Monday, November 10, 2014

Why Domestic Violence Matters -- and not just in October


Amelia Vojt serves at Sarah's Inn in Oak Park, IL as an intervention advocate to victims of domestic violence.

When October rolls around every year, Americans expect to experience certain things. In many parts of the U.S., the changing colors of the leaves signify the change in seasons from summer to autumn. The introduction of fall items to restaurants and grocery stores ensures that people will be able to stuff themselves with plenty of pumpkin-flavored foods and drinks. And if you are sports fan, you can be sure that your television screen will be filled with players wearing pink athletic attire. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and major sports leagues have capitalized on the opportunity by outfitting teams in special pink hats, sweatbands, and jerseys, which are then sold to fans with a portion of profits going to breast cancer research. Pink is pervasive in October, but this year also saw the biggest push to date for teams to begin wearing an additional color throughout the month: purple.

Less known to the general population is that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and purple is the color! The first Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month was observed in October of 1987. This was only two years after the inaugural Breast Cancer Awareness Month, yet that movement has swept the nation while domestic violence seemingly remains on the backburner. Looking at the statistics, it makes sense that breast cancer research garners high responsiveness from the public. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that about 40,000 American women will die from breast cancer in 2014.1 The ACS also states that a woman in the U.S. has a 12.3% chance of being diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime, which is about 1 in 8.

In contrast, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men in the U.S. are victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.2 Approximately 20 people are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner every minute in this country, over 10 million men and women every year.3 I am not suggesting that people are wrong for supporting breast cancer research programs over domestic violence programs, but why is there such a discrepancy between the two causes? Why is pink visible everywhere and purple nowhere in sight?

My year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA started in mid-August as I moved to Chicago and began my ministry at Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency based in Oak Park. Sarah’s Inn offers free counseling and advocacy services to victims of domestic violence and their family members in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. My position at the agency is as an intervention advocate. I, along with several other advocates and counselors, work directly with victims to provide them with emotional support, help during crises, education about domestic violence, and ongoing assistance as they work through the myriad of problems that often occur in abusive relationships. We do everything we can to satisfy the needs of victims. If for some reason Sarah’s Inn cannot satisfy those needs, we refer victims to outside agencies that may be better equipped to aid them. Our main prerogative is to offer victims options for moving forward and to accompany them as they pursue whatever path is right for them.

 
Staff photo taken before Stand Tall with Sarah’s Inn, an annual agency fundraising event held during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Amelia Vojt is on far right in green, and former Dominican Volunteer Erin Hallagan (12-13) is in the center in blue.


Before continuing, I would like to point out that Sarah’s Inn works with both male and female domestic violence victims, but the large majority of clients are female victims with male abusers. So from this point forward, for the sake of clarity, I will be referring to abusers using male pronouns and to victims using female pronouns.

One of the most frustrating things to hear from those who are unfamiliar with the complexities of domestic violence is “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Many people are unaware that by asking this question they are partaking in victim-blaming. Saying that the victim should simply leave to escape abuse implies that it is her fault that she is in or remains in the abusive situation in the first place. The one thing I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence is never the victim’s fault. No words that victims say or actions that victims take justify abuse.

The real question we should be asking is “Why does he abuse her?” This shifts responsibility for the abuse from the victim and back to the abuser, where it rightfully belongs. People sometimes forget that the abuser is the one committing a crime—abusing another human being—and he often gets away with it. Conceptualizing domestic violence in terms of the actions of the abuser causes us to think about the root of the problem, that the abuser wants power and control over his victim. Abusers use various methods to establish power and control in domestic violence relationships. An abuser might coerce and threaten his partner, isolate her, emotionally abuse her, use her children against her, downplay the abuse, financially abuse her, or use intimidation to get his way. Domestic violence victims usually experience a combination of these non-physical abuses to varying degrees, and from there the situation frequently escalates into physical and sexual abuse.

