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By Nicholas Kristof
What strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the US every six hours? This scourge can be more unsettling to talk about than colonoscopies, and it is so stigmatising that most victims never seek help.
Paula Denize Lewis, an executive assistant here in Atlanta, was among those who kept quiet about domestic violence, for that’s what I’m talking about. She tried to cover up the black eyes and bruises when she went to work, and when she showed up with her arm in a sling, she claimed that she had fallen down the stairs. Then one evening, she says, her alcoholic boyfriend was again beating her, throwing beer cans at her and threatening to kill her. She ran for a telephone in the kitchen to call 911, but he reached it first and began clubbing her on the head with it. Lewis reached frantically into a kitchen drawer for something to defend herself with. “I grabbed what I could,” she said.
What she had grabbed turned out to be a paring knife. She stabbed her boyfriend once. He died. Lewis was jailed and charged with murder. With the help of the Women’s Resource Centre to End Domestic Violence, the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter, she was sentenced to probation. That episode underscores the way our silence and squeamishness about domestic violence hurts everyone. If there had been earlier intervention, Lewis might have avoided years of abuse and a felony conviction — and her boyfriend might still be alive.
Women worldwide, ages 15 to 44, are more likely to die or be maimed as a result of male violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more Americans, mostly women, have been killed in the last dozen years at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property. “My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’” Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened.
Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime. Ta’Farian is now in hiding, fearful of her husband as well as of the courts; she dissolved into tears as she was telling her story, partly out of fear that her conviction could cost her the continued…