ATLANTA -- What afflicts one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?
This scourge is so stigmatizing that most victims never seek help.
Paula Denize Lewis, an executive assistant here in Atlanta, was among those who kept quiet about domestic violence. She tried to cover up the black eyes and bruises when she went to work, and when she showed up with her arm in a sling she claimed that she had fallen down the stairs.
Then one evening, she says, her alcoholic boyfriend was again beating her, throwing beer cans at her and threatening to kill her. She ran for a telephone in the kitchen to call 911, but he reached it first and began clubbing her on the head with it.
Ms. Lewis reached frantically into a kitchen drawer for something to defend herself with. “I grabbed what I could,” she said.
What she had grabbed turned out to be a paring knife. She stabbed her boyfriend once. He died.
Ms. Lewis was jailed and charged with murder. With the help of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter and she was sentenced to probation.
That episode underscores the way our silence and squeamishness about domestic violence hurts everyone. If there had been earlier intervention, Ms. Lewis might have avoided years of abuse and a felony conviction — and her boyfriend might still be alive.
Domestic violence deserves far more attention and resources, and far more police understanding of the complexities involved. This is not a fringe concern. It is vast, it is outrageous, and it should be a national priority.
Women worldwide ages 15 to 44 are more likely to die or be maimed as a result of male violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more Americans, mostly women, have been killed in the last dozen years at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet and destroying property.
“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”
Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.
Ta’Farian is now in hiding, fearful of her husband as well as of the courts; she dissolved into tears as she was telling her story, partly out of fear that her conviction could cost her the custody of her son.
Ayonna Johnson, who works for the Women’s Resource Center, comforted her, saying: “You should not have gotten punished for trying to stay alive.”
Domestic violence is infinitely complex in part because women sometimes love the men who beat them: they don’t want the man jailed; they don’t want to end the relationship; they just want the beatings to end.
Women can obtain temporary protective orders to keep violent boyfriends or husbands away, but these are just pieces of paper unless they’re rigorously enforced. Sometimes the orders even trigger a retaliatory attack on the woman, and police officers around the country don’t always make such a case a priority — until it becomes a murder investigation.
One way of addressing that conundrum is mandated classes for abusers, like one run by the group Men Stopping Violence. One session I sat in on was a little like Alcoholics Anonymous in its confessional, frank tone, but it focused on domestic abuse. The men were encouraged to be brutally honest in examining their shortcomings in relationships; it’s surely more effective than sending abusers to jail to seethe at their wives and wallow in self-pity.
Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.
Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.
A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved.
“We would say, ‘Don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.
Three steps are still needed.
First, we must end the silence. Second, we must ensure that police departments everywhere take the issue seriously before a victim becomes a corpse. Third, offenders should be required to attend training programs like the one run by Men Stopping Violence.
A young mom named Antonya Lewis reflects the challenges. She stayed with a violent boyfriend for years, she said, because he was the father of her daughters and was always so apologetic afterward — and also because that was what she had been told was a woman’s lot in life.
“My mom always told me to suck it up,” she said. But then her boyfriend beat her up so badly that he broke a bone near her eye and put her in the hospital. She told him that she was done with him, and when he continued to stalk her and threaten to kill her, she called the police — repeatedly — with little effect. Now she has moved to a new city and is starting over.
“I didn’t want my daughters to see him beat me,” she said. “I didn’t want them to think this is what a man can do to a woman.”
That, too, is progress.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.