The Department of Justice is partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help fight sexual harassment in public housing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday, as part of a week in which sexual crime has been a major focus of DOJ activity.
"We've seen many cases—especially in public housing—where a landlord will exploit vulnerable women and threaten them with eviction unless they provide him with sexual favors," Sessions explained. "We're not going to tolerate that."
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The new program is part of federal law enforcement commitment to observing National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. According to Sessions, the exploitation and sexual harassment of women in public housing represents a serious issue. DOJ has successfully recovered $600,000 in damages for 15 victims of sexual harassment over the pass six months, he noted.
To further combat sexual harassment in housing, DOJ and HUD will establish a new task force to coordinate data, training, outreach, and response for harassment. The two departments will also begin a public information campaign "to encourage more survivors to come forward and speak to law enforcement." All U.S. attorneys will receive new training materials, in order to better equip their offices to deal with prosecuting sexual harassment cases.
Thursday's announcement follows up on initiative announced in October of last year and also focused on sexual harassment in public housing. That program followed a $360,000 victory for DOJ in Kansas City, Kan., recovering funds for 14 women who were subject to unwanted sexual conduct.
"In the United States of America, no one should be improperly subjected to any discrimination, overt or covert, in their choice of housing. It is unacceptable and it will not be allowed. We will not retreat from the core protections set forth in the Fair Housing Act," Sessions said Thursday.
This latest announcement is another in a series of actions taken by the Department of Justice to use its resources to support the rights and interests of America's women. At an event last Friday, Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams pointed out that, because women are disproportionately the targets of violent crime, recently reinvigorated DOJ programs like Project Safe Neighborhoods are vital for supporting women.
"By never wavering in our commitment to prosecute violent crime, we are—by definition—fighting to improve the lives of women," Williams said. "According to FBI data, approximately 59 percent of victims of crimes against persons are female—including approximately 57 percent of assault victims, 76 percent of kidnapping or abduction victims, and 85 percent of forcible sex offenses. Murder is one of the leading causes of death for women aged 44 and younger. The numbers are staggering and they are a call to action."
Perhaps most notably, DOJ has focused renewed efforts on combatting sex trafficking, which disproportionately affects women. On Monday, the Department announced its indictment of the founders of Backpage.com, a personal ads webpage which, prior to its seizure by federal agents, was allegedly used, with the knowing complicity of its administrators, to facilitate the trafficking of women and children for sex.
"Backpage has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking, placing profits over the well-being and safety of the many thousands of women and children who were victimized by its practices," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange at the time of the indictment.
Beyond violence, the Department under Attorney General Sessions has continued to prioritize injustices that particularly affect women. Alongside the housing initiative, DOJ's Civil Rights Division launched an initiative to fight workplace sexual harassment earlier this year.