April 10, 2006 – Local activists, sorority members and organizational heads took a step toward women's advocacy Monday by challenging members of the Legislature to take a definitive stance against domestic violence and sexual abuse.
At a forum called "Women's Day at the Legislative Hall," sponsored by the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the Legislature, many speakers also highlighted the need for more women to get tested for diseases ranging from cancer to HIV, and discussed how the voices of women could rise to the forefront of society, instead of being stifled by some cultural norms.
"In our territory, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault or abuse are criticized," said Sandra Hodge-Benjamin, director of the Family Resource Center. "They see someone who is in an unhealthy relationship, and they say 'Why isn't she getting out?' or 'Why is she staying?' But they never stop to think that many victims can't get out because they know that by saying something, they're putting themselves at risk of something happening to them or possibly to their children."
Hodge-Benjamin said that in a society where there are many single mothers and an ever-increasing cost of living, a majority of women are still depending on men. "Women have needs, and these needs create opportunities for victimization," she said, explaining that more women have to get educated about sexual assault and violence before they are seriously injured or killed.
While Hodge-Benjamin also lamented the fact that many community leaders have stayed "silent" on issues relating to assault and violence, Dr. Iris Kern, executive director of the Safety Zone on St. John took a more direct position.
"Why aren't we outraged that these things are happening?" Kern asked the mostly female audience, who scribbled down questions or nodded their heads in agreement. Kern said more government leaders, police officers and judges should offer support to victims of assault or violence by providing counseling or by taking a more proactive role when searching for and convicting perpetrators.
Kern told the story of a client who had been raped, but who did not receive support from local law enforcement officials. "In this case, the police did nothing," Kern said. "And that's what I'm talking about. When are we going to say that it's enough? It's really hard for those individuals who have been raped, to be raped by the system as well. So, when we're talking about helping women, helping people, we really have to also stress that we're all in this together, that we all have to work collaboratively to protect one another."
Kern said the number of sexual assault, domestic violence and abuse cases has increased dramatically since last July, pulling the number of incidents reported on St. Croix up to 7,000. The numbers on St. Thomas and St. John also rose, though not as drastically as on St. Croix, with 700 and 300 cases respectively.
Kern said to bring these numbers down, community members would have to bring in "outside help," and that educational programs dealing with assault and violence should be provided to women and perpetrators.
She said judges could help in this situation by mandating that perpetrators receive counseling if they are convicted of these types of violence.
Women should also be more educated about the prevalence of the HIV/AIDS virus in the local community, said Ivy Moses, founder of Helping Others in a Positive Environment. Also a panelist at Monday's forum, Moses referred to HIV as a "silent killer" that affects individuals who've contracted the disease in a "severe, tragic and dismantling way."
"And the Virgin Islands government has gone years without paying appropriate attention to the disease," Moses said. She explained that community leaders could provide more funding for AIDS awareness, education, testing and treatment – especially since many residents stand a high risk of being infected.
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry added to Moses' remarks by saying that the local Health Department "has thousands of dollars in unobligated funds for HIV prevention."
Berry said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently sent a letter stating that at the end of Fiscal Year 2005, Health had not obligated $157,444 or 25 percent of the funding awarded to the department by the federal government. "And this is not in any of their [Health's] financial reports," she said after the forum.
Berry, who sponsored Monday's event, was also on hand to field bill proposals from many of the forum's presenters, who asked for legislative support in creating numerous community outreach programs and designating a month to promote "healthy eating, healthy lifestyles and healthy hearts" in an effort to reduce the number of cases of heart disease among women.
Panelists also said community activities would warn residents about the dangers of such things as smoking and obesity, along with the prevalence of cancer, diabetes, hypertension and various sexually transmitted diseases in the territory's female population. Outreach services would also stress the importance of prevention, which includes getting regular screenings, tests and checkups.
Wrapping up the presentations – and adding to the forum's proactive atmosphere – Barbara Petersen of the League of Women Voters reminded audience members and panelists that one of a woman's "greatest rights" is the right to vote.
"We have a powerful voice here," she said. "In the St. Thomas-St. John district, 52 percent of registered voters are women, while only 48 percent of registered voters are men. So we all have to make a concerted effort to get out there, inform ourselves about the issues and support other women in the community so we are not underrepresented when it comes to leadership positions."
She said, "I just wish I weren't preaching to the choir here," eyeing the group of women attending the forum. "Because we really need everyone to come together and change things."
Sens. Roosevelt C. David and Liston Davis also attended Friday's forum.
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