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Domestic violence in the spotlight

Contributed Local Girl and Boy Scout troops led the "Taking Steps Against Domestic Violence" walk that took place Tuesday in Alexandria. Organizers of the event deemed the walk a success and said it was a record-breaking year with nearly 290 participants, who ranged from infants to senior citizens.1 / 4
Al Edenloff | Echo Press Members of the Alexandria Sertoma Club, along with other volunteers, carried silhouettes and teddy bears representing the numerous women and children who died last year in Minnesota as a result of domestic violence.2 / 4
Al Edenloff | Echo Press Cheryl Thomas, this year's guest speaker at the 10th annual Domestic Abuse Awareness Luncheon, is an attorney and director of the Women's Human Rights Program. Her presentation included information about domestic violence laws in other parts of the world.3 / 4
Al Edenloff | Echo Press Alexandria Sertoma Club members, along with other volunteers, carried in teddy bears to represent the number of children who died last year as a result of a domestic violence situation.4 / 4

Did you know that in some parts of the world it is perfectly acceptable for a man to beat his wife?

There is the belief out there that if a man hits his wife, she must've done something to deserve it; and, that it is not the job of the government to step in and do anything about it.

There are some parts of the world where there are no services for domestic violence victims; no shelters; no 24-hour hotlines for a victim to call for help. Nothing.

In some parts of the world there are no laws to protect victims of domestic violence; there are no orders for protection. Nothing.

But Cheryl Thomas wants to change those beliefs. She wants to work with other countries to develop laws that would help to protect the victims. She wants services and shelters and hotlines and protective orders for those who are beaten and broken.

She wants advocates to help victims of domestic violence feel safe again.

Thomas, an attorney and director of the Women's Human Rights Program, was the guest speaker at the 10th annual Domestic Abuse Awareness Luncheon that took place Wednesday at Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria.

The luncheon was presented by United Communities Advocating Non-Violence (UCAN), and held in conjunction with other events to honor October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Thomas has provided consultation and training to government officials, legal professionals and civil society groups in Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Bosnia and Morocco on best practices in legal reform on violence against women.

In 2005, a new law was developed in Bulgaria that helped victims of abuse to obtain an order for protection from their abusers, noted Thomas.

In one year's time, she said, there were approximately 1,000 orders obtained - that's nearly three per day.

The law basically states that victims, who are in immediate danger, can go to court without a lawyer and obtain an order for protection - free of charge.

The law has been in effect in the U.S. for decades but in some countries it's a new concept.

Thomas shared a story from her time in Bulgaria. She said there was a case of a man who always beat his wife, but yet when authorities arrived, the man was always gone. In one of the last assaults, the couple's 14-year-old daughter decided to step in and come to the defense of her mother.

The father broke the teenage girl's skull.

But because of the new law, authorities were able to order the man to stay away from his wife and his family because they had an order for protection against him.

The family, said Thomas, has been living safely for months now.

Thomas worked with the people of Bulgaria for seven years before that law was passed. It was a long process, but it was worth it.

Thomas shared other stories where laws that were finally passed helped those who have been in abusive situations.

But it doesn't always work, she said. Just because laws are in place is one thing, but they also have to be implemented in order to be effective. In addition, the laws should be reasonable.

In the United Arab Emirates, for example, a man can beat his wife and his family as long as he doesn't leave a mark.

Despite how slow change may come about, laws are important, noted Thomas.

"We need to inspire each other and not give up in the face of the discouraging stories," she insisted.

Thomas talked about how the first shelter for victims of domestic abuse in the world was opened in St. Paul in 1972.

She also said that numerous places in the world are modeling anti-domestic violence laws after laws that were developed right here in Minnesota.

Thomas shared the story of how representatives from the country of Georgia, including those with governmental authority, visited Minnesota in 2005 and experienced how the justice system in Minnesota works. The participants rode with police officers and visited the criminal courts to watch how abusers are punished in Minnesota.

In 2006, Georgia passed its own laws regarding abusers and within a short period of time, 300 orders for protection were obtained.

"We must address domestic violence and violence against women," said Thomas. "Laws can only be accountable when there is collaboration and communication with community members."

Thomas stated that there should be a universal truth that violence is never acceptable, excusable or tolerable.

Domestic abuse should no longer be brushed aside, she said.

Currently, Thomas is working with women in Morocco who have taken a stand against domestic violence to develop laws that would help victims. Laws are going to be introduced yet this fall into parliament and if they pass, she said it would be the first type of law in an Arab nation.

She shared the story of women in Kazakhstan who started a shelter seven years ago only to have it close due to lack of funding two years ago. She had been working with the women for years to develop some type of law and finally, in 2009, a law passed to help victims of domestic abuse. The law may have been weak, she said, but nonetheless, it was a law.

"They [the group of women] are determined and proud and ready for the fight ahead," she said. "They are ready to make it work for the women of the country."

Thomas said that women have a right to be free from violence; they have a fundamental right not to be victims of abuse.

She said it is time for everyone, everywhere to take a stand.

Thomas ended her presentation talking about the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who was a powerful advocate for the rights of domestic violence victims.

She said a person once asked Wellstone, "Paul, why are you on fire?"

His answer, "Because I have so many mountains of ice ahead of me to melt."