Domestic Violence Awareness Month: The fight against black women’s higher rates of intimate partner violence

Awareness of these cycles is the first step towards breaking them. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, take the messages of Purple R.E.I.G.N. and Dr. Caldeira to heart as we all work towards reducing intimate partner violence in our communities.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Released in time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October, a new study shows that African-American women are at far greater risk of experiencing one of the most egregious forms of domestic violence than other groups. A recent report by the The Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington, D.C. found that black women are about three times more likely to die at the hands of a current or ex-partner than members of other racial backgrounds.

VPC, a national organization working to end gun deaths, reported that 94 percent of the black women killed knew their killers. More than half were killed by gunfire. And 64 percent of black victims who knew their offenders were wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the killers.

“The sad reality is that women are nearly always murdered by someone they know,” said VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand in a statement. “Already, many elected officials and community leaders are working tirelessly to reduce the toll of domestic violence. Yet despite these efforts, the numbers remain unacceptably high.”

For black women, the rate of intimate partner violence leading to death is the most startling.

A resource for all women

Advocates working to end domestic violence state having resources to escape abusive relationships is critical. For black women, these resources are extra-vital, as the domestic violence rate is disproportionately higher in our community.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health show that 25 percent of women in the U.S. will become victims of domestic violence in their lifetime. But nearly 30 percent of African-American women have been subject to intimate partner violence, which includes rape, physical assault, or stalking.

To fight these trends, one brave domestic violence survivor has used her experiences — during which she was almost killed by an intimate partner — to help others.

“The night he tried to kill me…I knew that there was nothing else for me to do but die,” said Asia Smith, the founder of Purple R.E.I.G.N. social services, an outreach organization for battered women. But she escaped. Now, understanding first hand the basis of this need, Smith has put her understanding into action.

Currently in her thirties, Smith likes to think of herself as an “overcomer” rather than a survivor of domestic abuse. Using the money she had saved for law school, Smith founded the organization after ending a four year romance she says devolved into an emotionally, physically and sexually abusive relationship.

The nonprofit agency provides programs and services to inform, educate and empower victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Its services include crisis intervention counseling, advocacy, educational workshops, legal and other services.

Giving black women extra support

As an African-American woman with a largely black staff, Smith is also able to service black women who might feel uncomfortable or alienated in a mainstream services facility — in a unique way.

Housed in offices painted pretty shades of purple and pink, Purple R.E.I.G.N. offers a place for women to have rape kits administered that is far warmer than the typical hospital. There are spaces to work out in the basement, so women can take care of themselves as they rebuild their lives.

Most of all, there is Smith herself, who with her bright smile and cozy office full of photos and mementoes, is a living testimony to the power one has to overcome abuse.

Sometimes women need that extra level of comfort when coming out of that scenario. Seeing a woman who looks like them who has overcome helps to counter the destructiveness they are trying to escape.

“Domestic violence is about power and control,” Smith said. “It is learned behavior used to dominate, manipulate, and control another person. The cycle of violence is both dangerous and destructive.”

Breaking the cycle of abuse

Smith’s organization helps women break that cycle. Based in the Bessie Mae Women’s Health Center in East Orange, New Jersey, it also caters to women from low-income communities. Through Purple R.E.I.G.N, Smith is saving lives, such as that of one client, Naijyyah Webb, 24.

“Ms. Smith introduced me to the Family Justice Center [a legal assistance organization for violence victims], where I was able to learn more and know that as a survivor I am not alone,” said Webb. She came to Purple R.E.I.G.N. for counseling after ending a five-year relationship she says became verbally and physically abusive.

Smith made her feel so comfortable and safe that she became a volunteer for the organization. Webb now also uses her experiences to assist other victims of domestic violence. Her words are profound pronouncements for others looking to overcome.

“The advice I would give to others is to be strong first and foremost,” Webb said, “and to look for help because you are not alone, and though it may be hard to overcome the relationship, understand that there is a brighter future waiting for you.”

Black women: Disproportionately impacted

Webb is a shining example of overcoming. But, experts involved in the VPC report said the situation might not improve for black women without deep interventions due to the negative social issues disproportionately affecting African-Americans — particularly poor women.

“Indeed research has shown that when compared to African-American women of higher socio-economic status, African-American women of lower socio-economic status have higher rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and exposure to community violence,” said Dr. Nathilee A. Caldeira, a clinical psychologist based in New York City.

Dr. Caldeira’s work includes research on the intergenerational transmission of abuse and the connections between physical and sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, and other substance misuses.

“Because of the need to cope with stressors that are related to basic survival, socio-economically disadvantaged African-American women may give the risk of intimate partner violence less importance. That in turn places them at greater risk of severe violence and death,” said Dr. Caldeira.

In order to effectively tackle the issue, experts like Dr. Caldeira believe addressing stressors that contribute to the high rate of intimate partner violence among African-Americans is key.

“Leaders in the African-American community must employ strategies that take into account the reality of African-American women’s lives, particularly African-American women of lower socioeconomic status, who tend to be exposed to increased chronic stressors such as homelessness and exposure to community violence,” Dr. Caldeira said. “More importantly, prevention strategies must include addressing the high rates of early childhood sexual abuse, as this reality places African-American women at greater risk for intimate partner violence.”

Purple R.E.I.G.N. — building on successes

Purple R.E.I.G.N. is leading the way in attempting to intervene. It is in the process of acquiring a safe house to increase the protections it provides for its clients, particularly those with fewer resources. And there is more in the works.

“It is crucial that we not only open safe havens,” Smith said, “but also provide wrap around services, empowerment programs that are inclusive of education, extensive counseling, individual and group, and financial literacy courses necessary to live independently, and abuse free.”

Smith was recently honored by New Jersey’s first lady, Mary Pat Christie, for the work she has done through Purple R.E.I.G.N. thus far as the state’s 19th New Jersey Hero. But she is not resting on her laurels, and continues to pursue her mission.

“While we have made tremendous strides to raise awareness and eradicate domestic violence,” Smith said, “we must create innovative programs and strategies that will empower victims [and] survivors, hold batterers accountable, and ensure that children grow up in healthy, loving environments in order to eradicate the vicious cycles of generational violence.”

Awareness of these cycles is the first step towards breaking them. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, take the messages of Purple R.E.I.G.N. and Dr. Caldeira to heart as we all work towards reducing intimate partner violence in our communities.

If you are suffering from domestic violence or other abuses, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 right away. The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline is also available to help. You are not alone, and have the power to end the cycle of violence.

Follow Nia Hamm on Twitter @niaahamm