April 2, 2013, 11:41 am – By LUISITA LOPEZ TORREGROSA
WASHINGTON — Just as the pressing call for an end to violence against women resounds around the world, it is also making itself heard here in Washington.
In the past month, the U.S. Congress passed the expanded Violence Against Women Act it had held up for a year and a half, and, separately, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, went to war against sexual assault in the U.S. military, holding the first Senate hearings on this staggering problem in nearly ten years.
“We have 19,000 sexual assaults a year happening,” she said, “and only a small handful of perpetrators being prosecuted.” Until now sexual violence in the military, where one of three victims are women, has gone largely ignored, with a small fraction of cases reported and only 10 percent going to trial.
But the Gillibrand hearing turned the spotlight on the victims and gave the senator a platform to spread the word. The hearing came at a crucial time for the Pentagon which had just ended its ban on women in combat and was grappling with sexual harassment cases and rapes at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Outside Capitol Hill, in the beehive of women-centered nonprofits like Vital Voices Global Partnership, the drive to end violence against women has been moving at varying speeds and with varying degrees of success, as I write in my latest Female Factor column.
Few activists and officials engaged in the battle can match the firsthand experience prosecuting domestic abuse and rape cases that Cindy Dyer, the vice president for human rights at Vital Voices, brings to the front lines.
She is straight out of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” tough, bold and street smart, a real-life advocate, investigator and prosecutor of sexual crimes against women. Tall and brassy, a straight-shooter from Waco, Texas, she has taken on impossible assignments for nearly 20 years.
Soon after she came out of Baylor Law School, she joined the district attorney’s office in Dallas and got a no-win assignment as a specialized domestic and sexual violence prosecutor. Back in the early 1990s, cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Dallas were dirty secrets kept under a lid in the back streets of the poor and in the secluded mansions of the wealthy. They rarely saw the light of day in the courts.
But Ms. Dyer, who was a weekly hotline volunteer for nine years at a shelter for battered women in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, became a criminal justice pioneer, prosecuting cases that been tossed out or ignored by the court system.
Judges dismissed cases out of hand, Ms. Dyer said in a recent interview in Washington. “The judges insisted it was a waste of time,’’ she said. “One judge said to me, ‘Why send him to jail for beating a piece of trash?’ ”
She soon found out that “the hardest crime to combat is the most common: it is domestic violence.” It happens in the privacy of the home and victims are usually afraid to press charges.
But she received a grant from the federal Office of Violence Against Women and began to mount a methodical campaign to build up public sympathy in Dallas, especially among influential and wealthy women, mostly wives and mothers.
She had a plan. In Texas judges are elected and therefore need voters, so she got the Dallas “ladies who lunch,” as she calls them, to attend court hearings in groups wearing badges declaring themselves “Victims Advocates.” Judges took notice. They didn’t want to lose the votes of those women. Prodded by Ms. Dyer, they began accepting cases and trying them.
Ms. Dyer began to travel to cities like Chicago, Brooklyn and San Diego, talking about violence against women and her special unit in Dallas and her court victories. She also trained other prosecutors and worked on new regulations to strengthen the laws and procedures.
She did this for 13 years. In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed her to direct the Office of Violence Against Women in the Justice Department in Washington.
She did some international work on violence against women and found the same problems in Africa that she had faced in Dallas. She decided to focus on international work full time and joined Vital Voices in 2008 after an interview with the co-founder of Vital Voices, Melanne Verveer.
Today, five years later, Ms. Dyer has a staff of 45, works with NGOs worldwide and with governments to make sure they enforce laws or enact measures to protect women’s rights.
Looking over different regions, she said Brazil and Jordan had made major progress, but places with ongoing or recent armed conflict prove most intractable, like Congo and Cambodia. “Mexico is also difficult because of the drug wars and corruption in law enforcement,” she said. “Egypt was doing better for women before the revolution of 2011. Now they are focused on other things, not on advancing women.”
(Her remarks about Brazil preceded the horrific news that an American woman had been gang-raped and held hostage over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro.)
Her priority is her lifelong mission: the fight on violence against women and human trafficking. And her field? “Our field is the world.”