Impact of Domestic Violence on Women of Color

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There are many layers to domestic violence and why victims don't leave their abusers. There can be fear, shame, and worry about what will happen to their children.

Amid all of the complicating factors, there's one that is increasingly becoming an important part of the conversation: race.

"Everything was fine, [we were] just teenagers, growing up and having fun," recalls Melissa Torres.

Melissa graduated, got pregnant and then married. But the pictures don't tell the story of what started happening between her and her husband behind closed doors.

"He put the gun directly to my chest," describes Melissa, "My son in my arm and the gun to my chest, looking dead at me he says, 'I will kill you.'"

Melissa didn't tell anyone. Life went on, and her son grew older. But the violence didn't stop.

"He grabbed me by my hair and kept slamming my head into the passenger, he was driving, into the car," says Melissa as she tearfully recounts multiple violent incidents. "He literally picked me up, and my son had a car bed, and he slammed me down on it. Out the corner of my eye my son is, I've never cried, my son is staring at me. He's four."

Melissa is not alone. And for women of color like her, the statistics are alarming.

African-American women are three times more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than members of other racial backgrounds.

As many as 61% of Asian women report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

And Hispanic women, like Melissa, are more likely than non-Hispanic women to be raped by a current or former intimate partner, but less likely to report the abuse to authorities.

"It's scary, but I can identify with that because in our culture, you're taught how to be strong," explains Melissa, as she reacts to the statistic about Hispanic women, "That makes them [look like] they don't have their family together or they can't keep it together. It's like a type of badger of honor, and if that doesn't happen, it's kind of like you failed."

Diara Williams-Sturtevant, a DAIS program coordinator, says there are a number of barriers that make it even more difficult for minorities in Dane County to get help. Those include the feeling that they don't relate culturally to service providers or that violence is normal or more accepted in communities of color, immigration status, language barriers, transportation, forced isolation and distrust of law enforcement and the system.

"They don't want to be another statistic," explains Williams-Sturtevant, "And they don't want to, if their partner is also a person of color, they don't want to continue to add to those statistics and victimizing them and also making them just another person of color who's going to prison."

In the last year, DAIS completed a community assessment by requesting feedback from more than 200 victims, survivors, volunteers and service providers.

"What we're hearing from domestic violence victims and survivors is still a feeling of shame about what's happened to them," says DAIS Executive Director Shannon Barry, "And a feeling of fear of reaching out for services, fear that they're not going to be believed, fear that they're going to be stigmatized. That to me highlights that we still have a lot of work to do."

For Melissa, it took years. "I was going to leave definitely, if someone would just give me a chance."

DAIS services and her son helped her stop the cycle of abuse. "What I wanted to show him was that well let mommy be strong in a positive way," explains Melissa proudly.

The now 36-year-old has a 16-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, and she says she hopes her story helps other women see that they're not alone.

"I don't cry because it hurts, I cry because I've come a long way," she says as she looks at a photo of her children and tears stream down her cheeks, "I didn't quit. They're the reason why I didn't quit."

DAIS says victims who reach out and connect with services typically are much safer.

DAIS offers free and confidential services. They have bilingual advocates, a help line, texting line, support groups and legal advocates.

And if you'd like help from a culturally specific agency, there are two other agencies: UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence and Freedom Inc.