Determined, feisty suffragettes celebrated the first National Women’s Day one hundred years ago, on February 28, 1909. Within a few years, the observance went global and became International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world on March 8th of every year.
In a host of countries around the world, International Women’s Day is now an official holiday with flowers and small gifts. The United States designates the entire month of March as Women’s History Month. This year, the theme for International Women’s day is “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls.”
The subject has never been more apropos. According to the National Institute of Justice, one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1.3 million women per year are victims of sexual assault here in the United States, with an annual cost exceeding $5.8 billion per year.
Intimate partner violence recently exploded into the national focus when R&B crooner Chris Brown was arrested for beating, threatening, and choking pop star Rihanna nearly to death. Chat groups and news forums continue to crackle with the usual tired arguments: Why didn’t she leave him before this? Why is she silent now? Do some women want to be abused?
It is an easy thing to state that battered women should leave their partners. Of course they should, if and when they can do so safely. Yet when we focus on the actions or inactions of the victims, we overlook the most important aspect of these cases. Men should not hit women. The epidemic of domestic violence will never be resolved until we stop asking why women are there, and instead begin to ask why some men brutalize those they profess to love.
We are frustrated that Rihanna has not spoken out to repudiate Chris Brown and by extension condemn dating violence. Perhaps we forget that she is only twenty years old, did not ask to be in this situation, and never stated a desire to become the new face of domestic violence. As badly as we may want her to condemn Chris Brown and testify against him, the girl is probably scared to death. A few days ago, this man bit her, punched her, and choked her to the point of passing out. Now he walks around as a free man, simply because he has money. Who can blame his victim for lying low and playing nice?
Unfortunately, the maximum penalty for announcing your intent to kill a woman and then choking her unconscious appears to be four years. And who wants to place bets on whether a wealthy celebrity will receive the maximum sentence? Judging from the OJ fiasco, America will be lucky if Chris Brown is even found guilty.
So many people are calling Rihanna stupid for being with the wrong man. How stupid then is our society to allow over a million women a year to be thus treated, with only a slap on the wrist for those men found guilty of crimes against their own wives and lovers? Here in developed, “civilized” America, women are beaten into submission every day. Over a million women live in fear. Over a million women curb their actions, their words and even their thoughts to avoid retaliation.
We say “They should leave!” and yet society does almost nothing to assist women in leaving safely. 75% of intimate partner murders take place during or after the breakup. Most battered women do leave their abusive partners, but in doing so they encounter enormous risks as well as facing poverty and homelessness and risking the loss of their children.
That doesn’t mean battered women should stay. It means society should assist women in leaving safely. One avenue of assuring women’s safety is to lock up abusers until their obsession has passed. Courts regularly issue restraining orders instead, proving themselves far more “stupid” than the women we love to blame. If a man is willing to ignore a universal taboo against hitting women, will he not also ignore a little piece of paper telling him to stay away? Telling an abuser to stay away from his victim is as effective as telling a wolf to stay away from sheep. She is his prey. He will not stop of his own accord. Neither will he stop simply because she breaks up with him. If we want abusive men to stop attacking women, then we as a society must forcibly stop them. That’s what jails are for.
Those who say Rihanna will die if she goes back to Chris Brown have an excellent point. But she may also die if she breaks up with him, thanks to the low value America puts on the safety of women. For this reason, we have no right to judge Rihanna. While the whole world watches, she is on her own to work this out.
Meanwhile, invisible to the paparazzi and gossip rags, women who are less famous and less wealthy than Rihanna suffer in silence.