You’ve passed them on the street, sat next to them in coffee shops and are friends with them on Facebook — women and teens who are, have been or will become victims of domestic violence during their lifetime. CDC statistics show that, on average, one in four women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, but many instances go unreported each year.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, among other services, Birmingham’s YWCA helps victims and survivors of domestic abuse in the Birmingham metro area. In honor of the women who have lost their lives as a result of domestic violence and the children who don’t feel safe at home because they have witnessed domestic violence, the YWCA has the Silent Witness and Feeling Safe at Home art exhibits on display in the lobby of their downtown building throughout the month of October.
The Silent Witness project shows women’s silhouettes depicting tragic deaths of domestic violence, reminding viewers that women who have died cannot testify about its fatal consequences. The Feeling Safe at Home project shows what it’s like to live in a home with domestic violence from a child’s perspective.
As the only certified domestic violence program serving the Birmingham metro area in Jefferson, Blount and St. Clair Counties, the YWCA provides services integral to preventing, exposing and eradicating violence against women.* Jennifer Caraway, director of domestic violence services at the YWCA, offers insight on the complicated issue.
Although it is known that upwards of a quarter of women in the U.S. experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, the abuse often goes unreported. In some cases, authorities don’t find out about the abuse until the victim is in the hospital for serious injuries or has died from the wounds. One of the many reasons why the abuse goes unreported is because society often stigmatizes victims.
“The most common question we seem to hear is, ‘Why does she stay?’ Leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence because domestic violence is all about power and control,” explained Caraway. “Once a victim decides to leave her abuser, the abuser realizes that he may be losing some of his power over his victim. In response, the abuser may escalate his abuse in order to maintain control over his victim and keep the victim from leaving.”
In addition to the fear of escalating violence, a victim may also fear what will happen if she leaves and cannot find a job due to limited job skills or work experience, if she is cut off from shared finances, if her home or property are destroyed by the abuser, and if she lacks supportive relationships due to isolation by the abuser.
These are legitimate fears that have been seen as forms of domestic violence. Financial abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and physical abuse fall under the umbrella of domestic violence, Caraway explained. Physical and sexual abuse are most commonly associated with domestic violence, but financial and emotional abuse are still prevalent.
“Some examples of financial abuse are rationing out money, not allowing the victim to work, withholding money, controlling finances or restricting victims to an allowance. Examples of emotional abuse are threats of abuse, name-calling and intimidation,” Caraway said.
Understanding domestic violence also means being aware of its misconceptions.
“Common myths surrounding domestic violence include beliefs that domestic violence happens only in low-income families. The fact is, domestic violence happens in all kinds of families, rich and poor, urban, rural, every racial, religious and age group. Another common myth is that alcohol and drugs cause domestic violence. Many abusers may use alcohol and drugs that may contribute to the violence, but that’s not the cause of the violence,” said Caraway. “I think the most common myth is that domestic violence is an anger control issue. Domestic violence is all about power and control. Abusers don’t display this type of behavior to their family, friends or co-workers. Abusers use violence because it helps them gain and maintain power and control, not because they lose control of their emotions.”
For those who have never experienced or witnessed domestic violence, it can be easy to harbor misconceptions and miss signs of abuse that friends or family members may be exhibiting. Victims have often been shamed by their abuser and may be adept at hiding the physical and emotional scars of domestic violence.
“Victims may say they are accident prone and they often miss work or school without a good explanation. They dress in clothing to hide their bruises — for example, wearing a turtleneck in summer, or wearing sunglasses inside. Often, victims are restricted from seeing their family and friends, they are rarely allowed to go out in public without the abuser, they have limited access to money and are not allowed to drive cars,” Caraway explained. “There are also psychological signs of abuse. People who are being abused may have very low self-esteem and they may display major personality changes. For example, if they were once very outgoing and confident and become withdrawn and depressed.”
Because abusers often isolate victims from those who know the victim and are capable of offering supportive relationships, friendship is one of the best things you can offer someone who is suffering from domestic violence, experts say.
“Talk to the person in private and let him or her know that you’re concerned. Point out things you’ve noticed that make you worried. Tell the person that you’re there, whenever he or she feels ready to talk. Let him or her know that you’ll help in any way you can,” said Caraway. “By picking up on the warning signs and offering support, you can help them escape an abusive situation. Don’t wait for them to come to you and don’t judge or blame them.”
Though a difficult situation, it’s important to talk to the person about options for receiving help first so further harm is not caused by inciting the abuser to retaliation. The YWCA has a 24-hour domestic violence hotline at (205) 322-4878; staff and volunteers trained in crisis intervention are prepared to offer help, advice and support.
Once a victim is ready to receive help, the YWCA’s services aid the person along the road to recovery and becoming a survivor. The YWCA provides confidential shelters so women can escape their abuser, weekly support group meetings, professional advocates who help women navigate the often intimidating legal system, comprehensive civil legal services, and supervised visitation so children can safely interact with the noncustodial parent.
Additionally, the YWCA offers support groups for children who have witnessed domestic violence and does educational outreach programs on dating violence in area middle and high schools.
While it is known that men are victims of domestic violence too, the occurrence is more prevalent among women. While men who are domestically abused may not be eligible to receive many of the YWCA’s services, they are encouraged to call the YWCA’s domestic violence hotline for help.
For more information on the YWCA and to support their work in the Birmingham area, check out the YWCA’s website or visit My Sister’s Closet, a clothing re-sale store that accepts donations so victims who fled with only the clothes on their backs can find everyday wear and professional attire to help them get back on their feet. The public may also shop at My Sister’s Closet, located at 2324 3rd Ave. N. in Birmingham, and the proceeds support the YWCA’s programs. To donate clothes and accessories, take items to 309 23rd St. N.
*Correction (10/24/13, 11 p.m.): It has been brought to our attention that there is another certified shelter, SafeHouse of Shelby County, that serves the metro area, including all of Hoover.