On September 17, 2013, the National Network to End Domestic Violence took a random snapshot of requests coming in to domestic violence shelters and resources across the country. On that day, 66,581 requests for help were made by people living with abuse. There were 20,000 calls made to hotlines -- that's one every 14 minutes. Nearly TEN THOUSAND (9,641) requests for housing, transportation, legal assistance or childcare were unmet (5,778 were for housing alone). The study found that most of those looking for help and were turned away -- 60% of the total -- were leaving their abusers. Today, they released the findings of their study, which also documented three incidents that happened on that day. In one instance, a woman escaped after her husband severely assaulted her and threatened her with a knife. In another, a woman's son tried to protect her from her abusive husband. In a third, a man stabbed and raped a woman in front of his friends. It's worth repeating that, every day, three women are killed by spouses in the U.S.. This isn't happening in the mythical "Over There," but in our neighborhoods, communities and schools, to people in our religious communities and workplaces.
When I speak publicly about violence against women, this comparison, which you may have seen before, is the one that stops people in their tracks because while we can, culturally, understand the horror of war and the sacrifices of soldiers, we are disinclined to think of the terrorism of everyday domestic violence in our midst: The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq is 6,614. The number of women killed in the same period as the result of domestic violence in the U.S.: 11,766. That number of women killed is only slightly higher than the number of requests made, mainly from women, actively seeking help avoiding a situation where they night end up being killed EVERY DAY... and being turned down.
What happens when people are turned away?
The study did not track this, but others have. When people leave, 27% become homeless and 11% report that their families end up living in cars. Sixty-three percent of homeless women report domestic abuse, and when they have children, that number goes up 92%. Domestic abuse is cited by 50% of U.S. cities as the primary cause of homelessness.
Other studies reveal that when people leave their abusers about 60% of them return. This happens for a whole host of reasons beyond individual psychological makeup and personal interactions between two people. Leaving is not a decision taken lightly by women, who make up the bulk of domestic violence victims, especially those with children. Fully 30% of women who are murdered are killed by intimate partners (versus 5.3% of men). Of the total number of homicides resulting from intimate partner violence, roughly 75% of those killed are killed as they tried to leave or after they had left. Interpersonal violence starts when people are children and becomes part of their lives as they age in a cycle that replicates itself.
The facile response "Why doesn't she just leave him?" ignores not only the real risk of death, but the cultural, social, economic and structural environment that people function in and is fundamentally based on the belief that the person being assaulted is in control of the situation or to blame for the violence. This question inverts the reality of domestic violence: "A pattern of behavior in an intimate or dating relationship that includes a range of abusive tactics which establish and maintain coercion and control of one partner over the other."
That question makes no allowances for the actual need to live, eat, work and be able and healthy. It makes no allowances for, as a young woman said to me last week, thinking day and night to the point of pervasive anxiety and distraction, "I'm just waiting for him to kill me. It doesn't matter where I am or where I go." On a practical level alone, just walking out the door is expensive. The average cost of emergency care for domestic abuse-related incidents for women and men is $948.00 for women and $387 for men. (Until the passage of the new healthcare law, insurance companies were not required to provide coverage for women victims of domestic violence -- a "preexisting" condition that made them an expensive "risk.") If you find yourself asking that question, try asking, instead, "Why doesn't the abuser leave?" or "Why does an abuser keep abusing?" Maybe you should watch this Diane Sawyer interview or listen to actor Patrick Stewart describe his childhood.
Then, of course, there's the criminalization of women for defend themselves, implicit and institutionalized discrimination in the law, and the fact that women's survival strategies are being judged by a normatively gender-biased "reasonable man" standard that fails us every day. Marissa Alexander's case is the sad, perfect storm of all of these factors. She now faces the possibility of more than 60 years in jail for firing a warning shot, that hurt no one, into the air, in self-defense, after a spouse with a history of violent abuse threatened her. As her advocate, Sumayya Fire, said in a recent statement: "That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves." In the United States, Black women are almost three times as likely to be killed by intimate partners and more likely to be imprisoned for acting in self-defense.
The idea that domestic violence is no one else's business or that women can just pick up and leave, as a matter of "personal responsibility," is just one more dimension of the havoc that our fetishized patriarchal system continues to wreak on people's lives.
The truth is that the unmet requests are probably on the low side considering that only 87% of the organizations participating in the survey reported back. During the past year, 71 local programs reduced or completely got rid of their transitional housing services. Almost the same number of programs, 69, had to similarly reduce or eliminate legal services aid and 38 organizations limited or ended emergency shelter provisions. These are life-saving programs that need money and people.
Women seeking help because they have nowhere else to turn regularly contact me, an unaffiliated writer. While I am happy to try and find resources that they can turn to, this is absurd in the United States in 2014. The dynamics of domestic violence are complex and changing them requires not just one thing to change, but many things simultaneously. There is not enough public outrage about this everyday violence and, the truth is, people who are outraged often don't know how to intervene, whether to intervene or what to do. When they do help, they are often dismayed when abused women return to their spouses for the many reasons they do. However, one thing people can do is make sure their local shelters have resources. When I am contacted, I try and point people to organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which does as much as humanly possible to find legal help, shelter and a support network that might save lives. But, without money, without a legal and judicial system that treats understanding domestic violence as a priority, without cultural disgust for domestic violence "jokes" and endorsements for celebrity abusers, victims of domestic violence have very little recourse.
Today, Melissa Skelton, a survivor of domestic violence, spoke at a Congressional briefing about the eight years of physical and psychological torture that she was subjected to in her home at the hands of her husband. A substantive portion of this abuse took place during her two pregnancies. Spousal murder is one of the two leading causes of death for pregnant women. The second is suicide. Skelton eventually found help at a local shelter and was able to rebuild her life. Millions of others don't.
For the life of me, I can't figure out why the socially tolerated rape and abuse of women in their own homes, because they are women, is not considered a hate crime. Many men, too, are abused and suffer tremendously. However, this abuse is not part of a larger fabric of widespread global gender-based violence -- ranging from street harassment to domestic violence to honor killings and more. The impact of abuse is also gendered and qualitatively different -- economically, physically, psychologically. Women survivors of intimate partner sexual assault, abuse and stalking tend to suffer higher numbers violent incidents and experience greater injuries (and need for medical care), more need for housing, fear, anxiety and missed school and work. I suspect strongly that the number of men, who face similar and in some cases exacerbated problems finding assistance, is higher than reported because of the double stigma of feminized victimization, a whole other issue.
Reduced government funding, that would be the same government whose historic institutional biases exacerbate the chances of gendered domestic violence and increase the financial vulnerability of women, is the primary reason abused people are being left to face violence, death, homelessness and psychological trauma. If you haven't already, please consider contacting your legislators to make sure that he or she is voting to increase funding to support shelters and resources designed to provide assistance to people living with domestic violence. It costs nothing and means so much.
If you've been the victim of sexual assault or rape, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673).