The Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC) emerged from the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange Service (WIRES) in 1977. The Referral Exchange eventually became a service within HAWC, providing resources to battered women in metropolitan Houston, Texas. The purpose of the Women’s Center is to “provide shelter and support services to survivors of sexual assault and family violence…[to] educate and inform the community in order to prevent and eliminate the causes of this violence…[To] empower women to advance their roles, their rights and their well-being.” In 1996, HAWC programs fell into three primary areas, Family Violence, Rape Crisis, and Community Education.
Initially, HAWC consisted entirely of volunteers led by former City of Houston Women’s Advocate Nikki Van Hightower. As the organization grew, it gained a one-room office in the University of Texas School of Public Health and Nikki Van Hightower became the first Executive Director of HAWC. Along with this growth, services provided by HAWC expanded, including an eleven-bed shelter for battered women and their children. By 1980, HAWC offered support to victims of sexual assault through the Rape Crisis Program (formerly the Houston Rape Crisis Coalition) and purchased a permanent shelter facility with nineteen beds.
Throughout the 1980s, HAWC branched out to provide services to areas surround Houston, continued to develop support programs, and lobbied for changes in state laws and community law enforcement procedures. The Women’s Club of Houston donated a facility in 1982, which, after remodeling, accommodated forty-five women and children. During the same year, HAWC opened a domestic violence program in Montgomery County; satellite programs in other parts of Harris County, and Fort Bend County, followed shortly thereafter. The Texas Legislature passed updated sexual assault laws and the Houston Police Department announced a policy calling for arrests in cases of domestic violence during 1983 resulting, in part, from lobbying by HAWC.
The 1990s brought further expansion by HAWC in greater Houston and Texas. The organization again moved to accommodate growing staff and services. Programs expanded to provide benefits from established programs to different sectors within the community. Hispanic Outreach, Asian Outreach, and African-American Outreach programs began between 1992 and 1994. Lobbying activity also increased during the 1990s as HAWC aided in the passage of numerous pieces of legislation, including stalking laws, the National Violence Against Women Act within the Crime Bill, and evidence laws pertaining to marital rapes. During this time, HAWC also assisted with the creation of the Domestic Violence Unit within the Houston Police Department, as well as establishing a Task Force for Children within the Texas Council on Domestic Violence.
Community education became of paramount importance to the services offered by the Houston Area Women’s Center in the nineties, providing education and training to approximately 50,000 in audiences each year. These programs included professional training for law enforcement personnel, and the legal profession among others. The Youth Outreach developed a program in teen dating violence that has been successfully implemented in local middle and high schools. Initially instituted by a group of Rice student volunteers, the program further developed into an established program by trained facilitators reaching thousand students each year. The minority outreach education projects reach Houstonians of Hispanic and Asian descent and are provided in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese languages. Specialized seminar, workshops, lectures on topics such as working with people with disabilities, cultural awareness are coordinated on as-needed basis.
Ongoing research complements the center activities, including an annual media study to look at sensitivity and awareness of women issues, with an annual publication of a directory of women experts in various fields for local media, and media training programs for different organizations. Media involvement and public relation activities of the center also include public service announcements, press releases and conferences. Other public relation activities with an educational component include the Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Sexual Awareness Month, and the Women’s History Month activities. Overall the Houston Area Women’s Center Collection provides a record of the organization growth and development, from its start as a small grass roots organization, towards increased professionalism with a complex agenda and organizational structure.
A Brief History of the Houston Area Women’s Center 1977-2001
-Women’s Information and Referral Exchange Service started by volunteers of Women in Action to provide much needed resources to women who are battered.
-Houston Area Women’s Center incorporates.
-Nikki van Hightower’s job as city of Houston Women’s Advocate is terminated by Mayor McConn in 1978.
-The University of Texas School of Public Health loans the Women’s Center a one-room office.
-The first shelter for battered women and their children is opened with eleven beds.
-Women’s Information and Referral Exchange Service becomes a program of the Women’s Center and squeezes into the one-room office.
-The Houston Rape Crisis Coalition becomes the Rape Crisis Program of the Women’s Center.
-Sexual assault and incest survivors support groups are offered.
-Women’s Center purchases permanent shelter facility that can accommodate nineteen battered women and children.
-The Houston Area Women’s Center becomes a United Way agency.
-The Houston Area Women’s Center moves into the facility at 4 Chelsea Place, generously loaned by the Woman’s Club of Houston.
-The Hilda and Reuben Askanase Library of the Houston Area Women’s Center opens.
-The United Way invites the Houston Area Women’s Center to open a domestic violence program in Montgomery County--Family Violence Outreach begins.
