Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Health

Violence against women continues to turn deadly

The day that news broke of the famous South African athlete getting arrested for shooting his model girlfriend, I happened to see a friend of mine.

We talked about the story as I imagine millions of people did. But my friend's reaction astonished me.

"I don't get it,'' she told me. "She was so beautiful.''

Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot by Oscar Pistorius — whether knowingly or accidentally is in dispute — certainly was beautiful.

So is my friend. And if it does turn out to be the case that Steenkamp was threatened by the man she loved, that would be another similarity between the slain model and my friend.

I turned our brief conversation over and over in my head. Then I called Linda Osmundson, a domestic violence survivor who leads CASA, Community Action Stops Abuse, in St. Petersburg.

How, I asked, could anyone, much less a woman who has been victimized, ever think beauty is protection from violence?

This did not astonish Osmundson one bit. Women (and men) who are victims of domestic violence routinely seek to excuse their tormentors by finding fault with themselves. If only I were a better cook, a better parent, a better partner — and more beautiful — I wouldn't be abused, goes the reasoning.

The allegations in the Steenkamp case immediately reminded Osmundson of Nicole Brown Simpson, killed at her Los Angeles home in 1994. Her former husband, O.J. Simpson, was acquitted then later found liable for her death in a civil trial. CASA's phones rang constantly after her death.

"We had men saying to women, 'I'm going to O.J. you.' Anytime there's a famous homicide we hear from women whose partners tell them, 'You better mind your p's and q's or that's going to happen to you.' "

At least those women called for help. "Lots of battered women don't identify themselves as battered women,'' Osmundson said. "They'll minimize it by saying, 'He just calls me names sometimes. He doesn't beat me every day. He didn't draw blood — he just threw his fist into a wall an inch from my head.' ''

Last year, 13 people died due to domestic violence in Pinellas County, Osmundson told me. Her agency's crisis line gets nearly 7,000 calls a year. CASA is trying to raise $10 million for a modern shelter. Now located in an old house, it had to turn away 700 adults and about as many children last year for lack of space.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared intimate partner violence a major public health problem. Some facts from a 2010 CDC study:

• About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point.

• Nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner.

• Violence leads to serious health problems beyond immediate injury — victims are more likely to report chronic pain, sleep problems, mental health issues — even asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes.

Then there is the ultimate consequence: Death. Federal data shows that a majority of American women who die of gun violence were shot by their intimate partners.

That's a fact that has long been known, but was brought up yet again in the debate over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, now stalled in Congress.

"People are ignoring the Violence Against Women Act,'' Osmundson said. "They're saying it's a has-been problem. Or that it doesn't affect them.''

Just wishing it were so, however, doesn't mean that domestic violence will go away. Nor will blithely insisting that it is a problem only for faceless statistics, victims in police reports — or perhaps beautiful South African celebrities.

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