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Column: Wellstones' legacy keeps protecting women

When my wife, Franni, and I decided that I should run for the Senate, we were greatly influenced by the example set by Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila. The Wellstones' example serves as a constant reminder of what public service is all about - it's about helping others; it's about giving a voice to those who otherwise might go unheard; it's about making the law more just and more fair, especially for those who need its protections the most.

Franni and I have a personal responsibility to carry on the Wellstones' legacy. We all do. And I think that Paul and Sheila would be proud that the Senate reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act.

Paul and Sheila were extraordinary people. When Paul was elected to the Senate in 1990, Sheila didn't really see herself as a public figure. In fact, she was a bit shy, and she avoided public speaking when she could.

But Sheila started spending time at women's shelters in Minnesota and elsewhere, listening to painful stories about domestic violence and assault. She realized that there were a lot of women across the country who needed a voice - who needed someone to speak up for them.

Sheila set out to become that person. She became a champion for survivors of domestic violence in Minnesota and throughout the country. She and Paul championed the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark federal law that affirmed our nation's commitment to women's safety.

Signed into law in 1994, VAWA increased the number of beds and shelters that were available to women who needed refuge. It provided critical support to law enforcement officers and prosecutors so they could respond more effectively to incidents of domestic violence. It funded support services and crisis centers for victims. And, perhaps most importantly, VAWA sent a message: domestic violence no longer will be tolerated in America.

Since VAWA was enacted, incidents of domestic violence have been reduced significantly. VAWA has improved lives. It has saved lives. It is part of the Wellstones' proud legacy.

The VAWA Reauthorization Act renews our national commitment to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual assault, a heinous crime that remains all too common in America, even while domestic violence is becoming less common.

And the VAWA Reauthorization Act cuts red tape and spending by consolidating grant programs and improving accountability measures.

This is a good bill. I was proud to vote for it.

I'm also proud to have written two of its provisions.

First, the VAWA reauthorization bill includes a provision - taken from the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act - that ensures that survivors of sexual assault never again will suffer the indignity of paying for forensic medical exams, commonly known as rape kits, which are used to collect evidence in sexual assault cases.

The problem is that, under current law, grant recipients can charge the survivor for the up-front cost of administering the exam, leaving the survivor to seek reimbursement later. Too often survivors aren't reimbursed - they get lost in a maze of paperwork or are left high and dry when funds run out.

This isn't a partisan issue. It's common sense.

The VAWA reauthorization bill also includes the Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence Act, legislation that I introduced with Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Barabara Mikulski, D-Md., last fall. This bill will help women stay in their homes when they are most vulnerable - when they need a roof over their heads the most.

My Housing Rights legislation will make it unlawful to evict a woman from federally subsidized housing just because she is a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

The link between violence and homelessness is undeniable. By one account, nearly 40 percent of women who experience domestic violence will become homeless at some point in their lives. And once a woman becomes homeless, she becomes even more vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse.

That's not the world that Sheila Wellstone envisioned. Nobody should have to choose between safety and shelter.

The VAWA reauthorization bill is a step toward a more just society, and I look forward to it becoming law.

Al Franken, DFL-Minn., can be reached at 202-224-5641, 651-645-0323 or