Sunday, October 17, 2021

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Before I begin, a brief word about terminology may be useful. There is no universally agreed-upon phrase to refer to what we alternatively call domestic violence, intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and family violence. Often, these phrases are based in a specific discipline and reflect that discipline’s approach. Moreover, definitions may categorize different kinds of violence, such as physical, sexual, emotional, financial, and social. There are also legal categories and definitions, such as battery, assault, and homicide. Then there is the question of who is included, since domestic violence can involve parents, children, lovers, ex-es, and extended family. Its affects can range from mild to severe, from temporary trauma to death. Whatever this violence is called, its effects are pervasive and destructive. And our personal and social well-being cannot be separated from bringing domestic violence to an end. 

20 Per Minute


Since 1981, October has been set aside as “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” (DWAM), as a time to educate the public, share resources, and bring victims, advocates, and social service providers together. Forty years is a wonderful milestone to celebrate, and it’s also a long time from the perspective of our individual lives. But it is also a shocking reminder of just how recently domestic violence was largely considered socially acceptable, necessary, and even moral. 

    To the best of our knowledge, domestic violence before colonization was rare among indigenous peoples in the land we now call the United States ( ). But settlers brought the habit with them from Europe and carried it with them as they spread across the continent. Following English common law, husbands were encouraged to beat their wives “for correctional purposes,” though the switch could not be larger than the man’s thumb. The practice went largely unchallenged through the centuries, and it was legally upheld in 1824 by the Mississippi Supreme Court. That ruling reinforced the right of a husband to use “moderate chastisement in case of emergencies”. In Alabama’s defense, it was also the first state to revoke the legal right of wife-beating, which it did in 1871. Maryland went further in 1882, when it became the first state to make domestic violence a crime. It carried a punishment of “40 lashes or a year in jail.” By the late 1800s, culture had generally shifted enough so that laws preventing wives from being held under lock and key, or daughters from being sold into prostitution, became more common. In some places, domestic violence was also recognized as grounds for divorce. (  ) 

    But progress wasn’t straightforward, and people consistently found creative ways to avoid prosecution or reduce consequences for domestic violence. To give two examples, in 1886, North Carolina ruled that a husband couldn’t be tried unless domestic violence resulted in permanent injury, threatened death, or was “malicious beyond all reasonable bounds.” In 1962, New York moved domestic violence cases to the civil court, where an abuser faced fewer penalties than if convicted for assault in a criminal court. Victims also faced extra obstacles to leaving violent relationships, such as being disqualified for welfare programs based on their estranged spouse’s salary. And it was not until the 1970s that most US states allowed a victim of domestic abuse to take a spouse to court. Even then, resources remained scarce and largely informal; in 1979, only fourteen states funded domestic violence shelters. (ibid) 

    October became Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 1981. By 1989, the United States had more than 1200 programs supporting victims of domestic violence, with shelters providing assistance to over 300,000 women and children each year. In 1990, judges were finally required to take into account any history of abuse when determining child custody and visitation rights. In 1992, the American Medical Association released guidelines to help medical professionals screen for domestic violence. (ibid) But intimate partner violence remains shockingly common. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has documented that “nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States,” which is more than 10 million people per year. In fact, domestic violence is at least “15% of all violent crime.” ( )

The Social Context 

    The history, as always, is complicated. Obviously, very much has changed and we have a lot of progress to celebrate; we can be grateful for the hard work that won those victories. Obviously, domestic violence is still shockingly common; we can be grieved and outraged that this is the cases. To give you an idea of size of the problem, Missouri is in the top ten of states with the highest rates of intimate partner violence. Our 41.70% rate trails Oklahoma (49.10%) by only a bit more than seven percentage points. But there are no winners in these statistics. North Dakota has the lowest rate of intimate partner violence in the USA, and more than 25% of the population still suffer from abuse. ( ) At best, you have better than a 1 in 4 chance of experiencing violence in your home, a place that should be safe, beautiful, and full of joy.  

