Your home is supposed to be a safe place, a refuge from the stresses and storms of life. You shut your front door at night and gather around the warmth of kinship to relax, refuel and recharge. It feels so good to be home.
But for one out of every four women in this country, and 39 percent of Native American women—more than any other ethnicity in the U.S.—home is anything but safe. When she closes her door, reluctantly, to the protection of the outside world, it triggers fear and a growing dread. She’s alone with the enemy—her loved one, the one who is supposed to love her.
But instead of kisses and hugs she gets fists and bruises. She cries and withdraws, he cools down and later is remorseful. They reconcile, there’s a honeymoon period and he promises never to hit her again.
Then one day, out of nowhere, the vicious cycle of abuse starts all over again in her black-and-blue world: He didn’t like her dinner, or how long she was out shopping, or the tone in her voice. It’s a life lived on eggshells, a house of cards that could come crashing down at any moment.
Ashamed to face the truth, she becomes a great pretender in a doomed drama. And nobody, but the traumatized children, knows about it.
“It’s very difficult to reach out to victims because the core nature of domestic violence is isolation. Women are locked in by fear, shame, guilt and the traumatic bond between husband and wife,” says Vivian Clecak, founder of Human Options, a multi-service agency in Orange County, California, dedicated to the prevention of domestic violence, and the treatment and intervention for victims (humanoptions.org).
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, though it’s a cause that deserves our attention year-round. Violence against women and children in their own homes happens all the time—both on and off reservations. Every nine seconds a woman is battered in this country.
Even more unthinkable, children are assaulted, too, in at least 30 percent of cases. Hard to fathom, but domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44—more than rapes, muggings and car accidents combined. What’s more, a federal study shows that Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average on some reservations.
What is going on here?
True, every couple fights. But domestic violence is darker and cuts much deeper. It’s a pattern of physical, sexual and psychological attacks fueled by the abuser’s pathological need to control. “The cycle of abuse often starts verbally. Calling her stupid, treating her with disrespect, demeaning her,” Clecak explains. “It’s a slow, subtle wearing down of her personhood.
It’s not just a “trailer park” crime, either, as many would believe. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity destroyer, invading every ethnic, religious and economic strata of society. Yet, so much of it is hidden. Couldn’t possibly happen in your nice neighborhood? “The more affluent you are, the more hidden it is,” says Clecak: “A wealthy woman has more shame, because she has a social position and children who also have a social identity.”
Sadly, it’s our young ones who really suffer. Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually. “We know that children are traumatized by the violence even if they’re never hit,” says Clecak. An astounding 33 percent of calls to Human Options’ hotline come from children.
Too often, domestic violence is a searing torch passed to the next generation.
The good news is, education and outreach are working. “The most interesting thing about domestic violence in the last 25 years is that the number of abusers murdered by their victims is way down,” claims Clecak.
Statistics show that women are getting out of abusive relationships sooner, too. They now have places to turn for emergency shelter and transitional housing. Some tribes are opening shelters for Native women right on their reservations, since many indigenous women don’t feel comfortable at non-tribal shelters.
Changing the tide of domestic violence is a long, hard journey because it’s deeply rooted in society. Advocates believe the abusive behavior against Native women, in particular, stems from the violence they were subjected to during the colonization of this country.
The first step to getting out of an abusive environment is always the hardest. If you’re in a violent relationship, call a local shelter. “The most important thing a woman needs is to know she’s not alone, she’s not to blame.” Clecak makes a final plea.
It’s not going to get any better. You know that. So get help now while you and your children can still get out.
I know what I’m talking about. It happened to me. Trust me when I tell you, there is a better life waiting for you beyond that front door.
Freelance writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.