by susan lenfestey
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I'm a bit leery of the things our nation decides to focus on for a day or a month. Seems to be an easy sop to the things we ignore the rest of the time. And for many of us, domestic violence is easy to ignore. It shouldn't be.
As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times (October 16) "The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is far beyond the ability of any agency to count. We're all implicated in this carnage because the relentless violence against women and girls is linked at its core to the wider society's casual willingness to dehumanize women and girls . . ."
Herbert's op-ed details some of the culturally acceptable practices at play, everything from the violent porn and "snuff" videos easily available on the web to the more mainstream marketing practices such as the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt for young women emblazoned with "Who needs a brain when you have these?" across the chest.
Gender-driven violence is pandemic. A recent study conducted in ten countries by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) confirmed that violence against women by their intimate partners is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from the crowded cities of Japan to the remote highlands of Ethiopia.
The assaults documented by the W.H.O. report ranged from moderate to severe, from slaps and blows to broken bones and rape, attacks which in most countries would be charged as a crime if committed by a stranger. But the shield of intimacy protects the abuser -- a cruel perversion of the tenderness and safety intimacy ought to provide.
In the United States, which was not included in the W.H.O. study, national surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that nearly 25 percent of women said that they had been physically or sexually assaulted by a spouse, partner or date. This puts the leaders of the free world about on a par with Serbia, but more violence-prone than Japan, (15 percent) and less than rural Ethiopia (71 percent).
The effects of such violence reaches far beyond the walls of home, even if the telling never does. Children who grow up in the withering climate of family violence are more likely to develop social, emotional, psychological and or behavioral problems than those who do not. And, in many cases, as adults will mimic the violence they witnessed.
The damage doesn't stop with the children. The cost in dollars (now we're talking) is huge. The annual cost in lost productivity due to domestic violence in the United States is estimated at $727.8 million with more than 7.9 million paid workdays lost per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Just think. If women's wages were equal to men's, that number could be even higher. Thank goodness for fiscal repsonsibility.
The health bills are equally staggering. The cost of intimate partner violence is estimated to exceed $5.8 billion each year in care for immediate injuries. That does not include the costs of ongoing health problems such as chronic neck or back pain, migraines or ulcers, which are only now coming to light as directly related to a life lived in fear and fraught with violence.
In Minnesota, the recent murders of Terri Lee, who had repeatedly contacted police in the weeks before her death, and of Rachel Kastner, also killed (by her husband) in front of her children, made headlines and left us shaken and angry. Yet the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women has documented 13 other murders of women by their intimate partners (two more were murdered by their sons) in Minnesota so far in 2006, and most of them go unnoticed.
When a woman or child is murdered or raped (usually only if that woman or child is white and middle class) the outrage is often directed towards the justice system for failing to do its job. It's true that historically crimes against women were given short shrift and that we still see far too many offenders pile up a litany of charges without any real consequences from the courts.
But in the vulgar and demeaning culture Herbert describes in his column, holding the justice system accountable for our safety is like feeding our children a steady diet of junk food and holding the medical system responsible for their poor health. Which, come to think of it . . .
Well, not to make light of bad health, but if I had my druthers I'd rather marry the guy who's into donuts and fried cheese curds than the one who came up with the idea for that Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt -- or Grand Theft Auto. And yeah, for all I know it was a woman. (But she got paid less.)
Talk about a digression.
We're a world and a culture awash in degrading and disgusting attitudes towards women and we see the results all around us. What's the answer? I haven't a clue, but I know it's going to take far more than a month of awareness.