Domestic violence against women is a serious problem in America and one that is getting a great deal of attention, both at the federal and state levels. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a landmark piece of legislation, was passed in 1993, and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. It is scheduled for reauthorization again in 2010. Since passage o VAWA, women who are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have been able to access services, and state and national laws are changing. In addition, rates of violence and reporting are changing, for the better. States have passed more than 660 laws to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has answered more than 2 million calls since 1996. Businesses have joined the national fight against violence, including model programs at Aetna, Altria, Liz Claiborne, Polaroid, The Body Shop, and DuPont, which have created Employee Assistance Programs that help victims of domestic violence. But violence against women is still widespread. Consider the following frightening statistics:
- One in four women (25 percent) has experienced domestic abuse in her lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Justice.
- Three million women have been physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends, reports the U.S. Department of Justice.
- Women account for 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence.
- Women between the ages of 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk for nonfatal intimate partner domestic violence.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 to 44, and is estimated to be responsible for 20 to 25 percent of hospital emergency room visits each year.
- Four to 8 percent of pregnant women, more than 300,000 per year, report suffering physical abuse by their partner during pregnancy.
- In 2008, intimate partner homicides accounted for 14 percent of all homicides in the United States. This number included 1,640 female and 700 male homicides.
- Women account for 70 percent of the victims of intimate partner homicide in 2007, a percentage which has changed little since 1993.
- A Harris poll conducted in 2006 found that approximately 33 million (15 percent) U.S. adults said they were a victim of domestic violence. And 6 in 10 said they personally knew someone who was a victim of domestic violence.
- According to the CDC, in 2003, violence against women costs companies nearly $73 million annually due to lost productivity.
- Women who have experienced domestic violence are 70 percent more likely to drink heavily, 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, and 60 percent more likely to have asthma than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence, also called battery, spousal abuse or partner abuse, can be simply defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship where it is used to gain power and control over an intimate partner. It can also involve a parent, child, or other family member. Domestic violence or may be physical, emotional, psychological, economic, or sexual actions or threats of actions to intimidate another. Behaviors that are characteristic of domestic violence and abuse include those that seek to blame, frighten, humiliate, hurt, injure, intimidate, manipulate, terrorize and wound another. Domestic violence knows no bounds. It can affect men and women of every socioeconomic level, age, race, education, or sexual orientation. It can happen to married couples, to couples who are dating, living together, divorced or separated.
How Can You Tell if it’s Abuse?
Relationships are all about give and take, but in an abusive relationship that balance is distorted and warped. For the abuser, it’s all about control. Abuse usually starts slowly and can be difficult to recognize. At first, say psychiatrists who specialize in treating victims of domestic abuse, your partner may behave in ways that seem protective, generous and attentive. Later, however, those behaviors turn out to be frightening and controlling. After the initial abuse, your partner may promise never to do it again or may rationalize that is wasn’t abuse at all or that you were the cause of the abuse. How can you tell if what’s going on is abuse? In your relationship with your spouse, partner or significant other, ask yourself the following questions. Does your partner:
- Stop you from seeing your friends or other family members?
- Act or look at you in ways that make you afraid?
- Put you down or constantly embarrass you?
- Take all your money or leave you with little money with which to take care of the household? Make you account for every penny you spend? Make you ask for money?
- Control everything that you do, including who you see or speak to, and where you go?
- Prevent you from going to work or school?
- Make all the household decisions?
- Call you a bad parent, or threaten to take away the children?
- Hit, slap, choke or shove you?
- Tell you the abuse is no big deal, or that it’s your fault, or deny that there is any abuse?
- Threaten or intimidate you with weapons, including guns, knives, baseball bats or other items that could inflict injury?
- Threaten your pets or destroy your property?
- Force you to try to drop any charges filed?
- Threaten to commit suicide?
- Threaten to kill you?
Domestic violence counselors say that if you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may very well be in an abusive relationship. It’s scary, definitely, and you probably worry about what to do and how to do it. While there are some steps that you can take in the long term to increase your safety, if you are in immediate danger, call one of the following hotlines:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or TTY at 1-800-787-3224
- National Sexual Assault Hotline – 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline – 1-866-331-9474, or TTY at 1-866-331-8453
Mental Health Effects of Domestic Violence
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) says that domestic violence can lead to other common kinds of emotional trauma. These include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Furthermore, domestic abuse can trigger homelessness, psychotic episodes, slow recovery from mental illness, and suicide attempts. Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at greater risk for aggressive behavior, developmental problems, low self-esteem, psychotic disorders, and school difficulties. Any of these factors can exacerbate the situation and make it difficult for the victims of domestic violence to deal with it. Some victims may need mental health counseling, while many just need to be safe and have support for themselves and their children. All domestic violence experts caution that you don’t need to suffer in silence. Domestic violence is a crime in all 50 states. There is help available, and you shouldn’t hesitate to seek it. Remember that you know your situation better than anyone on the outside looking in. Never let someone else tell you what to do if you don’t feel comfortable taking their advice. Do talk with someone that you trust, whether that is a neighbor, close friend, member of the clergy, or a coworker. It’s also important to tell your doctor, nurse, therapist or psychiatrist about the abuse. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), your state domestic violence coalition, and/or a community domestic violence agency. Get the police involved if you are in immediate danger. Call 911 from a safe location. And get out of the house with your children as quickly and safely as you can if you feel threatened.