For outsiders it can be easy to say that the victim should leave the abuser. Besides this perspective entailing victim-blaming, a deeper examination of domestic violence reveals just how difficult it can be for victims to get away. Abuse can take a toll on all aspects of victims’ health, including their mental health. Domestic violence victims are at an increased likelihood for developing depression and suicidal behavior.3 Furthermore, financial abuse is one of the most widely-reported types of abuse.

To only briefly mention the case, suspended NFL player Ray Rice’s publicized domestic violence characterizes how economic circumstances can influence a victim. His shocking physical abuse of his then-fianc√© was caught on video and made headline news. However, she went on to marry him immediately after the incident. Many people did not understand her actions. Only she knows the true motivations behind her decision, but the fact that he is the source of financial viability for her and their young child was certainly a factor. When the abuser earns the income, victims commonly feel that they have no choice other than to stay. When a victim is an undocumented immigrant, there is a persistent fear of the abuser getting her deported, which could also mean a mother being separated from her children. Finally, when you consider that a victim’s risk of being murdered by her abuser is highest within the first few weeks of her leaving, fleeing can feel like more of a danger than a solution.

Part of the reason that domestic violence receives much less attention than breast cancer awareness lies in the name itself. The classification of the violence as “domestic” indicates that it is occurring within the home. Yet this classification can work against victims because it perpetuates the idea that matters should be settled within the home and misleads others into thinking that they should stay out of it. It is disheartening to hear clients explain how they called 911 after being abused and the police did nothing to help them. Sarah’s Inn conducts training for law enforcement officials and medical professionals to instruct them on how to handle domestic violence situations, but there are still some officers who are hesitant to get involved. Even worse is hearing clients report that their abusers are police officers or other civic officials, the people who are supposed to be helping their communities.

 
Amelia Vojt stands next to America’s Next Top Model Winner Jaslene Gonzalez, who spoke to children’s, teen’s, and women’s support groups about her experience in a domestic violence relationship and how she overcame her abusive past to launch a successful modeling career.

Another point I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence can affect anyone. Victims and abusers can be of any gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, religion, etc. You may have family, friends, and/or neighbors who are in abusive relationships. There is no “typical” example of domestic violence because the circumstances are different for every person and the abuse that a victim endures is unique to their situation. The ability for domestic violence advocates to assist victims lies in their ability to work with each individual to identify the most appropriate plan of action. We at Sarah’s Inn walk with clients in their journey towards healing and work towards breaking the cycle of violence.

As citizens living in a nation where domestic violence is all around us—and doesn’t just happen in October, we can all do our part to stand up for victims. Many people are uncomfortable discussing domestic violence or would like to help but are afraid to reach out. However, domestic violence warrants the same level of attention given to other major causes, and it is time for us all to let go of our fear and uncertainty. It is time for us to hold abusers accountable for their actions. It is time to rid ourselves of victim-blaming attitudes. It is time for us to stop criticizing those who suffer for not fleeing their abusers and to instead provide the resources for them to do so safely. It is time for us to stand up together and show victims that we care.

Going to Sarah’s Inn and constantly hearing stories of the horrible abuse that clients have lived through can be very tough at times. However, I go home every day remembering that they are survivors. Our clients have been through so much and they will likely face more obstacles in the future. Still, they push on. Their strength and resilience is a constant inspiration and gives me hope that we may one day live in a society free of domestic violence.


If you or someone you know is in a situation of domestic violence, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at www.thehotline.org for help or for more information. 


References:

1. American Cancer Society. (2014, September 25). What are the key statistics about breast cancer? American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/detailedguide/breast-cancer-key-statistics

2. Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

3. World Health Organization. (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-partner Sexual Violence. Retrieved from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/85239/1/9789241564625_eng.pdf?ua=1

1 comment:

  1. I never knew there was a month for domestic violence. I knew a lady who was apart of a violent relationship for years and her husband wouldn't let her leave the house. Recently, she broke away from her husband, while he was asleep and told her family what happened! Thanks for sharing, I will definitely be wearing purple in October!

    ReplyDelete