National Domestic Violence Awareness Month takes place in October to raise awareness about this critical social and public health issue. One out of every four women and one out of every 10 men will experience sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month fact sheet.
Domestic violence affects people of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, abilities and economic statuses. It can come in the form of physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. Understanding its pervasiveness, recognizing the signs and supporting survivors are key to addressing this often hidden epidemic.
Domestic Violence: A Pervasive Crisis
On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive over 19,000 calls nationwide according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Nationally, more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence every year. Access to a firearm can exacerbate the problem, increasing the risk of femicide by 400%.
Domestic violence also has profound effects on children; data shows that partner violence often coincides with child abuse. More than a third (33.9%) of children who witnessed partner violence were also maltreated in the past year. Nearly 57% have experienced mistreatment in their lives, according to the Domestic Violence Awareness Month fact sheet. The health effects on children who experience domestic violence are also critical. According to the report, children who witness domestic violence are more likely to suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, diabetes, stroke and heart disease due to the stresses these traumas cause.
Domestic violence is also a workplace issue. Between 2003 and 2008, 142 women were murdered in their workplace by former or current intimate partners. This amounts to 22% of workplace homicides among women.
With stay-at-home orders in place at the height of the pandemic, many domestic abuse survivors were forced to be trapped at home with their abusers. Interestingly, calls to domestic abuse hotlines dropped by 50% during this time, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. However, this drop didn’t reflect a decrease in violence. Instead, researchers said it likely meant many people could not safely call for help in their abuser’s presence.
Homeschooling and economic stressors have also contributed to the crisis. Additionally, the New England Journal of Medicine said doctors’ offices are often where professionals have the opportunity to detect these issues and refer patients to services. With doctors’ offices closed for non-urgent visits, this resource also disappeared.
Believing Survivors and Knowing the Signs
The Domestic Violence Hotline conducted a study alongside Professor TK Logan at the University of Kentucky to understand women’s perceptions of how law enforcement deals with instances of domestic abuse. The subjects were women who had previously called the hotline, and at least two-thirds said they were afraid if they reported the abuse, police wouldn’t believe them or do anything to intervene.
Not believing survivors of domestic abuse can put families at further risk. According to the Domestic Violence Awareness Month fact sheet, when the courts do not believe adult survivors of domestic abuse and accuse them of lying in an attempt to alienate their children from their partner, custody of their children often goes to the abuser. In one study, when child sexual abuse allegations were made against the father and the mother was alleged to have alienated the children, the father’s likelihood of winning the custody case increased to 81%.
Symptoms of Abuse
Not all signs of domestic abuse are easily detectable.
Some of the most common signs that someone you know is being abused include:
- The person makes excuses for injuries.
- The person experiences changes in personality, such as low self-esteem.
- The person is constantly checking in with their partner and is overly worried about pleasing them.
- The person inexplicably skips work, school or social events.
- The person never has money on hand.
- The person wears seasonally inappropriate clothes, such as long sleeves in the summer to cover bruises.
Keep in mind that these signs can apply to men as well. One in 10 men experience domestic violence, but men are often more reluctant to report abuse because they are embarrassed or afraid no one will believe them.
Gender identity and sexual orientation also play a role. In LGBTQ relationships, an abusive partner may threaten to out the victim to their friends and family or tell them they are not really how they identify.
Abuse doesn’t necessarily just occur in person; digital abuse is a form of emotional manipulation that can consist of the abuser tracking or controlling the victim’s location and online habits or insisting on constant phone communication.
How to Intervene
Intervening in situations of domestic abuse may be dangerous, but helping victims reach out for help is important.
According to the National Voice of Domestic Violence, you can
- Call the Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), the Safe Horizon Hotline (866-604-5350), state or local violence intervention hotlines or 911.
- If you’re witnessing abuse occur in front of you, it may help to record the incident in case it can be used as evidence in courts.
- If it is safe, approach the victim and offer assistance. Also, use the moment as an opportunity to assure them the abuse is not their fault. If you need to be covert about approaching the victim, do it under the guise of pretending they are an old friend. (Although, if you are a man approaching a woman with a male abuser, this tactic is not recommended because it may escalate the situation.) Try to move your conversation to a public place where there is more foot traffic.
- If you believe abuse is happening behind closed doors, give the victim opportunities to speak up to you. It can be under the guise of asking a neighbor for a cooking ingredient or a piece of lost mail. If you are approaching the victim at school or in the workplace, do it somewhere where the abuser is not within earshot. Be as subtle as you can in your approach to avoid retaliation from the abuser.
- A victim may outright deny the abuse is occurring, and you cannot force someone to leave. It takes an average of seven attempts before a survivor will successfully leave their situation. Keep lines of communication open and establish yourself as a lifeline the survivor can reach out to when they are ready.