Victims of domestic violence have a pressing need for information about their legal rights, says UNC School of Law alumna Elizabeth Martin '98. In her effort to meet that need, she and her team developed http://www.womenslaw.org/, which won a 2009 Webby Award, the leading international award recognizing excellence on the Internet.
Martin, a native of North Carolina, found her way into domestic violence advocacy when she worked at a shelter in Washington state after completing her undergraduate degree.
"I went through a vigorous training program and was shocked to learn about the numbers of people who were going through domestic violence," she recalls. "I also realized that these women were not what I had previously imagined. They were taking heroic steps to get out of these relationships, often for their children's sake. It was unbelievably frustrating to me that the legal system, which was supposed to help them, often did not."
Shelters try to give information about legal rights and legal aid, but they are also trying to help victims cope with every aspect of their crisis, says Martin. She decided to return to North Carolina to get her law degree and find a better way to inform domestic violence victims of their rights. While completing her law degree at Carolina she also worked with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is now a partner in the WomensLaw.org website.
After law school, she worked in a private firm before moving to New York City, where she and a team of designers and advocates created the first WomensLaw.org website.
"At that time, the Internet was really hitting big and we knew it was a low-cost way to get information out," says Martin. The current site is a redesign. It contains information about every state's domestic violence laws, and the state sections of the site are each vetted by volunteers from the individual states. Topics range from online safety to filing restraining orders and child custody laws.
Martin says the site gets 67,000 unique users every month, the majority of whom find the site through Google. She says traffic has increased about 30 percent since the financial crisis hit in September, and acknowledging that tight economic times both increase domestic violence and make it more difficult for victims to venture out on their own.
The website has particular appeal in rural communities, Martin says.
"About 35 percent of our users are from rural areas, compared to the U.S. Census numbers indicating that 21 percent of the population is rural. When we have talked to coalitions in more rural states, they have been very excited about helping us because of the difficulty accessing resources. For example, in Alaska, there are communities accessible only by airplane, and some that don't have telephones - but every community center in Alaska has an internet connection," says Martin.
Martin and her team are branching out into social networking (you can find them on Facebook and Twitter), as well as investing in person-to-person domestic violence advocacy in New York City and North Carolina.
-June 4, 2009