11/18/2013 09:27 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Contextualizing Domestic Violence

October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and as we carry on with holiday preparations, it might be easy to forget that intimate partner violence happens 24/7... every day of the year. It is also important to remember that domestic violence does not affect everyone equally. In addition, a number of groups face different barriers and contextual realities when it comes to accessing services. Here, I would like to (very briefly) discuss three groups that are too often ignored in mainstream conversations about intimate partner violence. My hope is that we begin to think contextually and culturally when we talk about domestic violence and the services we provide to victims and survivors.

Latin@ (Immigrant) Communities

While Latinas, for example, experience domestic violence at similar rates as do non-Latinas, this group faces unique barriers when trying to access services or support. For example, Latinas are only half as likely to report abuse to authorities as survivors from other ethnic and racial groups. We can attribute this to a number of reasons including distrust of authority, police or government. The lack of reporting can also be attributed to language barriers or immigration status. A person may fear deportation for herself, her children or loved family members. In fact, many Latina survivors report that immigration status is often used as a control mechanism by their partners to ensure that they do not leave abusive situations. This well-founded fear can impact a Latina's decision to report abuse, seek services and leave abusive relationships.

In addition, many Latinas also face economic barriers. As Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, writes, "Many [immigrant] victims are economically dependent on partners with legal work status, remaining in abusive relationships because they cannot be eligible for work on their own." With language barriers as well as legal and economic concerns, many Latina survivors face little choice but to stay in abusive relationships. When survivors do seek help, mainstream service organizations often fail to provide culturally specific and competent support for Latina survivors. One 2009 study, for example, found that almost one in three shelters did not have any Spanish-speaking staff.

LGBT Communities

One significant misconception I've encountered in my work is that LGBT individuals do not experience much intimate partner violence. Why would they? These are couples that have been marginalized and oppressed -- why would they oppress each other? At least, that's the line of thinking that I have heard too many times. Nevertheless, 25 - 33 percent of the LGBT community experiences domestic violence, and this community, too, faces unique contextual factors that impact the way intimate partner violence gets enacted. For example, many LGBT individuals fear having their sexual identities revealed, as outing someone can have serious implications for closeted individuals. As I've mentioned in more extensive writing on intimate partner violence in the LGBT community:

In 29 states, employers can fire someone who is gay, and in 34 states, an employee can be fired simply for being transgender. LGBT youth are also more likely to become homeless than their heterosexual peers. In addition, LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates than heterosexual homeless youth (62 percent versus 29 percent).

Other forms of abuse specific to the LGBT community can include withholding medication from individuals who are transitioning (male to female or vice-versa), gender-specific insults ("you are too butch to be a real woman"), and identity theft (in an arrest, a man uses the ID of a boyfriend who is then left with a criminal record).

The LGBT community also experiences a number of barriers when accessing services. For example, almost half of LGBT survivors have difficulty (or simply cannot) access shelters. A fourth of survivors are mistakenly arrested as aggressors and over 55 percent of LGBT survivors do not receive orders of protection. These barriers make it more difficult for LGBT individuals to seek and find the support they need when considering whether to leave abusive relationships. Imagine the additional repercussions that outing can bring to an LGBT Latin@ who might be undocumented or not speak English. Not only would this individual face marginalization and barriers as a Latin@, but also as an LGBT person.

Religious Communities

When I think of the many programs I've worked with or visited, very few come to mind that operate with a religious sensitivity in mind. For example, Muslims pray five times a day and need a designated, clean and quiet space for prayer. However, not many shelters provide special rugs and specifically designated spaces reserved for this. Very few advocates have connections to religious leaders and don't know, for example, that many mosques will donate appropriate rugs so that women can have space to practice their spirituality. Similarly, very few advocates know where women can buy food that is labeled halal (lawful) or zabiha (killed according to Islamic codes). When advocates lack information or do not provide religiously-specific services, we run the risk of turning away a number of survivors who do not fit the mainstream model.

The same can be said for Jewish survivors. Few advocates, for instance, know where survivors can attend a synagogue or buy food that is considered kosher. Moreover, few shelters provide spaces, utensils and cooking sets that are appropriate for food preparation. When domestic violence survivors from specific religious communities, then, seek services and support, they often feel further alienation and marginalization because mainstream programs do not meet their specific religious or spiritual needs.

Of course, these are only some groups in which domestic violence survivors face different dilemmas from those spoken in the mainstream. Native American women, for example, face rates of violent victimization more than double that of non-Native American women. Strong Oak, of the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, has been vocal about the lack of services and protections for Native American women as well as the specific barriers this group faces, "Indigenous advocates carry guns to protect themselves from retaliation from offenders... [and] many women who report [their offenders] are murdered in the bush. There is little justice for American Indian women living on tribal lands."


My colleagues at the National Latin@ Network and other culturally specific organizations have thought for some time about approaches that are culturally affirming. Here is a (by no means comprehensive) list of some recommendations we suggest when working with survivors:

  • Have a deep understanding of the communities in which you work (socio-cultural and socio-political histories, as well as current context, intersections of oppression, etc).
  • Be aware of the tremendous diversity within communities and avoid making generalizations. Be ready to challenge your assumptions.
  • Involve participants (including the youth) in developing new topics, activities, research studies, advocacy and community education strategies.
  • Use cultural traditions and values for enhancing prevention and intervention efforts to end violence, always being careful not to "romanticize" or deify the culture.
  • Make sure that the interventions/prevention efforts reflect the realities of the people who will participate. This requires being involved with and knowledgeable about the local community. It also requires you take into consideration the subgroups present within the community (ex. culturally specific communities, persons with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ survivors, etc.)
  • Be flexible and honor the concept of family as defined by the individual: in some cultures, grandparents, godparents, close friends and others are given equal access within the family structure.

For more ideas or information on working from a culturally affirming approach, I suggest listening to the National Latin@ Network's webinar entitled Being Trauma Informed: Expanding Our Lenses. This webinar, found in our expansive webinar archive, can also be accessed in Spanish.

It's important to note that while domestic violence can affect anyone, how people understand their situations and their resources is casted in a number of frameworks and identities -- socio-economic, legal, cultural, and religious, to name a few. To complicate matters, people are not just Latin@s, or LGBT, or religious -- some are none of these identities and some are all of them at once. To better serve survivors of intimate partner violence, thus, programs must consider people's intersecting identities and backgrounds. If not, we run the risk of operating counter-productively to our goals of helping all survivors of intimate partner violence.

This piece originally appeared on the Harvard Kennedy School blog Beyond the Binary.