Definition of Domestic Violence and Its Broader Social Context

The term domestic partners implies some serious bond, such as marriage, a child in common, cohabitation, or financial ties. It also usually implies emotional and sexual connections between people who have chosen to be with each other. Emotional, legal, and material connections make it difficult to end the relationship once abuse occurs. Police officers, lawmakers, medical professionals, and the general public have found it difficult to acknowledge the prevalence of domestic violence or act to prevent it because of the voluntary, emotional nature of a relationship based in the private rather than the public sphere and because of patriarchal assumptions about women and marriage.

In any intimate relationship people may hurt each other, but abuse occurs when one person systematically hurts, threatens, rapes, manipulates, tries to kill, or kills the other, and when fear replaces trust and respect as the basis of the relationship. Physical violence, with the intent of one spouse to cause harm to the other, is the accepted definition of spouse abuse in all countries where spouse abuse has been studied (Gelles and Cornell). Consistent insults, criticism, disregard for one partner's needs, isolation, damage to property and pets, and withholding money, food, or other necessities are other ways abusers try to dominate and control the relationship. The overwhelming majority of spousal abuse throughout the world is by men against women (Gelles and Cornell; Levinson), suggesting the pervasive influence of patriarchal family and social structures on abuse.

It is hard to document the extent of domestic abuse for several reasons. First, until recently, very few countries have kept records of it—violence has to be reported to some authority in order to be recorded (Gelles and Cornell). Many countries lack the bureaucratic infrastructure to maintain centralized records about domestic violence even if they desired to do so. Second, domestic violence incidents are consistently underreported, because of the shame of the abused, the desire to protect the abuser, and the failure of many agencies where women seek help to ask for and record many kinds of evidence of abuse. Third, the information kept (e.g., percentage of police calls related to family disputes, homicide statistics, number of women served by shelters, percentage of people reporting violence in surveys) varies widely. Research about domestic abuse against women tends to lag behind research about child abuse. Most research studies have analyzed family violence in a single country, using approaches that provide no basis for cross-cultural comparison (Gelles and Cornell).

Domestic violence is an international problem. The World Bank reports that gender-based violence accounts for as much death and ill-health in women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four as cancer, and more death and ill-health than malaria and car accidents combined (Venis and Horton). The World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence in 1997 in response to the recommendation of an Expert Consultation on violence against women and the Beijing Platform for Action. Its objectives are to obtain reliable estimates of the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, to document the consequences of domestic violence on women's reproductive health, mental health, injuries, and general use of health services; to identify and compare risk and protective factors for domestic violence; and to identify strategies and services used by battered women. Research began in seven countries in 1999 and is expected to continue through 2002 (World Health Organization Multi-Country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence, Progress Report).

In the United States on average each year from 1992 to 1996 approximately 8 in 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men age twelve or older were violently victimized by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend (Henderson, 2000). In 1995, 26 percent of all female murder victims were slain by their husbands or boyfriends (FBI, 1996).

Despite the lack of statistical information and survey data, awareness of domestic abuse is increasing. In 1993 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and established a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (U.S. Department of State). The UN designated November 25 as an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1999. The U.S. Department of State highlighted the problem of rampant discrimination against women for the first time in 1993 in its annual report on human rights abuses. Examples cited included physical abuse against women in all countries; "honor killings" for alleged adultery by wives, especially in South America; denial in many countries of political, civil, or legal rights in voting, marriage, travel, testifying in court, inheriting and owning property, and obtaining custody of children; forced prostitution and the refusal to recognize marital rape as a crime on several continents; genital mutilation in many African countries; sexual and economic exploitation of domestic servants in Southeast Asia; and dowry deaths (murder of a bride when her family cannot give her husband's family the expected dowry) in Bangladesh and India. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 set federal guidelines for intervention, arrest, prosecution, and treatment of battered women in the United States.

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