Thursday, July 05, 2007

Curing the Violence Epidemic

The recent tragedy of Jessi Davis, a pregnant Ohio woman murdered at her home in front of her toddler son, allegedly at the hands of the father of her unborn child, is just the newest case in a string over the past decade. The Laci Peterson case was the most sensationalized case of maternal homicide and was front page news for over a year. The case led to the prosecution of her husband, Scott Peterson, for the first-degree murder of her and their unborn son, Connor. Unfortunately, this is just one case among many. It is easy to overlook the overwhelming numbers of families affected by maternal homicide when viewing each as an isolated event. We as a society need to wake up recognize that maternal homicide is growing and ask ourselves the following questions; why is murder the leading cause of death for pregnant women and what can we do to stop that alarming trend?

The first problem in addressing the issue of maternal homicide is the number of groups that claim it is not a public concern. These groups argue that the media has sensationalized the issue of maternal homicide and the American public has developed added sensitivity to the issue, making it bigger then it really is. Whether or not the number of incidents is growing or if we are just more apt to hear about them with our constant stream of news, it is hard to argue with the research on the topic. Murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant women. 3 in 100,000 pregnancies will end in murder. As many as 320,000 pregnant American women are physically abused by their partner each year.

If crimes against pregnant women just appear to be on the rise due to coverage, then think about all violence against women that is not covered by the media. Perhaps the focus on maternal homicides is making the issue appear larger, which does raise a question on the value of a woman’s life while not carrying a child, but it is at least serving as a catalyst to bring attention to the broader issue of abusive relationships. The statistics are staggering; about 33% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner and 25% of American women will be physically abused by an intimate partner or former partner in their lifetime. Women are increasingly victims at the hands of their partners and we must come together to resolve the growing violence against women.

States and the federal government have passed numerous laws tackling the issue of violence against pregnant women. The Unborn Victim of Violence Act of 2004 makes the death or injury to a child in the womb a separate offense from the crime against the mother. While enacted with the best intentions, this law focuses on punishing the perpetrator and does nothing to combat the issues before women become victims. Focusing on the root causes of violence will save not only mothers and their unborn children, but hundreds of thousands of other women who are victimized by their partners.

In order to stop the pattern of violence against women it is important that each and every person take action. As overwhelming as the problem is, there are things we can do, as individuals and as a society, to stop the abuse epidemic.

Admit there is a problem: Too many people have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to the issue of violence against women. Admitting women are subject to violence by men is not implicating every man of being violent, it is acknowledging there are some who are making the whole look bad. Even harder then admitting a societal problem is admitting if there are any issues closer to home. If you know someone who is potentially a victim of an abusive relationship then help them get out. It’s not “airing their dirty laundry” or “butting in,” it is saving a life.

Understand that abuse is not always physical: Women need to understand the stages of abuse and recognize if their significant other is abusive. This might sound easy, but domestic violence can involve behavior that causes psychological harm, used to maintain power and control over a woman, and can often go unrecognized before it is too late. Abuse does not need to be physical, and ultimately, physical abusers often begin with emotional abuse before turning physical. Many sociologists and psychologists believe the changes in family dynamics caused by a pregnancy can trigger physical abuse and there are signs, however benign, of issues. The US Department of Health and Human Services encourages women and their families to understand the sign of an abusive relationship before it becomes violent.

Treat violence against women as a public health issue: The government, non-profits and private organizations contribute millions of dollars to the research and treatment of diseases with one major reason being the cost associated with treating diseases. The health-related cost of rape, physical assault, stalking and homicide against women exceeds $5.8 billion each year. If we focused funds towards combating this issue, we would save women’s lives and reduce the nation’s healthcare spend.

Stop blaming the victim: The auto-response for many regarding attacks on women is “what did she do?” Victims are blamed for dressing provocatively, for being in the wrong place, for “not knowing her place” and also for “asking for it.” There is no excuse for violence against women and the worst excuse is trying to blame the victim. Stop the excuses on why women are targets and start focusing the blame on those committing the crime.

Focus on Men’s Culture: From a young age, boys are permitted to be more aggressive and violent, and the phrase “boys will be boys” is used to write off these tendencies. Violence and tempers are fueled by television, movies and video games depicting violence against women, with the most used example being Grand Theft Auto. Men who are macho with violent behavior are revered by the entertainment industries and, all too often, their parents. I have written on the difficulty of raising sons, as there is a fine line on how to raise a strong son or a violent man. Boys are taught to fight, to be strong, to be a man… unfortunately, many boys become men who use these lessons to victimize women. Keep your ears and eyes open to the kind of sexist and violent messages the people in your lives are getting and do what you can create less violent surroundings. Encourage healthy competition and teach boys to respect all people, including women. There are plenty books on the topic of raising sons in our violent culture. Read them, even if you don’t have children of your own but have them in your life.

Support the Cause: Give your money, time, attention and efforts to organizations that help women recover from abusive situations and teach men to be less violent. Look into local shelters that need clothes, food and volunteers. Men should support the White Ribbon Campaign, the largest effort in the world of men working to end men's violence against women, as a personal pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women.

Embrace Equality: Millions of women throughout the world are subject to discrimination and attacks against them because they are female. Everyone can combat inequality through actions, both big and small. Support and pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Enforce the Equal Pay Act to close the wage gap between men and women. Encourage women to major in math and science. Ensure sons are doing the dishes as much as daughters. Allow women to become priests. Give women control of their bodies and their destinies. Until we eliminate laws, customs, traditions and religious practices that create double standards and discriminate against women, society will continue to perceive women as less worthy then men and will be subject to abuse and violence.

With action, we all could do something to create a world where women can be truly independent without fear of doing everyday things like walking to their car at night, run in an empty park, engage in romantic relationships or have a child with a person they trust and respect. The benefits of curing the epidemic of violence against women will reach everyone, regardless of age, race, religion or gender; a less violent society is better for everyone.

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