Giving Domestic Violence the Attention It Deserves

"Pictures win us cases," the attorney said as I sat across her desk. Between us was a pile of photo exhibits for the imminent trial of her client: a 23-year-old domestic violence victim from a town less than twenty minutes from my own. One picture was a headshot, a selfie clearly taken on her mobile phone; she had a black eye and was bleeding from the side of her head. I flipped through the rest of the photos slowly: abrasions, bruises, and lacerations. This woman, the attorney told me calmly, had been trapped in her own home by her ex, tied up, and beaten with a bat. These are the photos that the attorney would introduce at a trial for a Final Restraining Order.

From May to August, I interned at two domestic violence nonprofits. One, Partners for Women and Justice, is a domestic violence legal services nonprofit founded by a woman in my hometown and located next to my public library. The other, Sanctuary For Families, is New York's leading service provider for domestic violence victims.

My understanding of women's rights was flipped on its head in just a few months. I was aware of gender-based violence throughout the world, but not of the sheer number of domestic violence acts in my country, state, and even hometown. I learned on my first day of work that 1 in 4 women are victims of domestic violence. I met many of these women; they came to Partners for Women and Justice for free legal help and to Sanctuary For Families to meet with attorneys and social workers, live in shelters, receive free food, clothing, and childcare, and participate in an Economic Empowerment Program that would allow them to re-enter the workforce, hopefully at above-minimum-wage jobs.

These women were brave beyond belief. At Sanctuary, I grew to know a cohort of fifty women, all working to graduate from the nonprofit's Economic Empowerment Program in June. I worked individually with ten of these women, teaching them how to write resumes and cover letters and helping them apply to jobs. I tutored one woman in high-school math so that she could obtain a GED and apply to accounting positions. Another woman came to me in search of health insurance. She had working papers but no Green Card, and she needed a primary physician for severe medical issues. After doing research on healthcare options for immigrants, I learned that domestic violence victims are exempt from the usual waiting period for health insurance. Within a few weeks, I was able to sign my client up for a year of free Medicaid coverage.

With Sanctuary's help, women (some of whom were still living in shelters) got career-track internships and jobs. At Partners, I saw women take initiative and fight for their safety, relaying their horror stories at trial before a judge and with their abuser sitting in the same room. Some women were in their early twenties, just a few years older than me. Some had been married to their abusers for decades.

I initially wanted only two things out of my summer: an internship related to law and to help women. Domestic violence law and economic empowerment was something I never considered, because when I used to think about women's rights or gender discrimination, I never knew about the reality of domestic violence. And I don't think I'm alone in that.

When most people think feminism, the first things that might pop into their heads are reproductive rights and equal pay. Before this summer, these were the feminist issues that I focused on, too. When anyone around me doubted that sexism still existed in our country, I instinctively cited that women still earn 77 cents to men's dollar, and that even though Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide 42 years ago, it is still a legitimate question to ask someone whether they are pro-choice or pro-life.

When I tell friends from college that I spent my summer with domestic violence victims, their eyes widen. I have gotten responses like "that sounds dark," or "that doesn't seem fun." Domestic violence is heavy, of course, but the women I worked with were inspirationally optimistic. It was fun to watch fifty women at Sanctuary walk across a stage and receive certificates indicating their completion of the Economic Empowerment Program. Some pumped their fists, blew kisses at their children in the front row, and leapt at the leaders of the program in the biggest hugs. At Partners, the news of a Final Restraining Order was met with cheers from the whole staff.

It was beyond rewarding to help women grow and remove themselves from toxic relationships, but the growth I saw in myself was just as fulfilling. I gained a new understanding of what it means to be a woman and a feminist.

Domestic violence is a taboo issue, but it shouldn't be. After all, 78% of people know someone who has been abused. We must confront the fact that it can happen to anyone at anytime - race, wealth, or education is no protection. If we are going to change this, the reality of domestic violence needs to emerge from the shadows and enter the gender equality conversation. For me, awareness was the first step. Now, domestic violence is a primary reason that I am a feminist, and I can only hope that it becomes one for others, too.