Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a recent statement that, "Violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions." According to a powerful WHO study, the first of its kind, nearly a third of women around the world have been slapped, pushed, punched, choked, attacked with a weapon or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner. Nearly 40 percent of the homicides against women are committed by a current or former partner, and the rate of women killed by intimate partners is six times higher than that of men. And if you can believe it, over 600 million women live in countries that don't treat domestic violence as a crime -- now that is criminal!
And it happens to women of all socioeconomic levels and backgrounds; this problem isn't confined to any particular income or education level. A friend of mine -- a smart, accomplished woman with a professional degree -- lived with a man for many years who I sensed had a controlling nature. Something about him concerned me. He had a temper, didn't hold a job and used drugs. I even told her about how I felt, but she brushed it off. After several years, she finally kicked him out, but you know what? He came back. He broke into her home and almost killed her. He was captured and sent to prison.
All that being said, I have seen the criminal justice system in my community evolve with regards to domestic violence. Every community in the U.S. has laws that set out punishments -- some even have special courts. There are often mandatory counseling programs that convicted abusers are required to attend. Many judges know the drill; they've learned to identify signs of the victim mentality. But unfortunately, the court system can only do so much when the victims of these crimes fail to cooperate with the process. Prosecutors still have to prove their cases, and when witnesses are uncooperative, doing so is difficult. Instead of harsh sentences, convictions get negotiated down to lesser charges.
So, what is it going to take to change the fact that one third of the world's women are victims of domestic abuse? What can we do in our communities to address this epidemic? How can we help these victims come forward and get the support they need?
The WHO report sets out clinical and policy guidelines to improve the reporting of such violence and to prevent such violence from happening in the first place. It's going to take greater awareness in our courts, medical institutions and communities; it's going to take widespread education, cooperation and support. We need tougher penalties for convicted abusers. And more than anything, we need to empower women who have been abused to walk away from these relationships and get the help they need to never go back. If you or someone close to you has been abused, visit the website for the National Domestic Violence Hotline at http://www.thehotline.org and get help today.
Epidemic problems require sweeping, widespread solutions. But let's all start by opening our eyes, looking around the room and giving this issue the attention that it deserves.
(Jackie Glass is a lawyer and former district court judge from Las Vegas. You can write to Jackie by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @theJudgeGlass. This column is being provided for informational purposes only. It may not be relied upon by you as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.)