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Closing the door on women


THE BACKLASH against women is alive and well in Anne Arundel County. We see a national trend to diminish or eliminate women's programs and services, ostensibly as the result of the recession. From California to Virginia, local and state commissions for women have been defunded and disempowered. The Anne Arundel County Commission for Women is the latest victim.

To put the issue in perspective, the first national commission for women was established by the White House in the early 1960s. Its purpose was to address the discrimination women faced in both the private and public sector. As a result of this first small step, many states established their own commissions for women. In 1975, due to the forward-thinking support of former County Executive Robert A. Pascal, the Anne Arundel County Commission for Women was created.

Since its establishment, the commission has been an advocate for the 212,157 women and girls who make up 50 percent of Anne Arundel County's population. The commission consists of 16 volunteers, 15 of whom are employed full-time. More than just an advisory group, it coordinates programs and advocacy efforts that affect the lives of county women and families.

Yet the 1993 budget proposes to eliminate the commission's staff support. Without this support, the group's mission will be severely compromised. Some of the programs and advocacy efforts that the commission coordinates are:

* Information and referral on issues of domestic violence, separation and divorce, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, credit, housing and social services. More than 1,000 citizens have been served in the last nine months.

* Monitoring and administering funding for the battered spouse shelter, counseling program and legal services.

* Coordinating special projects such as breast cancer awareness, the school-age child care study, family leave policies for county employees, the Annual Women's Fair, and monitoring low-income obstetric care at the Anne Arundel Medical Center. Since its inception more than 1,500 babies have been delivered through this program.

At a time when violence toward women is increasing, when Maryland has one of the highest incidences of breast cancer in the nation and when mid-life and older women are the fastest growing poverty group in our country how can the county executive consider diminishing the role of the commission? If anything it should be enlarged and expanded. Without staff support, who will respond to the desperate calls from women in trouble?

Now is a time to be proactive not reactive. In a time of fiscal retrenchment, the commission and its sole staff person serve as the conduit for women and their families to get services in a timely fashion and decrease the necessity for expensive crisis intervention at public expense. With the elimination of the legal services to shelter residents, how will the county continue to serve their needs?

The commission justified the need for the Battered Spouse Shelter and counseling program and identified the current provider of these services for shelter residents. It also developed a volunteer Legal Services Board to advise on these services.

If the budget proposal becomes a reality, where will battered and abused women get the counseling and legal services that can break the costly cycle of domestic violence? Who will lobby for services needed by women and families in Anne Arundel County? The county executive should restore the money cut from the commission's budget. To do otherwise would send the clear message that the lives of women and children in Anne Arundel Country are expendable.

The writer is co-chair of the Anne Arundel County Commission for Women.

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