What's the most effective way to combat violent crimes against women, offenses whose incidence is increasing alarmingly?

There's room for reasonable people to disagree over the answer to that question. But the need for this nation to get tougher on this score is beyond dispute.That much should be clear from the hearings being held this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a departure from the usual practice of letting grassroots governments handle such matters, the committee is considering legislation for sterner federal laws plus broader state and local programs to protect women against assault.

One bill is being pushed by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate panel. He wants to extend civil rights protection to women who are victims of violent crime, defining rape as a "hate crime" and allowing victims to bring federal civil lawsuits against their assailants. The measure would also provide money for state programs to educate and sensitize police, prosecutors and judges about the emotional impact of rape and domestic batterings.

Another bill being pushed by Republicans would seek the death penalty for murders committed during sexual assaults or child molestations, and provide funds for family-violence prevention programs and rape crisis centers. It also would put limits on the evidence of past sexual conduct that could be admitted as evidence in sexual assault cases, a move intended to limit the harassment of a sex crime victim.

The two plans need not be considered mutually exclusive. In fact, Sen. Strom Thurmond, the judiciary committee's ranking Republican, supports both bills.

As matters now stand, crimes of violence against women are out of control. Consider just a few key facts:

- Last year the number of rapes reported in the United States increased six percent, the largest jump in a decade, with 29 states setting records.

- The United States leads the world in both the number and the rate of rapes - one rape every six minutes.

- A third of all women murder victims are killed by men they knew as husbands, lovers, or "friends."

- Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, ahead of traffic accidents, muggings and rapes combined.

- Half of all homeless women and children are on the streets because of the fear of violence against them at home.

Yet, incredibly, a recent survey in Florida by the state's highest court showed that there is still a widespread belief that women are somehow to blame when they are molested, raped, or assaulted.

"Unfortunately," the survey continues, "evidence of this attitude has been found to exist among law enforcement personnel, jurors and judges."

These appalling facts point to an even more appalling conclusion: Many acts of violence against women, as Illinois Atty. Gen. Roland Burris puts it, "are motivated by hatred of women as a class."

Though the bills being considered by Congress won't be cheap, it would cost even more for America to do nothing about this situation. Crimes of violence against women are not just individual tragedies but can be considered crimes of terror. As Sen. Biden noted, "They instill fear not only in the actual survivors but in every woman in America."

Not just Washington but government at all levels must send the unmistakably clear message that violence against women is never excusable or acceptable.