Societies have made important gains in addressing the problem of domestic violence, particularly in the area of service delivery to its victims. However, millions of women are battered by their intimate partners every year in countries around the globe.
HISTORY AND OUTRAGE
During the 1960s, the women's liberation movement began drawing attention to violence committed against women, and the battered women's movement began to form. At its core was the outrage of women who argued that individual cases of violence against women in the home added up to an enormous and unacceptable social problem. By the end of the 1970s, statistics proved that isolated cases of abuse were part of a shocking national problem. Victims became more visible; so, too, did the inadequacy of society's response. The battered women's movement emerged, becoming one of the most powerful social justice and service movements in United States history.
Shelters and hotlines began to spring up around the country. What began as a social, service-based response to crisis began to take on political urgency. The staggering numbers of women and children turning to shelters perpetually outpaced the growth of the movement. The shelter work uncovered endless horror stories: law enforcement officials who mislabeled domestic disturbances, judges who ruled in favor of perpetrators, and health care providers who mishandled violence-related injuries. At every turn, women seeking help could expect indifference, hostility, and endangerment. It became clear that helping women in crisis required more than front-line emergency services. It required changing the established social institutions and creating or changing the laws that affected them. During the 1980s, a vibrant network of nearly two thousand domestic violence programs in the United States organized into state coalitions, formed to take on the challenge of pressuring social institutions to adequately respond to victims.
The 1990s proved to be a watershed decade. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, 1994) was passed, a major federal bill that provided more than $1 billion to assist shelters, train law enforcement personnel and judges, and support other crime-prevention efforts addressing violence against women. The decade also saw, via live television, the trial of football legend O. J. Simpson for allegedly murdering his former wife, Nicole, and her friend. Though he was eventually acquitted of criminal charges, Simpson's case prompted unprecedented media coverage of the issue of domestic violence.
DILEMMAS AND OPPORTUNITIES
The domestic violence movement clearly has a rich history of achievement. The critical front-line service provision crisis response, while central to saving some women's and children's lives, can never realize its mission: to reach out to all victims. Despite its rapid growth, the service system is unable to keep pace with widespread need. Prevalence statistics and anecdotal evidence all point to the epidemic nature of domestic violence: Nearly one-third of American women (31%) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Yet only a
The domestic violence movement's agenda remains predominantly shaped by the quest to improve services for, and to make laws accountable to, domestic violence victims. As a result, the notion of domestic violence prevention in North America and most of Europe relies heavily on punitive criminal intervention. Although the movement has consistently educated policymakers and other institutions, the advocacy community has not focused collective attention on developing an agenda for preventing domestic violence at its earliest stages.
The criminalization of domestic violence and the sensitizing of criminal justice agents should by no means be abandoned. However, emphasis must also be given to other sectors of society, including communities of faith, health delivery systems, and workplaces. Preachers, doctors, employers, coworkers, friends, and family members are all in a prime position to reach out to help women facing abuse, as well as to let batterers know—perhaps for the first time—that their behavior is simply unacceptable. Evidence suggests that many battered women are actually more comfortable talking with friends and family members about the violence in their lives than with trained domestic violence professionals whom they do not know. Developing leadership within each of these arenas, then, represents a huge potential for disseminating more broadly messages that can begin to change the social norms.
Unfortunately, pervasive cultural acceptance of domestic violence at all levels of society helps to explain how the justice system has historically responded to domestic violence. Typically, police have not taken the problem seriously, rarely arresting perpetrators. When battered women persevered and tried to press charges, district attorneys often refused to support their cases, and the cases that did make it to court were likely to be dismissed.
While laws have strengthened the ability to respond to domestic violence cases, covert attitudes that condone battering explain why inaction is the norm rather than the exception. According to a 1996 public opinion survey, almost half of Americans (47%) currently believe that men sometimes physically abuse women because they are stressed out or drunk, not because they intend to hurt them. Clearly the domestic violence movement has yet to cultivate widespread attitudes that condemn violent abuse of women.
RECREATING A SENSE OF OUTRAGE
One of the greatest challenges facing the domestic violence movement is the widespread perception that spousal abuse is a "private matter." Domestic violence is often perceived as private business between two individuals that requires therapy rather than intervention. Creative approaches are needed in order to move a private matter into the sphere of public concern and to translate that public concern into a widespread social consensus for action. A successful strategy would include the following: a comprehensible institutional change approach to empower individuals to make contributions through the institutional structures that touch their daily lives; an emphasis on prevention that is partnered with an ongoing commitment to victims; a multifaceted media campaign that begins to change the collective social consciousness; and a reigniting of the community-based, political activism that spawned the movement in the first place.
For example, in the early 1990s, The Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) began to explore ways to strategically inject the politics of outrage back into the domestic violence movement in the United States, combining media and community-based activism into an overall approach. In 1994, the FVPF launched a nationwide media and grassroots organizing campaign called "There's No Excuse for Domestic Violence." It targets the friends, family, and coworkers of victims of abuse who sanction the violence with their silence and whose actions can help change social norms. The campaign includes public service announcements that trumpet the campaign's key messages that "domestic violence is everybody's business" and "there's no excuse for it." In one powerful print ad, viewers are confronted with the image of a man brutally beating his cowering wife, under the words: "If the noise coming from next door were loud music, you'd do something about it." These public service announcements provide a toll-free number individuals can call for a free action kit, which details concrete ways people can address abuse in their workplaces and communities.
These and other programs that generate and communicate this kind of collective sense of indignation about the problem of domestic violence work toward a broader, more comprehensive approach that involves ever more components of society. Their aim is to proactively affect public policy and wide-ranging institutional policies, community responsibility, and individual action, and to move a "private issue" into a public space in which domestic violence is forbidden.
The Commonwealth Fund (1999). Health Concerns across a Woman's Lifespan: The Commonwealth Fund 1998 Survey of Women's Health. http://www.cmwf.org/programs/women/ksc_whsurvey99_332.asp.
National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control (1998). Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.
Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J. (1990). Physical Violence in American Families. Somerset, NJ: Transaction.
U.S. Department of Education (1998). Violence and Discipline Problems in Public Schools: 1996–1997. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Department of Justice (1998). Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends. Washington, DC: Author.
—— (1997). Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments. Washington, DC: Author.