Guest post by Judith Randall
In collaboration with WAVAW
There is a red ESCAPE button, and below, instructions that read: Click the button above to immediately leave this site if your abuser may see you reading it.
This warning appears on the United States Department of Health and Human Services website, in a section called “Violence Against Women.” The website lists suggestions on how women who are in an abusive relationship can get help, such as calling the police and hotlines, contacting a rape shelter or rape crisis center, reaching out to trusted people for support, and talking to a healthcare professional. But why is there a need for this warning and ESCAPE button? The Canadian Women’s Foundation website may have part of the answer: “On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. In 2009, 67 women were murdered by a current or former spouse or boyfriend.” And the probability of violence escalates when a woman leaves or attempts to leave an abusive relationship.
But couldn’t the red ESCAPE button on the US healthcare website also be a symbol for regaining one’s self-esteem when the victim decides to take action and leave the abusive relationship behind? Yes, it could. But not all women have access to the level of support from their community that might enable them to take the emotionally and physically risky (not to mention logistically difficult) step of leaving an abusive relationship. Transition homes, rape crisis centres, and other women’s anti-violence organizations are chronically underfunded; women’s need for such services far exceeds the resources available. And many women face barriers in accessing help—services might not be available in their language, for example, or might be inaccessible if they have a disability, lack transportation, live in a rural or remote area, or have their movements controlled by their abuser. When community support is not available, the options for escaping abuse are extremely few, and suicide becomes more likely. When survivors of violence take their own lives, we need to understand that the culture of violence kills. Misogyny kills. Rape kills. Rather than questioning individual women’s choices, we need to examine the big picture of violence in our society and get outraged at the root causes of women’s deaths.
According to Kevin Caruso, founder of www.suicide.org, statistics show that “One out of four women who are victims of domestic violence attempt suicide. Thirty-three per cent of rape victims have suicidal thoughts. And 13% attempt suicide, even years after the rape.” And the Centre for Suicide Prevention of Canada states that suicide ranks as “ninth leading cause of death in Canada in 2009, approximately 3,890. Men are more likely to die from suicide (a three times higher rate than women), but women are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide.” Dr. Madelyn Gould, expert on teen suicide and bullying at Columbia University, New York, says, “Research has found that physical abuse, sexual abuse and bullying increase suicide risk; however, estimates of the number of teenage girls who die by or attempt suicide following physical or sexual abuse or bullying in the US and Canada each year are not currently available.”
Why not? Where are our health care services, legislators, police, courts, education systems, and social services while our teenagers are being impacted so severely by the violence they are enduring, sometimes to the point of suicide? While many service providers and community organizations are deeply committed to supporting survivors, that isn’t always enough to ensure women’s safety and save lives. Our entire society needs to confront the culture of violence and the multiple forms of oppression that give rise to rape and physical abuse, and to direct our material resources accordingly.
We also need to consider the accountability of men who commit violent crimes against girls and women. There is a limited amount of research (again) concerning this subject, but Step It Up!, an Ontario website, is waging a campaign to get the Canadian government to be more proactive in confronting violence against women and to put some real teeth into laws protecting women and prosecuting their violent male offenders. To this end, Step It Up! lists 10 steps to make it easier for us to understand the issues and become actively involved in working towards change. Step number seven on this list addresses male accountability: “In Ontario today, most violent men continue to abuse, sexually assault, stalk and terrorize women, relatively without consequences.” The fact that few men are held legally accountable for their violent crimes is connected to the fact that, as Judith Herman so aptly points out, rape is more of a compliant behavior within a rape culture than a deviant behavior. Because of this reality, most women still do not call police to report male violence. Only about 27% of women in shelters call police. Only about 10% of women ever report sexual assault. Many women do not use the justice system because they believe (too often rightly) that the police and courts can’t or won’t help them.” Step It Up! makes it abundantly clear that huge systemic problems in the criminal justice system are to blame for the low reporting rates. The choice of many survivors not to report their assaults makes perfect sense in the context of a broken and often victim-blaming legal system.
Women who have survived violence need more accessible therapy, they need police who are trained in the best methods in responding to calls of domestic violence and rape, they need the court system to take domestic violence and rape more seriously, and they need legislators to push vigorously for stronger laws against violence against women. In fact, we all need to help make these changes happen by challenging rape culture in our daily lives and by pressing for political reforms that are supportive of women. And all of us will be safer when these changes do happen.