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Bringing the Impact of Domestic Violence Home

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Speakers for "Domestic Violence, Gender & Culture" (Photo Credit: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

(left to right) Sethu Nair, Yi-Hui Chang, Jennifer DeCarli, Stephanie Spanos, Aurelie Athan, Melanie Brewster

When the actress Selma Hayek was a little girl growing up in Vera Cruz, Mexico, she and her father took a walk one evening and encountered a man beating up his wife. When Hayek’s father, an Iranian, intervened, the woman attacked him, shouting that her husband had the right to beat her whenever he chose.

That story – recounted by speakers at “Domestic Violence, Gender & Culture,” a conference held in TC’s Milbank Chapel in October – motivated Hayek to become an outspoken defender of women’s rights and a leading champion against domestic violence. Yet the anecdote also illustrates the complex issues that can act as barriers to protecting people from abusive spouses and partners.

“People say to me, ‘I don’t get it – if I was in an abusive relationship, I’d just leave,’” said Jennifer De Carli, Executive Director of the New York City Family Justice Center. “Well – no. You have no idea what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.” People stay in abusive relationships because of family ties, cultural norms, financial pressures – and, ironically, because of a concern for their own safety. “The time when you are most likely to be killed is when you leave your abusive partner,” De Carli said.

“Domestic Violence, Gender & Culture,” drew more than 100 attendees who, along with the panelists, wore purple to honor October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The conference also marked the one-year anniversary of The Sexuality, Women, and Gender Project (SWG), which presented the event. SWG was co-founded by three faculty members in TC’s Counseling and Clinical Psychology Department, Aurelie Athan, Melanie Brewster, and Riddhi Sandil, with funding from a Teachers College Provost Investment Grant.  Athan, Brewster, and Sandil all lead large and active teams of masters- and doctoral-level students in research aimed at promoting the needs of LGBTQ individuals and women. With an executive advisory board composed of Tom Rock, Executive Director of Enrollment Services, Marie Miville, Chair of the Counseling and Clinical Psychology Department, and Gregory Payton, TC’s LGBTQ Point Scholar, SWG also keeps a pulse on diverse student recruitment, retention, and integration of its own mission throughout Teachers College.

Domestic violence – and in particular violence against women by their partners – is “vast, widespread and pervasive, both locally and globally, in our homes and on the streets,” said Athan, the conference’s organizer, who serves as Lecturer and Coordinator of the Master’s Degree Program in TC’s Department of Clinical Psychology. Among the many grim statistics Athan shared with her audience: Physical or sexual violence is a public health problem that affects more than one third of all women globally, according to a report released in June by the World Health Organization (WHO). Among women ages 14-49, between 15 and 71 percent will experience domestic violence during their lifetimes. And while there are many types of violence against women, including forced and early marriages, human trafficking and honor killings, partner-on-partner violence is by far the most common form.

“In the landscape of gender relations, women are typically victims of men’s violence against them,” Athan said. “One in four U.S. women report violence at the hands of a current or former spouse or partner. Battery is the number one cause of injury to women, more common than muggings and automobile accidents combined.” And the incidence of domestic violence escalates after couples marry and have children, “so motherhood confers no protection.”

In New York City, of the 683 homicides in 2012, 58 percent were of women killed by an intimate partner. Of  the 119,355 total assaults that took place in New York City during that same period, 80 percent were against females, and 27 percent were committed by intimate partners. 

Panelist Sethu Nair, the Manager of Communications & Outreach at Sakhi, an anti-domestic violence organization working with the South Asian population of New York, underscored the import of these numbers asking, "Who in this room has experienced abuse or knows someone who has?" Nearly every hand in the room was in the air.

Panelist Stephanie Basilia Spanos, a psychiatrist for families and children, spoke about the developmental toll that domestic violence takes on children. She spotlighted the pervasiveness of domestic violence in children's literature, ranging from Cinderella and Harry Potter to the Brothers Grimm, and Oliver Twist. Children often witness domestic violence and may ultimately be the ones to call the police – yet they typically do so as an absolute last resort, Spanos said, because they are biologically adapted to protect the family from outsiders. She said that she often confronts cases where abused children suffer learning problems, emotional disturbance, alteration of the physical brain, and traumatic brain injury -- a consequence typically seen in the context of war.  

Panelist Yi-Hui Chang, the former Assistant Director of the New York Asian Women's Center, described case managers who often suffer from insomnia, burnout, compassion fatigue, and PTSD symptoms (vicarious traumatization) after listening to extreme narratives of human suffering. She said that immigrant victims often face a unique dilemma between leaving an abusive relationship and involving the criminal justice system, which can hinder their efforts to file for an independent visa. Asian immigrants also experience pressure to not only preserve the reputation of their families in the United States or other host countries, she said, but also to preserve the reputation of their families in their home countries of origin.  Chang spoke of the complex constellation of domestic violence within some collectivist cultures in which not only partners, but also in-laws and other extended family members abuse women.  Most women, regardless of cultural background do not wish to lose complete ties with their loved ones no matter how violent the context, Chang said.

Yet, men, too, suffer from violence at the hands of loved ones – and their stories are just as poignant in dramatizing how deep attachments run. As one panelist recounted, the actor Patrick Stewart, who portrayed Captain Piccard in Star Trek: The Next Generation,  suffered at the hands of an abusive, alcoholic father, against whom he sought to defend his mother.  But Steward has reportedly said that he still wants to be adored by his father and knows he is still trying to please him.


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