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First, end the silence

The squeamishness on domestic violence hurts everyone.

Updated: March 10, 2014 6:14 am

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 custody of her son.

Domestic violence is infinitely complex in part because women sometimes love the men who beat them: they don’t want the man jailed; they don’t want to end the relationship; they just want the beatings to end. Women can obtain temporary protective orders to keep violent boyfriends or husbands away, but these are just pieces of paper unless they’re rigorously enforced.

Sometimes the orders even trigger a retaliatory attack on the woman, and police officers around the country don’t always make such a case a priority — until it becomes a murder investigation. One way of addressing that conundrum is mandated classes for abusers, like one run by the group Men Stopping Violence. Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the US has seen enormous progress.

Three steps are still needed. First, we must end the silence. Second, we must ensure that police departments everywhere take the issue seriously before a victim becomes a corpse. Third, offenders should be required to attend training programmes like the one run by Men Stopping Violence.

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