The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as “the intentional intimidation, physical assault, assault, sexual assault and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control exercised by one intimate partner over another. ”
The incidence and severity of domestic violence varies widely, but on average, nearly 20 people per minute in the United States are physically abused by an intimate partner. That corresponds to more than 10 million women and men every year.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) reports that between 40 and 45 percent of women in abusive relationships also experience sexual assault during the course of the relationship. Sexual assault and rape tend to be underreported in the United States, and intimate partner rape is the least reported form of sexual assault.
The NCADV has collected data showing that women who are disabled, pregnant or attempting to leave their abusers are at greatest risk of intimate partner rape. Overall, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), one in five women will be raped in her lifetime.
For Women’s Ministry staff and volunteers, these are not cold, impersonal statistics. The women and children who come to us represent these disheartening and alarming levels of violence here in Crawford County.
When women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) or threats of violence, their individual rights and freedoms are negatively impacted. Women’s access to health care, education, employment and economic security is severely hampered by IPA. To break the cycle of IPA, women must be empowered to take control of their bodies and their sexuality.
When Women’s Services began 45 years ago, it made women’s empowerment a core part of its mission. Trusting women to make their own informed decisions was just as right then as it is now.
We recognize that one of the most important decisions women face in their lives is deciding when and if they want to conceive. A particularly insidious aspect of domestic and sexual violence is that victims of abuse often face unwanted pregnancies.
Consequently, access to reproductive health care (with the full range of options available to women and their doctors) is an essential part of their constitutional guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The government plays no role in these decisions. When states restrict an individual’s access to reproductive health care through laws and constitutional prohibitions, it constitutes a form of institutional violence that further harasses them.
The state becomes the coercive and controlling violent agent, much like abusive partners.
To eliminate violence against women, it is important that states recognize that reproductive rights are fundamental human rights. Our state and federal representatives must be held responsible for protecting everyone’s right to physical autonomy and making decisions about what is best for their lives.
When Women’s Services was founded in 1977, the organization developed a policy statement to guide its work. At the heart of this philosophy is the belief that each individual has the right and responsibility to make decisions and make decisions that are appropriate to their lives.
Consistent with our mission and philosophy, our Board of Directors recently reaffirmed this commitment as follows:
• Women’s Services, which has served victims of domestic and sexual violence for 45 years, understands the importance of privacy for survivors seeking safety from their abusers and access to medical care.
• Perpetrators of intimate partner violence retain their power in their relationships by undermining their partner’s economic security, health, safety and autonomy to make decisions related to reproductive and sexual health.
• Decisions about a person’s health care should remain in the hands of that person in consultation with healthcare professionals. These are private and personal medical decisions and are not the responsibility of government agencies.
• We oppose any action, statutory or otherwise, that restricts an individual’s right to access sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion treatment.
• We support policies and practices that promote non-violent communities and invest in the health and safety of all community members.
As an organization committed to these principles, we encourage people to speak up and take appropriate action to uphold the right of individuals to make decisions about their personal health, safety and medical care.
Find out about efforts in the Pennsylvania state legislature to restrict access to reproductive rights and the positions of current elected officials and candidates running for office. Reach out to current elected officials to share your perspective. and most importantly, vote for nominees for governor, state representative, state senator, US representative and US senator who will protect our rights to safe and private reproductive services, including abortion.
Bruce Harlan is the executive director of Women’s Services Inc., based in Meadville. Women’s Services provides hope and resources to victims of violence and has worked to end violence since 1977.