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Kathleen Doherty

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October Is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month Too

Posted: 10/18/11 05:42 PM ET

Being a breast cancer survivor, I do double duty during the month of October. First, let me pay homage to the pink. You can't miss it -- the ribbons, the billboards and the pink lights that bathe the city from the John Hancock building and Trump Towers just to name a few of the 136 current and past lighting participants during October. Now the double duty part - I'm also the Executive Director of Between Friends, a domestic violence agency in Chicago. So every October I go in search of those elusive purple ribbons, the billboards proclaiming that every family deserves a safe home, and the buildings that bathe the city in purple lights. Well, I see little of that but I do notice a few trees on Michigan Avenue proudly wearing purple, the color of National Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Almost six years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My partner threw me a "Good-Bye Boobie" party and before I knew it, I had lost a breast and later, all my hair thanks to chemo. It was tough for all of us. Today, I am cancer free with every hair back in place. Most of us know what breast cancer is, know a friend, family member or colleague who has the disease, know what to do if we discover a lump in our breast, and sadly, many of us know the unimaginable grief when breast cancer claims the life of a loved one. No one is immune and we still need to find a cure.

Now let me wear purple. For the past 10 years my role, among many others, has been to educate the community about the impact of domestic violence. How hard can that be? Surely everyone knows that domestic violence is a crime and NOT a private family affair? Surely we know that it is NEVER okay to hit your wife, husband, girlfriend, or partner? Surely the community values safe and healthy families? The tragic truth is that most don't know what domestic violence is. Don't recognize when a family member, friend or colleague is impacted by this problem, and don't know what to do if someone reveals that they are being verbally, financially, sexually, and/or physically abused by their partner! Yet many have experienced the unimaginable grief when domestic violence claims the life of a loved one. No one is immune and we still need to find a solution.

Domestic violence is not poor anger management -- it is a pattern of abusive behavior that is used by one partner in the relationship to gain or maintain power and control over the other partner in both heterosexual and same sex relationships. It is a social and public health epidemic especially for women and girls who make up 85% of domestic violence victims.

So here's what it looks like: Cindy Bishoff, a prominent real estate agent, was shot by her ex-boyfriend in a parking lot. Sophia Garcia was found dead with a plastic bag over her head while her husband abducted the three children -- Oscar six, Karla seven, and Fernando 11. And what about the 18-year-old woman whose boyfriend doused her with lighter fluid and lit her on fire? He put her in a bathtub to put the flames out and drove her to the hospital telling them it was a barbeque accident. She was so badly burned that it took two months before she was able to tell the police her boyfriend set her on fire. Finally, there is Luz Villegas who was stabbed 29 times by her husband. Her sister-in-law said, "She was just trying to survive each day" but she didn't.

Every nine seconds a woman is beaten by her intimate partner and one in four women or 25% will experience domestic violence in her lifetime with an estimated three million women physically abused by their husband or boyfriend each year. Approximately one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner and studies show that between 3.3-10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually. Boys who witness such violence are more likely to grow up to perpetuate this violence against their partner and girls are more likely to become the victims of such violence.

Every year at this time, I ask myself, "Why do we celebrate breast cancer survivors but shame survivors of domestic violence? We ask these women "Why do you stay?" instead of "Why is he abusive?" We never blame women for the lump in their breast. We support them with "Good-Bye Boobie" parties and most importantly, we look for a cure.

So it's clear to me that this country needs more purple. We still have much work to do to eradicate this epidemic -- changing laws and policies that devalue women and girls, educating others to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and how to help their friends and family, working with youth early on to prevent this abuse, and putting the blame where it belongs -on the abuser. It will take much more than ribbons, billboards and lights to end this epidemic, but I must confess that next year I'd like to see just one building in Chicago shine purple.