Yesterday, my mom called and asked me if I'd heard about the teenage girl that was killed by another girl over a boy. She was referring to Danyna Gibson (16) and Tanaya Lewis (17), two girls involved in an altercation that resulted in Danyna dying from stab wounds. She suggested that I reach out to the school because this was the result of an unhealthy relationship. As she was talking, I felt a twinge of embarrassment because for a little over four years I worked for a domestic and sexual violence organization in Michigan, and taught workshops at Fitzgerald High School, where the incident occurred. The embarrassment was accompanied by guilt because I know the program could have been more saturated and relevant for young women of color. Although I’m no longer at the organization, I know how beneficial it is to empower young people to have healthy relationships. This is why reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA (H.R.6545) is a chance for youth prevention education programs to be funded and ensure that students like Danyna and Tanaya receive programming that is beneficial for them.
Relationships among teens are easy to dismiss and brush off as puppy love. The reality is, they often have the same characteristics as adult relationships, but unlike adults, teens aren’t always equipped to deal with issues that may arise. Gender-based violence prevention education programs are an opportunity for young people to learn about healthy relationships, conflict resolution, the root causes of relationship violence, and how to reduce the number of occurrences. All across the country, preventionists are providing workshops, but oftentimes their reach is limited. During my time at the organization in Michigan, our prevention staff dwindled from four people to one person as a result of funding cuts. Our program time was limited to two-day sessions as opposed to the recommended frequency of multiple sessions over an extended period of time. We weren’t able to fulfill presentation requests and lost relationships with schools. Many young people, specifically those in marginalized communities, weren’t receiving in-school prevention education at all.
The 2018 version of VAWA, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), pays special attention to underserved populations and prevention. If lawmakers don’t pass VAWA, young people of color will continue to be underserved, specifically the most at risk group, black girls. Black women are killed as a result of unhealthy relationships at disproportionate rates (4.4 per 100,000) and black girls report higher rates of threats and injury on school property than their peers, yet there are few prevention programs that specifically cater to young black women. While most programming may address why women are most at risk for gender-based violence, intersectionality is not always considered. Understanding the unique experiences that come when one faces oppression from racism and sexism is necessary when providing relevant education. Passing VAWA will enable service providers to build their capacity and reform their programs to fit the needs of the most vulnerable populations.
While some may argue that healthy relationship skills should be taught at home and by parents, that is not always a possibility or the best option. Young people spend 6 hours a day in school, and many of their romantic relationships develop in school settings. Teachers are already underpaid and overworked, which makes it unfair that they are expected to take on the sole responsibility for teaching healthy relationships. Reauthorizing VAWA will give local gender-based violence organizations the ability to strengthen partnerships with schools and create new partnerships with schools in underserved communities. It shows young people that we care about their well-being and want them to have healthy relationships, and it allows young black women like Danyna and Tanaya to have an equal opportunity for prevention education programming.Danyna and Tanaya’s story should be a wake-up call for all of us. Both were honor students with bright futures and that all changed because of unhealthy relationship dynamics. Young people are navigating relationships, and as adults we can help. We all can urge our representatives to approve VAWA before it expires on September 30, and talk to the young people in our lives about their relationships. Further, school officials can build relationships with local domestic and sexual violence agencies and enhance their capacity for addressing unhealthy relationships. Prevention educators and advocates can ensure that their programming addresses intersectionality and fits the needs of young people in marginalized communities. We all have a role in reducing occurrences of gender-based violence, and reauthorizing powerful legislation like VAWA can bring us one step closer.