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PERSPECTIVE ON VIOLENCE : Womanslaughter Is a Hate Crime : Choosing victims by gender is as heinous as choosing them by race; why aren’t lawmakers responding to this?

<i> Linda C. McCabe is a vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women. </i>

On this date two years ago, Marc Lepine stormed into the Engineering Building at the University of Montreal and ordered the people to separate according to gender. Yelling obscenities about “feminists,” he opened fire, killing 14 women. The rampage ended when he turned the gun on himself, and then the speculations began. He was rightly painted as a social outcast and loner, but many people felt that the key factor was his hatred of women. Inexplicably, that was given little weight, despite the graphic evidence: a three-page suicide letter found in his jacket that detailed his feelings of inadequacy and blamed all of his problems on women.

If Lepine had separated his targets differently and killed only the blacks or Jews or Asians, it would have been understood that it was a racially motivated hate crime. But it was directed toward women, and its meaning was mischaracterized as merely the work of a lunatic mind. Hitler may have been a lunatic, but his hatred of Jews cannot be denied any more than Lepine’s hatred of women.

There are plenty of examples of how gender-motivated violence is downplayed. One closer to home is the serial killings of 18 women in Riverside County. They died horribly, strangled or beaten to death, their bodies dumped by the roadside. But, because they were prostitutes or drug users, there has been little public outrage. It seems as if the public doesn’t care that these women suffered at the hands of a madman who is still on the loose.

Recall, too, the case of the Central Park jogger who was gang-raped and left for dead. This was not recognized as being a gender-motivated hate crime; instead it was characterized as an expression of racial and class hostility.

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The failure to recognize gender-motivated violence is part of our nationwide pattern of denial. It is easier to blame the victim than to seek answers about why her attacker inflicted such cruelties as battery, rape and murder--"She must have done something to deserve it.” For if we can find some fault with the victim’s behavior or demeanor, then we can rest assured that we are invulnerable to such attacks.

The statistics of violence in this country paint a different picture, one in which no woman is immune from attack. Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten. Every six minutes a woman is raped. Every six hours a woman is killed by a present or former male partner. A woman is 10 times more likely to be raped than to die in an automobile accident. In fact, the greatest threat to women’s health in this country is not cancer, heart disease or car accidents; it is violence by men.

These numbers are staggering, and this national crisis is only now being addressed with the sense of urgency that it deserves.

As of Sept. 1, public colleges are required, by legislation passed last year by Congress, to keep statistics of all campus crimes and make those reports available to the public next September. This will allow prospective students to weigh safety along with curriculum and fees when choosing a college.

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Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) are the chief sponsors of a more comprehensive means to address this complex problem: the Violence Against Women Act of 1991. Its statement of purpose explains:

“It treats violence against women as a major law-enforcement priority, takes aim at the attitudes that nurture violence against women, and provides the help that survivors need. It increases penalties for federal rape violations, upgrades evidentiary protections, and provides substantial new resources for education and prevention. Finally, and perhaps most important, the bill declares--for the first time--that gender-motivated crimes are a violation of the victim’s civil rights, a proposal that sends a powerful message condemning crimes that not only ravage individuals but systematically deprive women of equal rights under the law.”

The bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and been recommended for passage by the full Senate. In the House, it has been introduced to five different committees, but hasn’t been voted on in any of them.

The question for today is: How many more brutal crimes do women have to suffer, how much rape, torture and murder, before the mostly male House and Senate respond to the needs of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters to live without fear?

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