Women, Violence and Trauma
The fact is that you, or someone you love, may fall victim to domestic violence at some point in your lifetime. As a victim of violence, you may face many struggles. Trying to cope, many women turn to alcohol or other substances in an effort to get some relief from the physical, psychological, emotional or other pain caused by the abuser. Substance abuse, however, doesn’t prove effective in helping the victim heal from the trauma. In fact, it can present a host of new problems that make it even more difficult to resolve any of them. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an integrated, holistic approach is the most effective way to deal with trauma (domestic violence), substance abuse and mental health problems. The approach needs to take into account how each problem affects the others. The best way to begin the healing process is for the victim of domestic violence to begin sharing her experiences with a service provider who can then assist in preparing a treatment plan to help her address each of the struggles in a comprehensive manner. It is important to note that the healing process takes time – for some, it may take a significant amount of time. There may be underlying reasons why an individual stays in an abusive relationship, feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, hopelessness, or despair that must be overcome. Many frustrations, hurdles, questions and challenges will occur along the way toward feeling whole again. As a victim of domestic violence, there are some key things to work towards:
- Break the cycle of violence – The abusive situation of domestic violence proceeds in a pattern. First, the abuser threatens violence, then strikes, then apologizes and begs forgiveness, vowing never to do it again. But the violence soon returns, often with greater frequency and intensity. You need to break this vicious cycle of violence.
- Talk it out – You need to be able to talk about your experience with someone you trust. Acknowledging what happened to you will help alleviate the stress and guilt over it. It can also help to reduce feelings of isolation that you naturally experience as a result of the domestic violence.
- Research – Get as much information as you can on the subject of domestic violence. Learn how to protect yourself and your family from further occurrences. Learn about restraining orders or other forms of legal protections. Learn how and where to report domestic violence. Get answers to your questions and keep searching until you do get them answered.
- Get reassurance – You need to hear that it wasn’t your fault that the domestic violence occurred. It isn’t the result of something you did or did not do. While this may seem axiomatic, it isn’t for many women who have been the victims of domestic abuse. Despite the preponderance of the facts, they still seem to feel, deep down inside, that they’re somehow to blame. You also need to hear that you are not alone and that there are people and organizations out there that are willing and able to help you.
- Regain empowerment – Seek help in regaining your sense of self-control, something that you most likely feel has been taken away from you by your abusive partner. Maintaining a routine or schedule is one way that you can reassert your sense of self-empowerment.
- Ask for help – Don’t believe that you need to figure things out on your own or that people you know, love, and trust don’t want to or are too busy to help you. You may need help watching the kids while you go to counseling, or to see an attorney, or to just have time away to yourself.
- Be patient – There’s no predetermined timeline as to when you will feel stronger, more self-assured, self-confident – or free of fear. Each individual’s circumstance is unique. Therefore, each person’s timetable for recovery from domestic abuse and any co-occurring or substance abuse problems will be different as well. Give yourself a break. Don’t be too anxious to be “whole” again. You will get stronger, more confident, and less fearful as time goes on. Use the healing process as a time for self-discovery and embrace and celebrate little successes along the way.
Educate yourself, or encourage someone you know who may be the victim of domestic abuse, to get information and help. Many resources are available, and the following websites and organizations are just the start of your search. Each will have links to other helpful information sources, and many have toll-free phone numbers to call with questions and for additional guidance.
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (//www.ncadv.org/)
- The Family Violence Prevention Fund (//www.endabuse.org/)
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (//www.nrcdv.org/)
- National Center for Victims of Crime (//www.ncvc.org/ncvc/Main.aspx)
- WomensLaw.org (//www.womenslaw.org/) – Learn about restraining orders and other legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
- Love Is Not Abuse (//www.loveisnotabuse.com) – This is the Liz Claiborne teen dating violence website that contains valuable information for those living with violence as well as their friends and family members.
- National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (//www.preventelderabuse.org/elderabuse/domestic.html)
- National Center on Elder Abuse (//www.ncea.aoa.gov/ncearoot/Main_Site/index.aspx)
- SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center, Mental Health Services Locator (//mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/databases/)
- WitnessJustice.org (//www.witnessjustice.org/)
- WomensHealth.gov (//womenshealth.gov/violence/safetyplanninglist.pdf) – Safety planning list – items to put together when you make plans to leave an abusive relationship.
Bottom line: No one deserves to be abused. You can take the necessary steps to safeguard yourself and your loved ones from the many facets of domestic violence. Doing so will help bring about the safety and security you so desperately crave – and rightly should have. Remember that domestic violence and abuse will not go away on its own. Something has to be done to stop the abuser, or to remove either yourself and the children or the abuser from the premises until treatment is received to correct the abuse. Don’t wait. Get help today. Your health, happiness, and the safety of yourself and your children is at stake.