We Need More Than Talk About Domestic Violence, We Need Truth

Right now Americans are talking. We are talking about Donald Trump. We are talking about Hillary Clinton. And we are talking about WikiLeaks. But what we aren't talking about is one of the most important public health issues of our time - domestic violence.

That needs to change. Not just because it's October, which means it's Domestic Violence Awareness Month - but because nearly one in three women and one in four men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. It's simply too big a problem to stay quiet about. So, as we observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it's vital that we spark an honest and candid dialog. The only way we can unite domestic violence perpetrators, survivors, researchers and service providers to create a world free from domestic violence is if we banish it from the shadows.

Make no mistake, incidents of domestic violence are occurring every day in every community, in every socio-economic group and every race. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 10 million women and men in the United States experience physical violence each year by a current or former partner. In 2011, one in 12 children witnessed a family assault, and one in three reported witnessing one in their lifetime, according to the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, a U.S. Justice Department-sponsored study that is considered the most comprehensive on the subject. And yet we remain silent.

But we know that domestic violence is much more than violence between a man and a woman. Those affected by domestic violence are husbands, wives, children, partners, grandparents, grandchildren, and even pets. If left unaddressed, the cycle of domestic violence is reproduced generation after generation. When children are exposed to domestic violence they are being set up to either become perpetrators or to experience violence themselves. In fact, children who grow up with domestic violence are 74 percent more likely to commit a violent crime against someone else. They are also at risk for higher rates of infant or child mortality.

The staggering numbers and the heartbreaking stories compel us to begin the conversation. It is time to end the silence. According to a 2013 survey conducted for the Avon Foundation, 53 percent of Americans know a person affected by domestic violence, but only 15 percent say it is a problem among their friends. Two out of three people have never talked about domestic violence with their friends, and almost three in four parents have never discussed it with their children. A staggering 75 percent of domestic abuse occurrences go unreported.

The most vulnerable and voiceless members of our society are constrained from speaking out on their experiences with domestic violence, even to family members. Sometimes the reasons are cultural. In some communities, asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness. Others are financially dependent on their abusers, and still others don't know how to begin a conversation or whom they can trust. If there are children involved, there are legitimate fears of statements to friends and family being used against the speaker in family court, if there is a custody battle.

In our communities, silence also comes from fear of confronting our assumptions about domestic violence. For some, domestic violence is something that happens to people who are "not like us." So, in a superficial way, we empathize with the women, children and men who have experienced domestic violence, but we keep them at a distance and are reluctant to truly listen to them.
We vote for politicians who say they will "crack down" on perpetrators of domestic violence, but we don't ask the deeper questions. Domestic violence has devastating long-term effects on all who are involved in it - women, children, men and pets - and it is part of a cycle of behavior that is difficult to break. But policymakers do not hear the voices of people who experience domestic violence.

The silence has had another devastating impact - stagnation in the domestic violence field. In the past 40 years, there has been remarkably little change in strategies to address domestic violence. That is unacceptable. Our goal at Sojourner Center is to create a world free from domestic violence. We know this can happen, but not if the domestic violence field remains so complacent.

We must all take a hard look at our assumptions, engage the academic community in searching for evidence of what works and what doesn't, challenge what we think we know about the problem and begin to have conversations that will be uncomfortable for some. It is crucial that we develop better programs that will reach men, including men who abuse. We need to increase our cultural sensitivity and awareness, and recognize that we are trying to change norms in diverse communities. Most importantly, we need to make the public aware that we all have a stake in creating a world free from domestic violence because it is at the root of many other costly social problems.

Each year that the domestic violence status quo persists, more women, children, men and pets are caught in the cycle. If you believe, as I do, that we can solve this, we must both speak up and listen harder. Domestic violence deserves our attention and our resources. We must foster safe space where we can have real conversations with the women and men who experience domestic violence, and from a foundation of truth, begin the transformation our communities need.

Dr. Maria E. Garay-Serratos is CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix, AZ. She knows we can end the cycles of domestic violence and create a world free from domestic violence. With this blog, Dr. Garay-Serratos will advance the conversation, spotlight new research and practices and share information that can transform lives.