By Léo Azambuja
A small yet determined group of women has been working tirelessly and pretty much under the radar for many years to help women and girls on Kaua‘i to improve their lives on all levels, including health care, education, equality, professional opportunities and personal safety.
“I see women and girls become more empowered with information and resources to help them get ahead with a decent job, life skills and mentorship,” said Committee on the Status of Women Vice Chair Edie Ignacio Neumiller, when asked about the future of women on Kaua‘i.
Eight committee members, all volunteers, meet once a month to discuss a plethora of issues that could affect women positively or negatively.
Ignacio Neumiller said the role of committee members is to work as a team and support the committee’s mission statement, which is to develop and promote education, interactive opportunities on issues relating to women and girls, prevention of domestic violence, health and wellness awareness by partnering with other women’s organizations to support positive change.
“I think our efforts as a committee can assist in growing future female leaders, highlight current female leaders … and help identify, and address, the needs of today’s female population on Kaua‘i,” committee member Sharon Lasker said.
In the next five years, Lasker said, she thinks these efforts will help to produce an even greater number of female role models or leaders on Kaua‘i who can identify and address the needs of Kaua‘i’s female population — thus helping local families overall.
Committee member Kathy Lee-Crowell said her main focus is to bring safety and harmony to Kaua‘i’s families through community outreach and collaboration as the Coordinator of Kaua‘i’s Domestic Violence Prevention Task Force.
In 2013, she said, there were 433 domestic violence calls to the Kaua‘i Police Department. During the same year, the YWCA received referrals for 70 women and 50 children, according to Lee-Crowell.
Additionally, data provided by Kathy Freire, co-director of the Family Violence Shelter, shows that in Fiscal Year 2013, the domestic violence crisis line received 769 crisis calls.
Lee-Crowell said there are a number of measures the government can take to protect victims of domestic violence. Laws should be expanded to add protection, and existing laws should be enforced. Judges, police and other professionals should be educated on the dynamics of domestic violence. A standardized response and enforcement of temporary restriction orders should be applied, Lee-Crowell said.
Ignacio Neumiller said the committee helps to influence new legislation by getting active in tracking laws and providing testimony in bills aiming to curb violence against women.
“Everyone has the opportunity to influence laws in this country,” said ex-officio committee member Lisa Ellen Smith, who serves as a representative to the State Commission on the Status of Women.
“We have the right to ballot initiatives, we have freedom of speech to try to influence our congress people into understanding our points of view, we have the right to vote and support those elected officials who vote for equal pay and big Acts like VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) and we have the right to run for office,” she said.
Smith’s first volunteer job was at the YWCA, and it changed her life.
“I saw the women that they serve, I saw the offenders that they treat, I saw the children,” she said. “It was enough to ensure my lifetime commitment to volunteering to serve this community one way or another.”
She, like other members, believes there is a greater number of unreported domestic violence, from women who do not seek help. To her, even if there is only one victim, “it would be too many.”
Women are the bearers of life for the human race. Yet, they pay a major price for being the main — and many times the only — caregiver for their children.
Smith said the struggle to have a decent, independent living is a reality for many single mothers as well as families on Kaua‘i.
“It is challenging to find a job that pays enough to be able to afford rentals prices here, and there are never enough affordable housing units available, then finding daycare, getting around the island without a car to get groceries,” she said.
But there are available resources — which vary and are frequently dependent on federal funding or private donations, according to Smith. Help, she said, is available though organizations, including KEO, Hale Kipa Kaua‘i, Hale Opio Kaua‘i, Catholic Charities, YWCA, Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center and KPAA’s Keiki to Career. There is also assistance from governmental programs such as TANF and First to Work.
“Sometimes it is finding out about the programs in time and being able to jump through all of the hoops,” Smith said.
Ignacio Neumiller said if a single mother has the right referrals for financial assistance, work readiness skills, childcare assistance or subsidy, it is possible to survive and to become independent.
“With family support, a single mother who is determined to eventually get the right guidance with life skills and employment skills, child care assistance, it is possible to live independently,” she said. “Of course there will be sacrifices, but it will be a success story to tell your children that their mother became self-sufficient on her own.”
Despite the challenges, the committee remains optimistic, and Smith’s outlook for the near future is an echo of the very goal that committee members are pursuing.
“Women on Kaua‘i will be stronger and smarter than ever,” Smith said.