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Domestic Violence: Everybody's Issue

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With a range of women's concerns being pulled into the maelstrom of election cycle rhetoric, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has now become another political football. Originally co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1994, the bill comes up for reauthorization approximately every five years. The Senate has voted to reauthorize the bill. However, the House has put forth its own version -- which eliminates aspects that have traditionally included protections covering confidentiality for immigrants, outreach to those in the LGBT community, and improved prosecution of perpetrators against Native American women.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. President Barack Obama issued a proclamation stating, "Let us renew our efforts to support victims of domestic violence in their time of greatest need, and [to] realize an America where no one lives in fear because they feel unsafe in their own home."

It is essential to go beyond the statistics to place domestic violence within a larger societal framework.

I reached out to Kim Gandy, recently appointed to head the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Gandy has been proactive on this concern for three decades. She observed that the holdup on the VAWA was "unusual for this bill," but given the contentious environment on Capitol Hill, "not surprising." She explained, "Services are being delivered, but in the future, they may be in jeopardy."

"Domestic violence is something that impacts women, men, and children from every socio-economic group and is a problem shared by the whole society," Gandy told me. Three victims die per day. "It's astonishing the number of people who need services," Gandy said. A piece of that can be attributed to what Gandy qualifies as the "silence around this epidemic, which helps it thrive." However, on a larger scale she noted, "There is such a prevalence of thought that it is okay to use threats of violence to control other people -- if you can." Gandy underscored what she described as the fertile ground of "sexism as being a part of it."

The NNEDV describes domestic violence as a "pattern of coercive, controlling behavior" that can include abuse in forms including emotional and psychological, sexual, and financial. Victims believe they are to blame, and cannot envision surviving independently. Currently, the downturn in the economy may be an additional factor, as abusers feel frustrated by financial impediments. Women, on the other hand, are hamstrung by fewer opportunities for jobs and housing.

A survivor of abuse with 20 years of experience in the field, Lynn Fairweather, MSW, emphasized that a woman doesn't have to be beaten to have experienced domestic violence. She wants women to clearly understand that they can qualify for assistance without having experienced physical injury.

Fairweather sees victims as patient, forgiving, and nurturing individuals whose qualities are used against them. In profiling abusers, she views their actions as being cause by "an extreme need for power and control, backed up by a sense of entitlement in obtaining it." The cause is a conscious choice toward "getting my way." It is the "threat of physical violence which always over arcs what is happening."

Often women are unsure of what constitutes a potential abuser, or if they are in a relationship with red flags that could signify concern. Fairweather's recent book, Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships, outlines these warning signs, as well as potential strategies for extricating oneself from a potentially negative or harmful relationship.

Gabrielle Vilhauer, MA, was married to an abuser for three years. She is part of the editorial team of Domestic Violence Crime Watch, a guide that tracks national news on the DV landscape. She missed signals in her relationship when her future partner "swooped in, seeking quick involvement" in her life. She commented on the frequency of this type of approach in dating relationships for girls as young as 13 or 14, who she believes are "seeking validation."

Based on her work, Vilhauer has perceived a strong demographic of abusers coming from the ranks of professions that have "an ingrained sense of authority and a strict hierarchy." She referenced "professions of power" such as the military, the police, and firefighting. She defines abusers as having a "chronic mindset." She added, "They don't believe that what they are doing is wrong." For those women who may think that drugs and alcohol are the sole reason for abuse, Vilhauer said, "Drugs and alcohol disinhibit and can exacerbate a situation. However, when you take away the substances, you are left with a sober abuser."

Speaking to women who are unsure if they are in an abusive relationship, Vilhauer said, "If a person is questioning it, odds are that they are." Her bottom line was, "Trust your gut." If you think a family member, friend or co-worker is in that situation, "Offer your support and be safe to talk to. Don't tell them what to do." Fairweather suggests being non-judgmental, while expressing concern for safety. Her recommendation was to enter a conversation with a list of local resources or the National Domestic Violence Hotline number -- and then be prepared to give support regardless of the individual's decision. That can be facilitating a search for help or accepting a decision not to take immediate action. On the average, some women make seven to nine attempts to leave. Fairweather said, "It's a process, not an event."

Jan E. Langbein, executive director of Genesis Women's Shelter in Dallas, had a clear message. She emphasized, "Domestic violence knows no economic borders. It's an equal opportunity epidemic." She continued, "We are fighting stereotypic images all the time." The Genesis website outlines a full range of services and a menu of information including how children in a household are impacted and teen dating violence. One in three teenagers report incidents. This can lead to increased odds of girls engaging in substance abuse, eating disorders, and contemplating suicide.

In a city as large and diverse and Dallas, one of Lanbein's top challenges is reframing the "preconceived idea of a shelter." She told me the story of a doctor who had come to Genesis for help. They discovered that her husband was tracking her whereabouts through her GPS navigation system. "Safety planning for clients is key," Lanbein said. "How do they protect themselves if they are staying and how do they protect themselves if they are leaving."

Following up on our conversation, Fairweather sent an email with the upbeat footnote that "the abuse response and prevention community is strong, with an established presence in nearly every American city."

Yet, it was accompanied by stats from new studies that reveal that approximately "60 percent of all women will be victims of physical, sexual, or severe emotional abuse during their lifetimes." Fairweather referenced shame and silence as barriers to reporting.

Perhaps her strongest statement was the following:

"In my opinion, violence against women is the most important feminist issue we face today, because until we are safe in our own homes, we cannot begin to discuss moving forward in areas of politics, education, and equality."

Additional Resources:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Women'sLaw.org -- legal information and support to victims
Gwen Alert: Free Mobil App for Emergency Texts
Spot The Signs -- PDF downloadable brochures and information
VineLink -- Online version of VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) the National Victim Notification Network
Contact elected officials to pass the Violence Against Women Act

This article originally appeared on the women's healthsite EmpowHER.