The Hidden Pandemic

When will it end?

It is more deadly than Ebola, more prevalent than cancer, more incurable than AIDS. It is pandemic–meaning it has spread to every continent, meaning that no one is immune..

It is violence against women.

According to the American Public Health Association “Violence against women (VAW) is a global threat. It is pervasive across all cultures and economic groups. Worldwide, women living in economically disadvantaged areas are at an even greater risk. According to WHO (2013), 35% of the total female population is impacted by this grave threat.”

 That female population is 3.5 billion worldwide, which means more than a billion women and girls are victims of violence, but it also means all women are at risk, because violence against women is pandemic

More than a billion are victims.

Reeva Steenkamp was one of those women. She was shot to death by her partner, Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius on Valentine’s Day 2013. Pistorius said he thought she was an intruder.

 But key questions were never answered by the defense in the months-long trial, among them: Why would an intruder lock themselves in the tiny bathroom off the master bedroom? Why would an intruder who broke into a heavily secured home come unarmed? And if the couple had been sleeping, as Pistorius asserted, why was Steenkamp wearing street clothes? Why had she taken her phone to the bathroom with her? Why was the door locked from the inside?

The evidence against Pistorius, a heroic figure in South Africa for his athletic achievements despite being a double amputee, seemed incontrovertible. Yet Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled Sept. 11 that Pistorius could not be found guilty of murder and cleared him of all murder charges. He was, she said, “negligent” in shooting Steenkamp to death, in shooting her four times through a locked door as she cowered in the tiny bathroom, with no escape.

Nevertheless, according to Judge Masipa, “normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable sometimes.”

And the murder of a woman is the “unpredictable” outcome. The failure to win justice for such victims, however, is utterly predictable.

It was certainly predictable for Janay Palmer Rice, wife of Ray Rice, running back for the Baltimore Ravens. Palmer Rice was made the scapegoat in an incident of domestic violence against her.

NFL hierarchy and Rice himself demanded she participate in a press conference in July, when Rice received a two-game suspension for hitting her, the aftermath of which was seen on a security video. At the press conference, she was expected to take responsibility for “making” her husband beat her–and she did, saying she was sorry for her actions which led to the beating.

Rice was fired on Sept. 8 after a new incendiary videotape was published by TMZ showing him punching his wife (then fiancée) into unconsciousness in a hotel elevator, then dragging her out and dumping her on the floor of the lobby. At the time, Rice was arrested and charged with assault, but charges against him were dropped.

Rice is one of more than a dozen NFL players who have been involved in assaults on women, but he is the first to be cut from a team under the NFL’s new guidelines on domestic violence which were established in August.

The Rice incident caused outrage among women, including 16 of the 20 female U.S. senators who wrote a letter Sept. 11 to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell demanding that the league permanently dismiss any player who commits an act of domestic violence.

Referencing the videotape of Rice knocking Janay Palmer unconscious, the senators added, “Tragically, this is not the only case of an NFL player allegedly assaulting a woman even within the last year. We are deeply concerned that the NFL’s new policy, announced last month, would allow a player to commit a violent act and return after a short suspension. If you violently assault a woman, you shouldn’t get a second chance to play football in the NFL.”

In fact, an offender should get jail time. But that is rarely the case in domestic violence–even when the victim is killed, as in the Steenkamp case.

Responses to the Pistorius verdict and the Rice firing have underscored the disturbingly broad acceptance of violence against women. Even Judge Masipa seems to believe a certain amount of violence is an inevitable–and excusable–part of male-female relationships.

When the Rice incident was first addressed in July, the Ravens management tweeted,

“Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”

That tweet was just deleted on Sept. 8, 100 days after it was posted. What’s more, in the days since Rice’s firing, it’s been revealed that Goodell had been informed of the beating of Janay Palmer months ago. Why did it take the reveal of a videotape to force Goodell’s hand? The police report was never “ambiguous” as Goodell claimed. It stated unequivocally that Rice beat his wife unconscious.

Crimes against women, as both the Steenkamp and Rice cases make disturbingly clear, are often treated with less seriousness than other crimes of violence. If the victim had been a stranger instead of the intimate partner of the victim, the punishment, as well as the attitude toward the victim, would be wholly different.

There is no victim-blaming in assault and murder cases in which the victim is not the perpetrator’s wife or girlfriend. But victim-blaming is commonplace in crimes of violence against women. Rape victims and victims of domestic violence in particular are held accountable in ways other victims of violence are not, often treated as somehow complicit in the crimes against them.

Where is the justice for these victims? In a discussion about the Rice beating video, two anchors on Fox News joked about the incident. Fox host Brian Kilmeade blamed Janay Rice, then gave her this advice: “I think the message is, take the stairs.” His co-host Steve Doocey added, “The message is, when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.”

Is that the message? Yet Judge Masipa completely discounted the history of domestic violence in the relationship between Steenkamp and Pistorius, making her comment about the “unpredictable” nature of relationships.

And renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, considered a possible Republican candidate for president in 2016, said, “Let’s not all jump on the bandwagon of demonizing this guy… they both need some help.”

Especially the one who was dragged from an elevator after being punched unconscious.

Ebola has killed a few thousand people in a handful of countries over several months and is an international headline. But violence against women kills that many women every week. Where are the headlines? Two journalists were beheaded by ISIS and President Obama has ordered air strikes against the two nations where they predominate. Yet three women have been beheaded in London this year, two by their husbands.

With more than a billion victims worldwide, the pandemic of violence against women needs to be addressed for what it is: Violence. Drop the qualifiers of “intimate partner” or “domestic,” “acquaintance” or “date” rape. Violence is violence. And until violence against women gets treated as seriously as any other act of violence, all women–more than 3.5 billion of us–will continue to be potential victims.