In over 20 years of working with and developing programs for victims and survivors of domestic violence, I’ve seen tremendous progress and growth when it comes to the way people perceive, address, and prevent domestic abuse. As we recognize the 30th anniversary of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, there are many accomplishments to celebrate. Critical pieces of legislation have been put in place to expand the LGBTQ community’s access to protective court orders, and celebrities and public figures are using their platforms to start conversations about domestic violence. I’m encouraged that New York City has added hundreds of beds for domestic violence victims and their children seeking both emergency and longer-term shelter, and that the field continues to take additional measures to truly listen to and learn from survivors.
However, our work is far from complete. Even after three decades of educational initiatives and campaigns to end domestic violence, 20 people are victims of intimate partner violence every minute in the United States. Stigmas, misconceptions, and fear continue to prevent victims from seeking the help and resources they deserve. But Domestic Violence Awareness Month provides an opportunity to leverage awareness in the fight against domestic violence – and while recognizing and talking about the pervasiveness of abuse isn’t easy, sometimes the most difficult topics to speak about are the ones that are the most necessary to discuss.
To begin, it’s critical that the community understands that there is no one face of domestic violence – this is an issue that cuts across ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, and age. We simply cannot disregard male victims when 1 in 7 men will be victims of severe violence by an intimate partner. We cannot leave out the LGBTQ community, which is more likely to experience intimate partner violence than those with a history of only opposite-sex cohabitation. Many people incorrectly perceive domestic violence as strictly man-on-woman abuse, which further marginalizes some of the most vulnerable victims.
By elevating community awareness, we can achieve two critical missions: ensuring that organizations offer services and resources that suit the needs of all domestic violence victims, and creating an environment where those who do not fit the false notion of what a victim looks like feel comfortable coming forward and seeking help.
Moreover, spreading awareness is key to conveying that domestic violence rarely occurs in a vacuum, and that fighting this issue often involves addressing many different forms of abuse. For example, people may fail to recognize economic abuse as an underlying factor that keeps victims in the hands of their abusers. In fact, economic abuse is present in 98% of abusive relationships.
Abusers may open up credit cards in their partners’ names, prohibit them from working, or restrict their spending money as a method of control. Economic control can keep a victim in place despite a physical ability to leave an abusive situation, or prevent survivors from establishing independence even after escaping. Providing shelter and a safe place for victims is paramount, but we must also understand the ties that individuals have to their abusers, so that we can work together to undo them. Raising awareness around economic abuse can also help individuals recognize the signs of financial control early on, and potentially see a warning sign of a dangerous relationship before it escalates to physical violence.
Domestic violence is also paired with verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. By being aware of these connections, we can promote best practices in addressing the issues, integrate support systems, and provide holistic services and programs.
At Urban Resource Institute, we provide services for all individuals impacted by domestic violence, but we cannot eradicate abuse until the community at large is aware of and understands the nuances of the issue. Fortunately, I predict that the trend in dedicating dollars to educational campaigns at the city and state level will continue – because eliminating domestic violence is rooted in spreading awareness.
Only through awareness can we teach young adults about healthy relationships to stop cycles of violence early on. Only through awareness can first responders and law enforcement officials recognize the signs of abuse and know how to intervene safely and effectively. Only through awareness can victims of all walks of life feel empowered to come forward and escape their situations. And only through awareness can we, as a community, end domestic violence.
Nathaniel Fields is president and CEO of Urban Resource Institute, one of New York City’s largest providers of services for victims of domestic violence and their families.