Why Doesn't She Leave?
a seemingly simple little exercise we've done dozens of times
at workshops on violence against women. The usual responses, however,
are anything but simple. They're confounding and cause for concern.
we repeated the exercise with a conference room full of 70 social
workers, advocates, therapists, and mental health workers. "Why
don't some domestic violence victims leave the relationship,"
we ask? "Call out the reasons!"
as always, come fast and freely. "Because she doesn't think
she can make it on her own." "Not enough money to feed
the children." "She feels obligated to her marital vows."
"It's learned helplessness." "She doesn't believe
she deserves better." "She doesn't know where to go."
"She wants the children to have a father." etc.
down the familiar list until the group exhausts their thoughts.
And there, again, is the enigma. How, at this date, with this
group, - with almost every group - do so many miss the obvious?
To be sure there's truth and need for remedy in every reason given.
But the one thing that should top the list, the thing that freezes
so many women in place, is not even mentioned at all.
often don't leave domestic violence because they know that when
they do leave the danger of more severe violence increases dramatically.
Violence, and the sheer terror of it, is one of the principle
reasons women don't leave. And the women are right!
When domestic violence victims attempt to leave the relationship,
the stalking and violence almost always escalates sharply as the
perpetrator attempts to regain control.
Fact: The majority of domestic violence homicides occur as a woman
attempts to leave or after she has left.
The most serious domestic violence injuries are perpetrated against
women who have separated from the perpetrator.
know these dangers. They know them because they've already experienced
the violent responses when they've attempted to assert themselves,
even minimally, within the relationship. They know because the
perpetrators have usually threatened precisely what they intend
to if she does try to leave.
"Instead of Helping Me, They Sunk Me
also know these dangers are heightened still more because so many
officials, first responders, and courts are also in denial of
the gravity of her situation. And she's right again. Despite the
modern-day rhetoric about treating domestic violence seriously,
the reality is that the critical protections she needs when leaving
are still as precarious and unpredictable as a roll of the dice.
One responder may help effectively. The next may ignore, mock,
underestimate, misdiagnose, walk away, blame her, take her kids,
shunt her into social services, arrest her, send her to counseling,
or one way or another refuse to implement real power on her behalf,
abandoning her to a perpetrator who is now more enraged than ever.
leading up to so many domestic violence homicides are paved with
officials' failures to protect. Just weeks before she was murdered
by her estranged husband, Maria hauntingly summed up her own,
and so many others' experiences with officials. "Instead
of helping me," she said, "They sunk me even more."
work tirelessly and compassionately to social work, counsel, and
support the victim. But if you ignore this critical piece of making
sure the system puts failsafe brakes on the perpetrator and his
violence, it will be for naught. The perpetrator will continue
to stalk and terrorize or worse. The victim will still be trapped
in the violent relationship no matter where she has moved and
how much independence she has attained. In fact, the freer she
is, the angrier he gets.
you look just a little closer, you'll see that for domestic violence
victims there really is no such thing as leaving, or escaping,
until the system does, in fact, step up and effectively stop the
perpetrator. There is no Mason Dixon line over which women can
run and escape and be home free. The perpetrators can and do hunt
her down anywhere.
Violence! Not 'Domesticated Violence', nor 'Violence Lite'!
When you do the same exercise, but merely shift to other forms
of violent relationships, a group's responses are dramatically
different. "Why doesn't the field slave," for example,
"Run away from the plantation in the middle of the night
while the master sleeps?" The answers are immediate and unequivocal.
"Because the slaves know they'll get hunted down." "Because
they know if they're caught they'll get beaten like never before."
"Because they stand a good chance of getting killed."
answers out are never 'learned helplessness', 'low self esteem',
or 'not enough money' even though there's no question these same
psycho-social factors are just as much at work. In fact, if one
were to lead off their explanations as to 'why slaves don't leave'
with the 'learned helplessness' or 'not enough money' aspect,
the insult of it would ring perfectly clear.
you ask the question in regard to slaves, prisoners of war, kidnap
victims, concentration camp captives, or residents of violent
regimes, etc., the horrific dynamics and dangers of attempting
to escape are well understood by everyone. Some victims of these
violent relationships do, in fact, make a run for it. Some succeed.
Some are killed. Some are recaptured and punished unmercifully.
however, never go beyond an initial evaluation of the risks. The
obvious dangers are just too great. They stay. Violence works.
Violence, and the sheer terrorizing threat of it, has always,
everywhere, worked better than anything else to keep victims compliant
and pinned in place.
the glaring blind spot in regard to domestic violence victims?
Why are women denied even the validation of the dangerous dynamics
of her dilemma? Why do so many people still hold a view, as cloaked
as it may be in paternal tones, that is more in sync with the
perpetrator's stance than with the victim's? The view that the
problem rests with her. That it's she that needs to be propped
up and fixed.
this violence that plagues women around the world is a 'domesticated
violence', or 'violence lite'!
Patriarchy Still Rules! And Still Needs to be Upended!
blind spot is rooted deep in the self-preservation mechanisms
of patriarchal rule. If the violent repression of women were to
be recognized on a par with other violent repressions it would
require nothing short of upending the missions of law enforcement,
prosecutors, courts, and service organizations, and not just the
adjustment of rhetoric we have now. The male-dominated power structure
resists implementing its real powers on behalf of women in order
to preserve the power for itself. That's fairly obvious.
about the blind spot of so many social workers, advocates, and
therapists? Those who care about the women, and dedicate their
lives to helping them? Perhaps it's one more layer of the battered
women's syndrome that needs to be exposed. Because if we ourselves
truly recognize the gravity of women's plight, we, too, have to
move beyond the safety zones of the nurturing, supportive roles
we find so comfortable.
be compelled to step out, challenge, watchdog, fight, demand,
and make sure that the powerful, male-dominated institutions are,
in fact, upended, and that they, indeed, begin to implement their
full powers on behalf of women, and against the perpetrators.
Only then will domestic violence victims truly have a real choice
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,