The world is watching as five men go on trial in India this week, accused of gang-raping a 23-year-old physical therapy student in December in New Delhi. She died two weeks later of devastating internal injuries.
But few will watch with the depth and perspective of Cheryl Thomas, who is balancing the historic significance of the trial with a numbing reality she lives with every day.
Violence against women is rampant in most of the world, said Thomas, an attorney and founder of the 20-year-old Women's Human Rights Program of the Minneapolis-based The Advocates for Human Rights (www.stopvaw.org).
India is particularly egregious -- only one of 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012 led to a conviction -- but the "ghastly" violence revealed in this case is not unique to that country, Thomas said.
"We are kind of in a bubble here [in the United States], thinking that women are free and equal and can go about and function the way men do," Thomas said. "That just isn't the case in most of the world."
Thomas has spent as many as 70 days a year over the past 20 years traveling with police officers, judges and prosecutors to Central and Eastern Europe, and former countries of the Soviet Union. Working with government officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Advocates representatives interview victims, public safety officials and social workers, provide expertise in drafting or strengthening laws that protect women and train police officers in how to enforce those laws.
The work is often daunting, as Thomas and her team push against a stubborn belief still held by many that women don't have "the right" to be free from rape and violence. Many women, she said, are arrested along with their husbands and told that they must learn more effective ways to not make their husbands angry. Others are forced to marry their rapist to avoid bringing additional shame on their families.
Still, advocates have made remarkable progress in nearly 30 countries, including Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, Croatia, Moldova and Lithuania, helping to double domestic violence laws in 20 years.
Thomas attributes much of the growth to a trickle-down effect similar to what occurred here about 30 years ago. After Minnesota passed its law protecting women from violence in 1979, Wisconsin and Iowa soon followed suit.
"This is what happens when you decide to draft laws," she said. "The message is sent to the community that this won't be tolerated. Until you get arrests and convictions, it's really hard to counter the sense in the community that this is not acceptable. That's what laws do."
Laura Goodman, a former Minneapolis police officer and now director of public safety at St. Catherine University, traveled to Moldova with Thomas in November to train about 20 police officers. To a person, she said, the participants were grateful and eager to learn how to improve the safety and well-being of women in their country.
"They all were high-ranking officers," Goodman said, which she viewed as a statement about the importance Moldovan leaders placed on their visit. Those 20 officers will now train 500 of their fellows, which is exciting to Goodman.
The Indian tragedy reminds them, though, of work left to do.
The young Indian woman and a male friend boarded a bus Dec. 16 after watching the movie "Life of Pi" at a mall. But the bus was a ruse. Five men inside and the driver raped her, beat up her friend and threw them off the bus.
Social media lit up in fury and led to protests across the country, some that had to be quelled by police. Others took to the streets with black tape across their mouths.
"This is hugely heartening," Thomas said of the protests and the fact that the men are being brought to trial. "They don't want to be a place where this happens. We would not have seen this 10 years ago. It's a testimony to progress."
Thomas expects to travel even more in 2013 due to "increased demand" by countries wanting to learn more about the Advocates' outreach. She heads to the Baltics on Sunday.
"It's a thrill when countries see the potential changes they're making," Thomas said. "Our work feels like we're watching the world change before our eyes."
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