Outlawing Domestic Violence

By Coukos, Pamela | Civil Rights Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Outlawing Domestic Violence


Coukos, Pamela, Civil Rights Journal


What's Working and What Isn't

Four years after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and well over two decades after the founding of the nation's first battered women's shelters, domestic violence continues to plague women and children in the United States. The VAWA hearings provided a national wake-up call about a shockingly high rate of battering in our society and a sadly inadequate response Congress documented that our police departments, prosecutors and courts, deeply infected with gender bias, often failed to respond to domestic violence as a crime or blamed the victim for the violence The VAWA began a major Federal commitment to improving the criminal justice system and services for battered women by providing Federal dollars and encouraging local partnerships among criminal justice systems and victim advocacy organizations.

At this juncture, we can report important progress, but tragic deficiencies remain. Communities around the country are experimenting with promising approaches and partnerships. More Americans than ever recognize that domestic violence is a serious and important problem in our society. Local, State, and Federal policymakers place the issue high on their agendas. However, despite this progress, shelters continue to turn away women that they cannot serve, and women are still murdered by intimate partners at a dramatically high rate Cutbacks in government support for low-income families are causing serious problems for battered women and their children. Gender bias is still a serious problem in too many State and local criminal and civil justice systems. Thus, a review of the latest developments on domestic violence finds both reasons for hope and causes for concern.

The Nature and Character of Violence Against Women

Any assessment of our response to domestic violence should begin with looking at how prevalent domestic violence remains. Women disproportionately experience intimate partner violence -- including physical and sexual abuse committed by current and former spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends. From spousal battering to acquaintance rape, violence against women and girls largely happens at the hands of someone they know, and usually someone with whom they have a relationship. For example, approximately 37 percent of women seeking injury-related treatment in hospital emergency rooms are there because of injuries inflicted by a current or former spouse or intimate partner (Rand, 1997).

The most recent data from the Department of Justice, which provides a conservative estimate of violent crimes against women, shows how different intimate partner violence is for men and women. (The following are taken from Greenfeld, 1998, unless noted otherwise).

--Between 1992 and 1996, women and girls experienced on average close to one million incidents of assault, rape, and murder by a current or former intimate partner annually. (Other estimates such as the 1985 National Family Violence Survey found the annual rate to be much higher). During this same period, men experienced only about 150,000 violent crimes by an intimate partner.

-- The homicide rate for intimate partner violence has declined dramatically since 1976, but the vast majority of that decline can be attributed to a steep drop in the number of men killed by current or former spouses or intimate partners, Thirty percent of female homicide victims are killed by intimates--a rate that has held steady for the past twenty years.

-- Teenage girls (age 16-19) experience one of the highest rates of violence by an intimate partner when compared to other age groups.

-- Strangers commit only about one in five incidents of sexual assault against women; friends and acquaintances commit over half of these assaults and intimate partners about one fourth (Bachman and Saltzman, 1995).

In short, the most common perpetrator of physical or sexual violence against a woman is a man known to the woman, often her intimate partner. …

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