Ensuring Justice for Women Through Policy: The Georgia Women’s Policy Institute

By Katie Singh, Advocacy Intern, YWCA of Greater Atlanta

Ending gender-based violence requires work on multiple fronts, including public policy. Having laws in place that support victims of violence can empower them to obtain justice, health, and safety. Including women in the legislative process is crucial to ensure that these types of policies are put into place. Policies are stronger when they reflect our voices, experiences, and perspectives. When women’s voices are part of the narrative, incredible change can happen.

This is why, for five years, the YWCA of Greater Atlanta’s Georgia Women’s Policy Institute (GWPI) has been empowering Georgia women to become a part of the policymaking process. Each year, GWPI welcomes a class of women from diverse backgrounds to receive training in leadership, advocacy, and civic engagement.  GWPI fellows meet over the course of one year for education, team building, and hands-on learning, as they work collaboratively on a real world policy project that impacts the lives of women and girls in Georgia.

The work of our GWPI Fellows has resulted in real policy change for women in Georgia. Take, for example, the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act, a bill that the Georgia General Assembly passed into law this year. Georgia has had a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits for many years. The issue gained prominence after an investigation from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that large numbers of rape kits stored in hospitals that had never been sent to law enforcement even after the victims requested that the kits be tested. As the AJC pointed out, failing to test the rape kits meant that victims may have “undergone an invasive, grueling rape exam for nothing.” Without law enforcement testing the kits, not only did perpetrators likely go unpunished, patterns of serial rapists may have been missed, leaving the public at risk. To correct this, the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act, introduced by State Rep. Scott Holcomb during the 2016 legislative session, requires law enforcement to pick up rape kits within 96 hours when the victim requests it, and calls for a statewide report on the number of kits in storage. This bill was a crucial step to protect the health and safety of women, and that’s why last year’s GWPI fellows took on this issue as their real world policy project, and set off to work on helping the bill pass.

As the legislative session approached, GWPI fellows prepared by researching, analyzing, and creating a plan of action to mobilize support for the bill. Throughout the session, they met with legislators, testified in committee hearings, organized support from other advocates around the state and raised public awareness about the legislation with their call to “count the kits and make the kits count.” Though the bill faced some opposition and its passage came down to the wire, in the end, their hard work and diligence paid off: in March of 2016, the bill passed both chambers of the legislature just before the last day of the session, was signed into law by the governor, and officially went into effect on July 1. After the legislative session ended, GWPI was recognized by the Georgia Commission on Family Violence with the “Moving the Work Forward Award” for promoting the health and safety of Georgia women who are victims of violence.

The passage of this bill serves as an example of the kind progress that can be made when women become part of the policy process. Through GWPI, we are proud to work with a diverse group of women, and empower them to have a voice in making policies that affect their communities. We think the YWCA of Greater Atlanta’s CEO Sharmen Gowens said it best: “When diverse women join together to make their voices heard, we can ensure that public policies reflect the realities of our lives. Increasing women’s participation in the policy process makes measurable improvements to the health, safety, and security of women and families across Georgia.”

During the Week Without Violence, we recognize the important role that public policy will play in bringing an end to violence against women. Women’s participation in the policy process is crucial to ensuring that state legislatures and Congress pass laws that ensure the health and safety of all women, and provide support and security for survivors of violence. We’re proud of the positive change the GWPI has helped create for Georgia women and girls – but plenty still remains to be done.

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Katie Singh is the Advocacy Intern at the YWCA of Greater Atlanta. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Public Health with a focus in health policy at Emory University.

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YWCA’s Week Without Violence is part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls with the World YWCA. Want to join the movement to end gender-based violence? Learn more at www.YWCAweekwithoutviolence.org and join the conversation on Twitter with #WorkAgainstViolence.