Given the proliferation of mass shootings and terrorist bombings, it is no wonder that untimely death may be on our minds. These heartbreaking and infuriating tragedies can trigger fear about going to public gatherings. Yet, the truth is that you are more likely to die at the hands of your intimate partner.
While we may fear terrorism, for the average American, the possibility of being harmed by a terrorist is one in 3.5 million.
For women, the odds of being harmed by an intimate partner are one in four. Intimate partners (spouse, common-law spouse, ex-spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend) are involved in 74 percent of all murder-suicides. And of these, 96 percent were women killed by their intimate partners. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is the leading cause of female homicides and injury-related deaths during pregnancy. We should also not lose sight of the fact that time after time we see that those who are responsible for mass shootings also have a history of domestic violence.
Here, in Arizona, an average of two women a week are killed by their intimate partner. As the recent case in Tucson’s posh La Encantada Mall reminded us, IPV affects all of us. While a woman was dining, a disgruntled ex-spouse walked into a restaurant and opened fire on her, injuring her and killing another person before turning the gun on himself.
Domestic violence cuts across all races, religions, sexual orientation, age groups and socio-economic levels.
As a public health professional with 30 years of experience training clinicians and community health educators, I am aware of the hidden scourge of intimate partner violence (IPV), which is defined as a pattern of assaultive and/or coercive behaviors to exert power and control by one partner over the other. While both men and women can be victimized by an intimate partner, women make up 95 percent of IPV cases.
On a positive note, more and more clinics are including screening protocols for assessing IPV for both women and men. In southern Arizona, where my organization provides continuing education, all federally qualified community health centers, now include IPV screening questions in their clinical intake process and referral guidelines for providers. Abused women who talked with their health care provider about it were more likely to leave the abusive relationship.
While this is encouraging, much more needs to be done to recognize and refer IPV. People use violence in intimate relationships because they had a history of violence or other trauma in their family — estimates are that over 15 million children live in households where DV has occurred in the past year, they are mirroring violence in society, or they learned they could get away with it. Because intimate violence is a learned behavior, that means we can do something about it.
Strides have been made in the area of bullying, violence, and teens; mass public awareness and school intervention campaigns have been developed with varying degrees of success. School children are learning that everyone plays a role in bullying, even the people that stand by and do nothing. The same parallel can be drawn with domestic violence. Our society has not responded with the same support and widespread call to action for IPV.
Our media in large part, plays into the intimate partner violence cycle by perpetuating stereotypes in a culture of dominance that not only allows but rewards men who take sexual advantage of women.
At the same time, news reporting of injury and death due to domestic violence is presented as individual cases, but not examined at a community or societal level. Whereas teen bullying and suicide, drug-related injury and death and other behavioral health related deaths are examined as societal level problems.
In order to change this misperception, we as a community must start to lift the shame that surrounds being a victim of domestic violence. Acknowledging that it exists and providing support to all people in abusive relationships is just part of the process of education. Everyone should know the signs of someone who may be in an abusive relationship. For instance, some of the common signs of abusive relationships include a partner: preventing you from having contact with friends or family, threatening to take away your children, making fun of you or mocking you in front of others (in addition to physical harm).
Simple things like sharing supportive, nonjudgmental words: “You do not deserve this” or “I am worried about your safety” are ways to encourage women, and men, to seek help while reinforcing that violence is not acceptable.
Referring family members, friends, and work colleagues to local resources is another way to proactively address domestic violence. National resources liked the Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) are there to help people in violent situations.
For this public health issue to truly be addressed, we all have to play our part. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues, all of us.
Gail E. Emrick is Executive Director of the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow.