Three women are killed every day in the United States due to domestic violence. That amounts to over 1,000 deaths every year. Last year, in my home state of Georgia, 128 Georgians were killed as a result of domestic violence. When the cases were reviewed by a fatality team, they discovered that in most cases, their deaths were preventable: others knew and could have intervened.
Of those 128 Georgian women who were murdered in their own homes, three-quarters of them were employed outside of the home and a third belonged to a faith community. This means that supervisors, co-workers, clergy and fellow worshipers could have intervened. Reviewing news stories about domestic violence homicide, one almost always finds mentions of family and friends. They usually say that they knew that something was going on, but they felt powerless to help.
Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men have been in an abusive relationship. That means that most of us will come in contact with a woman in an abusive relationship at some point in our lives. But how often do we ask about it?
In my research, I’ve found that many women want to help a friend or family member in an abusive relationship but feel like they don’t know how to help. Over and over again, I hear the same script from women who suspect that a friend, relative, or coworker might be suffering at the hands of a loved one. “I think relationships are private and that she is an adult who can make her own choices. I recognize that I can’t make her do anything differently. I think she might get mad at me. I’m not sure what I should say or do, I’m not sure what advice to give or if she’ll listen.” Given the statistics, chances are that you, reader, have spoken this very same script.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, so let’s work to change the script and start the conversation. Being in an abusive relationship can be an isolating experience. Abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, can break one’s spirit and damage the soul. Most women really don’t need you to give them advice. They need you to listen and be supportive.
Starting the conversation can be difficult. You can say something like, “When I see your bruises and injuries, I worry about you and I worry that someone is hurting you. I want you to know that you can talk to me about it.” You can also let her know you’ve noticed her her sadness or anxious behavior. The important point is to find a way to ask about the abuse and open the lines of communication.
To keep communication open, it is important not to ask if she did anything to cause or invite the abuse. Her partner tells her it’s her fault and too often, society acts like abuse is the fault of the abused. You don’t want to blame the victim and make her feel worse for talking to you. You also don’t want to talk to her partner about the abuse. He could become very angry with her for letting you know about the abuse and retaliate by hurting her.
Refrain from asking why she stays or try to force her to leave him. Leaving is a process and most women who are abused leave several times before finally separating from her partner. Some women love their partner and want the abuse to end but not the relationship. Focusing on leaving can alienate her and close the door for communication.
Once you’ve established lines of communication, you can ask about her safety and encourage her to think of and plan for her safety. Planning for safety is critical, especially if she’s thinking of ending the relationship. The risk of being killed by a partner increases when a woman leaves the relationship. Several website and crisis phone lines, such as National Domestic Violence Hotline; Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network; and the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, have safety plan information.
If you suspect that someone you know and love is being abused, reach out. Ask them about it. Support her. Help to keep her safe. The point is do something.
Amar is a professor at Emory University who conducts research and has published over 35 papers on sexual assault and partner violence. Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Health Resources Services Administration. She is an Op Ed Project Public Voices Fellow.
“Stock Photo: Fearful Battered Woman Peeking Through The Blinds To See If Her Husband Is Home” on Shutterstock