The obvious question that arises is: why is it so difficult for humans, including humans who live and love together, to stop hurting each other? As with so many things in the West, we tend to individualize both problems and solutions. And it is true that domestic violence is something that happens to individuals and particular families. But these statistics don’t happen by accident. Human relationships exist in social contexts, and family violence develops as part of our cultures and institutions. It may be less overwhelming to think about the problem as limited to the individuals involved, but when we make the social context invisible, we also make it difficult to understand what is happening and make good choices that lead to change. Bruce Perry made this point in 1997 in a foundational research report called “Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the 'Cycle of Violence.’” He wrote: 

“Widespread ignorance of the intimate relationships between cultural belief systems, childrearing practices and the development of violent behaviors will doom any attempts to truly understand, and prevent, violence...” ( )  

    This means, as the World Health Organization pointed out, that “Cultural and social norms are highly influential in shaping individual behaviour, including the use of violence.” Humans tend to act in ways that they believe are socially acceptable. If violence is viewed as a socially acceptable way to resolve conflict, or a strategy to control other people’s behavior, then individuals will act violently: 

“Social tolerance of violent behaviour is likely learned in childhood, through the use of corporal punishment or witnessing violence in the family, in the media or in other settings. Interventions that challenge cultural and social norms supportive of violence can help reduce and prevent violent behaviour.”   (  )

Plates in a Basket

    It’s not a complicated point when you think about it, but it’s an exercise we typically avoid, and it took me years to truly understand it. This was despite spending a significant part of my own life dedicated to the people and issues involved with domestic violence - as a family member, pastor, mediator, foster parent, activist, and friend. Beginning in 1993, most of my early pastoral ministry focused on family conflict and violence. This led to an invitation from the Mennonite Central Committee in 2007 to work with a small nonprofit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to help establish a program to address, prevent, heal, and transform family violence. It was a wonderful partnership, and I have a profound gratitude for the three years we worked together. 

    Peace Bridges didn’t start out addressing family violence. They were focused on training participants in basic conflict transformation tools that could be used in communities and organizations. But in the process of providing conflict coaching and mediation training, the staff kept hearing both stories of how participants were using the practices in their families and requests for more resources. It turned out that the training was impacting the participants’ experiences of family conflict, and some peacebuilders were taking the initiative and teaching these skills to other families in their communities.

    At the same time, we had a growing number of partners who were trying to address domestic violence. We learned that, despite an increase in resources and programs, violence in Cambodian families continued at significant rates. We had a baseline; two studies in the mid 1990s documented the experience (Plates in a Basket Will Rattle: Domestic Violence in Cambodia by Cathy Zimmerman in 1994) and prevalence (Household Survey of Domestic Violence in Cambodia by Erin Nelson and Cathy Zimmerman in 1996) of domestic violence in Cambodia. However, a 2005 study (Violence Against Women – A Baseline Survey by the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs) showed that, tragically, little had changed, despite a decade of effort. 

    That 2005 survey revealed that 64% of the population claimed to know a family that used violence by “Throwing something at the other, pushing or shoving or grabbing the other.” Further, 58% claimed to know a family that used violence by “Knocking on the head, slapping or spanking, kicking, biting, shaking, pulling hair, punching.” Even in families without physical violence, 93% of respondents said that it was acceptable for “cursing or insulting” to be used in family conflict and 92% claimed they knew a family that used cursing/insulting. Perhaps most significantly, respondent attitudes about the acceptability of violence, including extreme violence (e.g., threatening with a weapon, burning, choking, throwing acid, shooting, etc.), was consistently reported at disturbingly high levels. For instance, when asked, “In your opinion ... is it at any time acceptable for a husband to do this to his wife?,” 28% of respondents answered that it was at least sometimes acceptable to throw acid at or shoot the wife. (Violence Against Women – A Baseline Survey by the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2005)

    This was all despite “a wide range of donors, government agencies and NGOs working intensely to reduce domestic violence for … nine years.” Why hadn’t there been a more dramatic change in attitudes and behaviors? The authors concluded that the reason was that “At their core, these past approaches were unconnected to Cambodian values and attitudes.” (ibid) For example, a lot of work was done in Cambodia to pass a comprehensive law addressing domestic violence. That was a huge victory! Then, organizations poured resources into going into villages and communities to educate leaders and police officers about the new law. This was also essential. But there was a gap that wasn’t anticipated. In our conversations, we learned that in some situations, the village leaders or police officers were using their new knowledge about the law to help men avoid getting caught. Education, as the saying goes, sometimes just creates more clever devils. In another situation, a person had received extensive training in conflict transformation. A young woman who was abused in the home tried to leave, and the ambitious mediator was part of conflict process that only addressed the girl leaving home, rather than the abuse that made her leave. Preserving the family unit was the absolute priority, over the girl’s safety. In both of these cases, the programs failed to connect with Cambodia values and attitudes in a way that made change possible. At Peace Bridges, we responded by creating a long-term training program that specifically helped participants reflect on what it meant to be a healthy family in a Cambodian context, shifting norms in a way that fit the culture.

