by Meaghan Morelli
The recent violence publicly perpetrated by Michael Swiergosz against his estranged wife, Barbara, has moved the topic of intimate partner violence to the forefront of local awareness. Swiergosz surrendered to police, but only after attacking his wife with a crowbar and holding her at gunpoint for more than five hours at her place of employment, the Sunset House.
As horrifying as these events were, they follow a typical pattern of abuse. In fact, the Family Violence Prevention Fund estimates that 74 percent of abused women are harassed by their abuser while at work, just like Barbara Swiergosz. When you consider that nearly one third (31 percent) of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, the scope of the problem becomes clear. Most disturbingly, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2005, 33.3 percent of female homicide victims were murdered by an intimate partner.
Despite the prevalence of intimate partner violence, most people misunderstand the dynamics of the issue. And it remains one of the only crimes for which public sentiment places the blame on the crime victim. After nearly a decade of working in the arena of domestic and sexual abuse, it still shocks me that people how often people ask "Why doesn't she leave? What's wrong with her?" Almost no one asks "Why does he think it's alright to beat his wife with a crowbar? What's wrong with him?" Changing our public discourse about domestic abuse is one of our best weapons to combat it.
The reasons women don't immediately leave abusive situations are many and varied. Physical abuse almost never starts at the outset of a relationship. Abusers wait until the relationship has grown roots-financial, familial, emotional roots. The deeper these roots run, the harder the relationship is for the abused partner to untangle. Additionally, abusers often exert control over the couple's finances, further frustrating a woman's means to safely exiting a volatile and violent situation. There are usually threats involved as well. "If you leave, I'll find you and I'll kill you/the kids/your family." Every abusive situation is a potentially deadly one; no one knows this better than the person enduring the abuse.
The good news is that, together, we are capable of combating this violence. We can educate ourselves and our families. We can change the way we talk about domestic abuse. We can support those we know or suspect are in dangerous situations. We can urge our legislators to take decisive action on this issue, making it more difficult for offenders, like Michael Swiergosz, to gain release after perpetrating violence against their families. Domestic abuse is not a private matter; it is a public health problem that needs everyone's attention. By raising our voices, we give strength to those silenced by this violence.
Meaghan Morelli is the Editorial Director for the Joyful Heart Foundation's quarterly journal, Reunion. She has worked with the issues of domestic and sexual abuse since 2001.