Teen Dating Violence Panel
Esta Soler speaks during the Teen Dating Violence panel at the Rayburn House Office Building on February 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.  Kris Connor—Getty Images

A Veteran Campaigner Reflects on 20 Years of Fighting Domestic Abuse

Sep 09, 2014

Esta Soler, a veteran crusader in the fight to protect women and children from domestic violence, has a saying that "movements are made of moments." One such moment came 20 years ago, when the media firestorm surrounding the OJ Simpson murder case lent urgency to Congress's efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. And now, as the U.S. prepares to commemorate two decades since the VAWA’s historic passage, so it is again. At least, so the president of nonprofit Futures Without Violence hopes.

Over 30 years ago, Soler, a leading expert in violence prevention, founded the San-Francisco based organization the Family Violence Project (later renamed Futures Without Violence), which was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Over the years, the organization has led educational efforts, worked with lawmakers, and trained law enforcement on how to better address the issue of domestic abuse. On Tuesday, Soler joined Vice President Biden and many others in commemorating the work that has been done since the VAWA's passage in 1994.

But the fact that the day's headlines have been dominated by the dismissal of running back Ray Rice from the Baltimore Ravens for knocking his now-wife unconscious strikes Soler as moment to reflect on unfinished business. “We’re celebrating 20 years since the passage of the act,” Soler tells TIME. “And a lot of good has happened in that time. But this is a stark reminder of how much we still need to do."

Much has changed in the 20 years since the Violence Against Women Act became law, with incidences of domestic abuse becoming markedly less frequent. Between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence declined by 67%, according to a White House fact sheet. The rate of women being murdered by men in single victim/single offender incidents has also fallen, by 26% between 1996 and 2012, according to a new report from the Violence Policy Center.

That's partly because there's a new openness among women and men to address incidences of violence at home. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has received over 3 million calls since 1996, and 92% of callers admit it’s their first call for help. In the late 80s and early 90s, when Soler was working to launch a nationwide campaign using the slogan there's "no excuse" for abuse, "domestic violence was called a domestic dispute,” she says. “People just excused the behavior.” Passing VAWA, she says, “was a statement that this country and our policymakers were taking the issue of violence against women seriously... For me, that was the main victory.”

But Soler knows there's work still to be done. For proof, she needn’t look much further than the initial response of the National Football League to Rice's beating of his wife. Though the running back was released by the Baltimore Ravens following the video leak, he initially received a two-game suspension—a softer punishment than players who have violated drug policies have received. And while two players, the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy and the San Francisco 49ers Ray McDonald have been arrested (and in Hardy’s case, convicted) for domestic violence, both joined their teams on the field last Sunday.

The movement to continue the fight to protect women and children from violence—and more importantly, keep it from happening in the first place—may have found another moment, Soler says. But it's not enough to be reactive about such incidents. “While it’s important that we have a strong response system in place once something horrible happens, on the other hand it is not just ok for us to wait for something to happen,” says Soler. “We need to figure out more effectively how to stop this. And be super aggressive about that.”

In an interview with TIME ahead of the 20th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, which is coming up on Sept. 13, Soler laid out 6 things the nation can do right now to address the issue.

Confront College Sexual Assault

“I’m an optimist, and I do believe that violence is learned and you can unlearn it. The fact that we’ve been able to have a real impact on the problem [of domestic abuse] is really significant. The moment today is the crisis we now find ourselves facing on our college campuses. There’s an epidemic of sexual assault on our college campuses. The movement about what is happening is the activism—the student activists of today that are grappling with this problem. Demanding action, demanding better responses to cases once they happen. But also not waiting for a rape to happen. That’s what we need to do now with the Violence Against Women Act, really extending to a programmatic response so that our college campuses are safe.

Bring Young People into the Equation

The Violence Against Women Act and a lot of the work that we’ve done has focused on adults. We need to do a better job for our young people. Most of what we’ve done over the last 25 years is building shelters and rape crisis centers and changing the way our law enforcement and our judiciary responds to these issues, but at the end of the day we’ve got to start much earlier. We’ve got to start with our middle school and our high school kids and give them the tools so that they can have healthy relationships, so that they can go to college and not worry about the fear that they’re going to get raped or sexually abused. And we have to heal our kids. So many kids are still growing up in homes and neighborhoods where they’re seeing violence. You learn violence; it becomes a pattern. We have to interrupt it.

Stand Up to Rape Culture

There’s a crisis of social norms that’s allowing this really bad behavior to exist, but I am somebody who really believes that a cultural norm—if it’s addressed appropriately and comprehensively—can be shifted. There are programs out there that work and we need to make sure that every campus has it. That people understand what consent is. That people understand that it’s not ok no matter what state anyone is in to do this—that the behavior is bad. We have to reintroduce that. We have to take the rape culture down, and I think we can do it. But we can’t do it by having one 15-minute session during orientation week on the first week somebody arrives on college campus. That doesn’t work.

Bring Men into the Conversation

We’ve been a driver of bringing men into this conversation, starting in the late '90s. After doing some market research, we realized that when we talked to men, men felt divided and not guided into our conversations. The language we used was basically saying you’re either a perpetrator or a perpetrator in waiting as opposed to somebody who is not and also wants to do something right about this. So that’s when we created a national campaign called “coaching into men,” that ended up being a program later that showed conversation men could have with their sons and their daughters about the issue. In partnership with the National High School Athletic Coaches Association we created a program to really deal with the culture of bad relationships, but more importantly find ways to give young men the tools to create healthy relationships. So that when they see something bad they feel that they have the power and the strength to say, stop it. It’s not ok.

Hold Sports Organizations Accountable

It’s important that, like every workforce, every institution that has these problems [be it] the NFL [or] the NBA, grapples with the problem of violence against women in a highly responsible way. Players are seen as role models for the next generation. Our athletes are revered in our society and it’s really important that we give them the tools so that they don’t get in trouble. At this point I think the athletic associations are really grappling with these issues, particularly with the recent incident with Ray Rice and the NFL. The NFL needs a comprehensive program to address violence.

Keep Talking About It

Before the 1980s, we did a count. There were about 150 articles in major newspapers about the issue of domestic violence. In the decades of the 2000s, there were over 7,000. Yes, there are challenges—there are always going to be challenges—but we have support in so many different corners where people are actually trying to figure out how to deal with this. The story isn’t buried somewhere, it’s on the front page. Schools are talking about it. Congress is addressing it. The White House is acting on it. At the end of the day, this isn’t just about what government does. Governmental actions are critical, but you need the private sector and private persons to really push things through.

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