They spent Valentine’s Day together in Sofia, Bulgaria. The women and men came from Serbia’s Autonomous Women’s Center and the Children’s Forum of Latvia; Macedonia’s Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women and the Supreme Court of Hungary, and dozens of other organizations and agencies concerned with domestic violence. They also came from Minnesota: This international conference was sponsored by the Minneapolis-based The Advocates for Human Rights.
In the most wide-ranging domestic violence conference ever held in the region, government and nongovernment officials, police officers and judges in attendance represented a total of 29 Eastern European, Central European and former Soviet Union countries. They met Feb. 12-14 for a history-making event: the sharing and gathering of information about the successes and challenges each has experienced in their groundbreaking work reforming their countries’ legal systems for domestic abuse victims.They brought home knowledge gleaned from the experiences of other nations doing the same work to safeguard women’s most basic human right: the right to be free of domestic violence.
If you think a conference like this is full of dull legalese, bureaucrats posturing, jockeying for position and turf wars about who did something first or best, think again. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Cheryl Thomas, director of women’s programs for The Advocates for Human Rights (The Advocates), which has been working internationally to end domestic violence since 1992. (The organization was formerly called Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.)The countries in attendance at the three-day Regional Conference on Domestic Violence Legal Reform were eager to learn from each other and to share their own experiences. “It’s absolutely amazing to watch the change happening,” Thomas said. “Inspiring to watch history being made.”
The conference, which The Advocates sponsored in association with the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation, came after 15 years of work in Bulgaria and across the region to establish a legal framework to help women protect themselves and their children from their batterers.
Changing the landscape
Cheryl Thomas travels the world, saving lives. No, she’s not a doctor or a research scientist, but her portfolio of work includes domestic abuse laws enacted throughout the world, laws that save women’s and children’s lives, laws that she was instrumental in enacting. Thomas wants it understood, though, that the legalese is just a piece of what is needed.
Thomas explained, “You can’t just pass a new law; you have to have laid the groundwork. Different players in the community have to own it, have to be invested in change, talking to each other about how it works. People have to be behind it: They have to [agree with] what the language is. Judges have to know if the law, as written, will work. Advocates have to know how it will affect victims,” Thomas said. She emphasized the importance of a coordinated community response modeled on the one originated in Duluth, Minn. “Police, shelters, judges-everyone was around the table, working to change laws in a victim-centered approach.” It is, she said, a model used worldwide.
Thomas lit up when she talked about how the landscape of international women’s human rights has changed in the years since she started working on the issue as a volunteer. “[In 1992], there was a great deal of attention focused on women’s rights as human rights,” Thomas said. “Working on violence against women was a big part of a global movement.”
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According to The Advocates Executive Director Robin Phillips, in an email sent from the conference, “Today, the participants were jumping out of their seats to share successes in their laws, police practices, shelter development and public education. Many shared stories about how our research provided the basis for their law reform efforts and our trainings gave them the technical expertise to draft, pass and implement their laws.”
In 1992, none-not one-of the countries represented at the Feb. 12-14 conference had such a law on the books. “They were where [the U.S] had been 20 years before,” Thomas said.
That is, nowhere. There were no shelters for women, no domestic abuse hotlines. No orders for protection or legal sanctions for abusers. There was little to no legal recourse unless an abuser killed his victim. It was this reality that Thomas and other volunteers from The Advocates, often literally paying their own way, stepped into.
The organization’s Women’s Program, initially called “The Domestic Violence in Eastern Europe Project, ” began in 1993. Their first trip, in 1994, was to Romania. “Staff paid for half the trip ourselves,” Thomas said. “A lot of that still goes on. It is very difficult for us to raise money for international women’s human rights and harder, still, for the countries themselves to raise money for it.”
One of the first nations to enact a domestic violence law was Austria, whose representatives were present at the conference to talk about lessons learned since 1997, when the country implemented its pioneering order for protection (OFP) law. An OFP is a court order designed to protect a victim from physical abuse.
Though the nations are, in some ways, in the infancy of women’s human rights, things are changing fast, said Mary Louise Klas, a retired Ramsey County judge who just came back from the Sofia conference. “Things are happening more quickly than they did in the U.S.,” Klas said.
On the other hand, Bulgaria, one of the first Eastern European counties to enact OFPs, did some in 2005, after working with The Advocates for nearly eight years to make it happen.
Both Klas and Thomas cited the example of the Republic of Georgia in explaining the warp speed at which change is occurring. “Georgia is a perfect example,” Thomas said. “In 2007 they passed their first domestic abuse law, establishing Orders for Protection (OFP). Previously victims had been left to suffer; there was little prosecution unless it was a homicide. The ‘low-level’ domestic abuse women endured-battering, bruises, pushing, cutting, maybe a broken arm-was accepted. Not anymore. In the first seven months of the law, almost 400 OFPS were granted.
“Lives are being saved. Now women have a remedy.”
But the Georgia law didn’t happen overnight. The Advocates began working with Georgians in 2004; the committee drafting the OFP legislation visited Minnesota for two weeks, draft legislation in hand. Along with The Advocates staff and volunteers like Klas, the Georgians met with sitting judges and prosecutors; participated in ride-alongs with police; sat in Hennepin County court sessions, and met with child protection workers, advocates, and shelter staff. And then Klas and staff attorneys from The Advocates helped the Georgians shape their draft into a law that would save lives.
Klas, who intended to slow down some after her retirement from the bench, instead found herself reinvented as an international advocate, helping countries establish fledgling legal systems to combat domestic violence. She doesn’t see that she had any choice. “Women and children are dying,” she said. A longtime volunteer with The Advocates, Klas has been on six international trips with the organization.
Without a doubt, progress would be even faster if there were more funding for domestic abuse prevention. One of The Advocates’ volunteers is in the thick of raising funds to help that change happen. Marlene Kayser is both a grassroots volunteer who’s traveled to Macedonia to survey citizens and professionals about domestic violence and a high-powered fundraiser who builds relationships and spreads the word about the The Advocates’ work. Kayser, just back from Romania (like Klas, on her own dime), holds parties and luncheons for opinion leaders featuring, as she puts it, “[Cheryl Thomas’] dog and pony show.” This year, Kayser’s friends have to pay to attend her birthday party; she’s celebrating her 70th with a fundraiser for The Advocates, and the Kayser family will match the money raised.
While Kayser’s fundraising is aiding the implementation efforts in the region, these efforts still face major obstacles. Although laws are passed and enthusiasm is high, the financial shortcomings are daunting. Often The Advocates doesn’t hear about new developments because the governments and NGOs are stretched so thin that they lack the resources to spread the word about their good news. And sometimes the news isn’t so good, such as the shelter that closed last year in Bulgaria due to lack of funding, leaving just one existing shelter in a country with a population of 8 million.
But even the lack of funding seems surmountable to those who are making change happen. According to The Advocates Executive Director Robin Phillips, in an email sent from the Sofia conference, “It is thrilling to see the impact of our work and the incredible progress made in this region! As one participant said so powerfully, ‘This work is all about saving the lives of women and children, and it is happening here.'”