational strategies that don't depend on place at all. The internet is one great development in this regard. But even here, unless guarded by high security, women's cyberspace and forums are constantly under attack and intrusion by men.
Or another example. Unlike most other oppressed groups, women's work is never done, and it's the kind of work that intrudes unpredictably into whatever else she may have scheduled. Women the world over have near full responsibility for taking care of the world's children and elderly, and for the upkeep of nearly every house on the planet, without compensation, and on top of whatever other job she has. This is unjust, of course, and a huge part of women's oppression. But it's also something that has to be factored into organizing strategies so all women can participate. We need organizational strategies in which women can participate together, but without having to be anchored into a time or place.
Women's child rearing responsibilities also means women need strategies that are at once bold and revolutionary, and, at the same time, safe enough for a baby. Women will always put their children's safety and stability first. No matter how much many women want to foment social change, they won't participate in activities that threaten their children's physical or emotional well being at home, at school, or at play. Women need strategies that are safe enough for the kids.
These are just some of the unique realities of women's condition that should guide a search for new strategies. We certainly didn't solve this particular set of problems at Women's Justice Center. But we lay it out here in hopes that you will.
5. And the main reason it's urgent to reinvent independent advocacy and activism is because the violence against women rages on virtually unabated.
There's no question that there have been significant gains over the last 40 years. For one, the silence has been broken. And, to one degree or another, in the US, as in nearly every country of the world, a specialized body of legislation has been created to respond to and redress violence against women and children.
But the problem is far from solved. The violence against women, and all its devastating social consequences, rages on virtually unabated. Even in the US, there is little indication that violence against women and children has decreased significantly. Homicide rates are probably the most accurate indicator of where we stand. In February 2008, Senator Joseph Biden, a lead author of the U.S. federal violence against women legislation, boasted that in the 14 years since 1994 (when the act was first passed), domestic violence homicides of women in the US have decreased by 22%. But even this apparent gain is brought into grim focus against the fact that in the same time period the overall homicide rate in the US went down by over 40%. Clearly, the underlying forces driving violence against women are resistant even to the powerful social factors which led to the dramatic decrease in all other homicides.
Between the lofty sounding new policies, laws, and rhetoric on the one side, and any true implementation of real power to end the violence, there is a huge void of societal will. Responses to violence against women are still governed by male dominated institutions and attitudes that too often condone and collaborate with the violence rather than condemn and stop it. We are stuck at what a year 2002 Washington state investigation of domestic violence homicides so aptly named, "the meaningless processing of cases".
The story in countless other countries around the world is much the same and worse. Under the stresses of disappearing resources, war, racism, and environmental degradation, women, children and their rights are ever more the victims of violence, brutality, and impunity.
There is a great need to create organizations that are not caught under the thumb of the very patriarchal institutions that perpetuate this violence; organizations that are free to make effective, radical demands for change, free to experiment with new forms, and flexible enough to engage the energies of many more women.
Go To Part 2 ~ Getting Started:
First Steps, Decisions, and Notes