“Beyond That”

    I’m so grateful to all my friends and colleagues at Peace Bridges and our partner organizations. Working together was a transformative experience that also made sense of my experiences in the United States and has shaped my approaches since then. It helped me understand how political and legal structures reflect social norms about domestic violence. This is also why, over the last ten years, my focus has shifted more toward conflict and violence in the queer community, especially among transgender and nonbinary folx. Social norms around gender have tended toward the very violent in US culture, and it’s not a secret that wives have more often been the victims of domestic violence at the hands of husbands. ( ) Patriarchal violence can’t be separated from cisgender-heteronormativity. It’s no accident that equal rights for women went hand in hand with progress to address, heal, and prevent domestic violence. Similarly, equal rights for gender and sexual minorities, as well as for children, are now vitally important to continue to address, heal, and prevent domestic violence. 

    This is one example of what is meant by shifting social norms. Rigid gender roles and stereotypes are still prevalent and give 1) abusers an excuse to act violently and 2) communities an excuse to blame the victim. If you believe that men are more violent by nature, then maybe you also believe we should not hold them accountable for violence. If you believe that women are responsible for doing all the housework, then maybe you also believe that a man has a right to be angry if the housework isn’t finished. If you think that a man who expresses any emotions except excitement and anger is weak, then maybe you also won’t believe a man who has been abused. And if you don’t believe that transgender and nonbinary people exist, then maybe you also don’t believe we have a right to safety, dignity, and happiness in our homes. ( )

    Another social norm that plays a big role in domestic violence is gun culture. As reported by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, we know that 25% of homicides in the USA “are related to domestic violence,” and that a person is “five times more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner when the abuser has access to a gun.” We also know that “abusers often use the mere presence of a gun to coerce, threaten, and terrorize their victims, inflicting enormous psychological damage.” ( ) And yet, as a society, we continue to value easy access to guns more than we value human life or family health. 

    Religion has obviously played a big role in all of this, too. Unfortunately, we live in an area where a lion’s share of religious beliefs contribute to, rather than liberate us from, domestic violence. ( ) Last year, Harrison Keegan of the Springfield News-Leader and Kaitlin Washburn of the Kansas City Star teamed up to take a closer look at domestic violence in southwest Missouri. One of the stories, which will be tragically familiar, included a former member of James River Assembly of God, who reached out to the church after the police failed to take her seriously: 

“Joy sought counseling at the church, but the advice she received left her stunned and feeling betrayed. / A church counselor sat down with Joy and told her the abuse was her fault because she was not being a ‘godly wife.’ / ‘They used that as the basis for all of my counseling, that I needed to investigate myself more fully and figure out what I was doing wrong to force him to act this way,’ Joy said. ‘The counselor looked at me and said all of that is my fault and the wife is the one responsible for leading her husband to Christ.’ / Not long after that, Joy’s husband threw her down a flight of stairs and off a 14-foot balcony for not doing the dishes. She left him that day in the back of an ambulance.” ( )

    You probably will not be surprised by the pastor’s response: “It is the policy of James River Church that our counsel always prioritizes the safety and security of those who are facing abuse. … Beyond that we have no further comment.” (ibid) That was an opportunity to make things better, publicly denounce any interpretation of scripture in a way that excuses domestic violence, announce formal training for all counselors from people who actually understand domestic violence, and repent of the harmful ways religious institutions have blamed victims, tolerated and protected abusers, and put vulnerable people at risk for centuries. They could have reassessed harmful doctrines, such as women’s subordination or a view of atonement that necessitates and celebrates violence. But they didn’t do that. Hiding behind a flimsy policy that appears meaningless aside from protecting their own interests, they had “no further comment.” 

What we do and say is important. Our own voices may not be very loud next to all of these conservative megachurches and radio stations, but these are the voices we have. And we’ll continue to use them to insist that the world can be better, our homes can be safe and happy places, and our intimate relationships can be filled with love, instead of violence. For this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’m grieving for all who still carry the burden of family violence, who don’t know how to get out, and who have been opposed at every step toward freedom. But I’m also celebrating each one of us that has been able to break cycles of violence we learned in our families and create new families that don’t have to carry the burden of internalized oppression and generational trauma. May each of us find the people, resources, and places we need to have a life that is safe, free from harm and fear, and full of joy and love. 


National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 

National Domestic Violence Hotline:

(800) 799-7233 or TDD(800) 831-6863   

LOCAL HOTLINES (Southwest Missouri):

(417) 864-7233 or (800) 831-6863  


(417) 837-7700 or (800) 831-6863