-The Houston Police Department announces a new administrative policy calling for arrests in cases of domestic violence. This announcement came after a year-long task force, including representatives from the Women’s Center, studied the issue of police response to domestic violence.
-The Texas Legislature passes updated sexual assault laws introduced by Reps. Debra Danburg and John Whitmire of Houston.
-The Women’s Center remodels the shelter facility to accommodate forty-five women and children.
-The Women’s Center opens the Non-Residential Counseling and Outreach Program, which offers counseling and advocacy for battered women in the community.
-The Rape Crisis Program establishes a satellite office to provide technical assistance to the Fort Bend County Citizens Against Sexual Assault.
-After years of lobbying by the Women’s Center, area law enforcement agencies agree to be responsible for the transportation of rape evidence kits from hospitals to law enforcement labs. Previously, the rape survivor was responsible for transporting the rape kit.
-With the help of law enforcement officers, the Women’s Center’s efforts to have a standardized rape evidence kit in Harris, Montgomery, and Fort Bend Counties is successful.
-The Women’s Center opens the Treasure Chest Thrift Shop.
-The Rape Crisis Program establishes a satellite office in Northwest Harris County to provide counseling, support, and advocacy to sexual assault survivors.
-The Fort Bend Satellite office merges with the Fort Bend County Women’s Center.
-The Women’s Center spins off Family Violence Outreach and it becomes the Montgomery County Women’s Center.
-Marital Rape legislation passes in Texas.
-The Houston Area Women’s Center celebrates ten years of community service.
-Due to increasing expansion of services and staff, the Houston Area Women’s Center moves to the 3101 Richmond location.
-The Rape Crisis Program begins peer counseling services to survivors.
-The Women’s Center assists with the creation of the Domestic Violence Unit within the Houston Police Department.
-A Disabilities Specialist is hired for the Rape Crisis Program with VOCA monies.
-Rape Crisis Hotline establishes a TDD line to assist hearing-impaired survivors.
-Safe Harbour Program begins which provides emergency safe shelter for women in local hotels when all other battered women’s shelters are full.
-Hispanic Outreach begins in the Rape Crisis Program.
-Family Violence Non-Residential Program establishes satellite offices to assist Spanish speaking women in Southwest Harris County and in Spring Branch.
-The Women’s Center assists with the passage of Stalking Legislation in the Texas Legislature.
Children’s Program in Rape Crisis Program is established to assist child survivors of non-familial sexual assault.
-Asian Outreach Committee is established and outreach in the Vietnamese Community begins.
-The survey of police response to Victims of Domestic Abuse leads to the formation of the Family Violence Unit in the Houston Police Department.
-African-American Outreach begins in the Family Violence Program with the establishment of satellite sites at Kashmere and Sunnyside Multi-Service Centers.
-The Women’s Center assists with the legislation that eliminates the need for extra evidence in marital rapes in the Texas Legislature.
-The Women’s Center assists with the passage of the National Violence Against Women Act within the Crime Bill that expands judicial and legal training on domestic and sexual assault issues, provides protection for battered immigrant women, and allots desperately needed financial assistance for sexual assault and domestic violence programs.
-The Women’s Center begins a two million dollar capital campaign for new counseling and support services offices.
-The Women’s Center helps with the creation of the Victim’s Assistance Department within the Harris County Sheriff’s Department to help with domestic violence calls.
-The Women’s Center Children’s Program successfully establishes a Task Force for Children within the Texas Council on Family Violence.
-Women’s Center Thrift Shop moves to 1435 Westheimer and opens a furniture store.
-Asian Outreach is expanded to include the Chinese community.
-Due to increasing expansion of services and staff, the Houston Area Women’s Center moves to the 1010 Waugh Drive location.
-A program to prevent violence during pregnancy is instituted in partnership with the CDC and the city of Houston Health Department.
-The Guide to Female News Sources for the Houston Area Media is printed. The media training workshop “Increasing Your Organization’s Visibility in the Media” is provided for different organizations including the League of Women Voters and the Cultural Arts Council of Houston.
-The Teen Dating Violence Prevention Program reaches thousands of students in the Houston area.
-A Spanish Health Fair “Dia de la Salud y Bienestar” is held in conjuction with Telemundo, Spanish TV station.
-The Disability Outreach offers training at the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities.
-Teaching Peace. English Curriculum for High School Teachers by Michele Ostrander and Alicia Nuzzie is published, and the program instituted in local high schools.
-The Children’s Programs division publishes two coloring books about domestic and sexual abuse: It’s Not Your Fault and It’s Your Body in partnership with the Art Institute of Houston.