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Seek Support to Stop Domestic Violence

Spring 1999

What happens when your partner is more of a threat to your health and your life than HIV?

Violence against women is increasing in frequency and becoming more lethal. Recent research on Women living with HIV/ AIDS is revealing a high percentage of women with a history of early childhood trauma such as, incest, rape, abuse and/or domestic violence. Both AIDS and domestic violence cross over ethnic, racial, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religious and socioeconomic lines.

According to the American Psychological Association, 4 million American women experience a serious assault by an intimate partner every 12 months. Things become even more complicated because these women experience an inability to speak out for reasons of fear, rejection, ignorance, judgement, and lack of support. In addition, services are hard to locate, support is difficult to find and many times lives are ultimately lost.

The Abusive Cycle

The abuse perpetrated against these women creates a continuing cycle which raises many questions. For example, how does this society value women? On the one hand, society tells women: "Take responsibility for your own sexuality. Don't let your sexuality be defined by your partner, the media or anyone else." However, the consequences of taking such responsibility, in an abusive relationship, are often rape, violent beatings, and constant criticism.

The cycle of violence is generally identified in three phases: 1) a tension building phase, 2) an explosive outburst of abusive behavior, and 3) a honeymoon phase.

Most interventions (i.e. you call a Hotline and they advise you to leave, the police come to your house, your friends tell you to leave, and so on), come after the outburst of abusive behavior and during the "honeymoon." In the "honeymoon phase" the woman who has been abused is being reassured by her partner that this will never happen again. As a result, interventions are largely unsuccessful, but they do give the women hope. The hope that there is another option for them in the future, if necessary. Women need to know that they can bring up the subject of abusive relationships at any time with those they trust. Everyone deserves a safe, supportive source of information. This is the only way that a woman who is in an abusive relationship can gather the strength to plan her escape and follow through.

Prepare a Safety Plan

There are many things for an HIV+ woman to consider when planning an escape, in addition to the standard Safety Plan recommended by Domestic Violence service agencies. The idea is that the woman puts all important documents together (or as much as she can without causing suspicion) and leaves it with a friend, or hides it in the car, or keeps it under one of the beds; anywhere the partner will not find it. This allows her to have access to it if she needs to leave in a hurry.

Collect all of the identification papers such as, birth certificates, immigration papers, drivers licenses, social security cards, etc. And all benefits information including; Medi-Cal, SSI, GR, health and car insurance papers, medical records, and prescription medications. It is very important to have a supply of medications just in case you need to leave in a hurry and you need medicine to get you through a weekend or perhaps a longer journey. Diagnosis forms, lab results, and medical details are also important.

Be Prepared

Create a list of all legal papers. Include marriage, divorce, restraining order's, money, credit cards, checks, appointment books, calendars, receipts, rent records, property documents, etc. Address books are very important as your partner may use this information to track you down.

Don't leave anything out; car registration, keys, membership cards, TV's, cameras, undeveloped film, stereos, photographs, favorite things, clothing, pet's stuff, children's favorite toys, and so on.

Starting Anew

Remember that when a woman leaves some of the difficulty comes with the fact that she must also leave almost everything that she is familiar with. That means leaving her regular grocery store, the children's school, her job, and her church. For a woman living with HIV/AIDS this may also mean leaving her regular medical provider, AIDS Service Organization, her social worker, her support group, children's schools and other services.

The abuser will frequent places where he/she knows their partner goes (or used to go), in hopes that they will "run into" each other. Then, the abuser will have a chance to win her back, or take her children and make her come back, or follow her and try to kill her.

This means that a woman needs to basically start over. She may have to start familiarizing herself with new faces and agencies at a time when she needs familiarity the most. In terms of taking medications and getting support, this is a time when women are least likely to put themselves as a high priority. They are most likely to let their regular check-ups lapse and least likely to continue taking medications.

This is perfectly understandable when you're running for your life! We must look at the situation from the perspective of a woman who is dealing with a violent partner and very real beatings, assaults, rape, and insults. The need for those providing services to be sensitive, offer support and create a safe space for women to speak up is vital for a successful transition. When things are so uncomfortable and unfamiliar, the apologetic words of an abusive partner often come echoing back. A woman may decide that she can't do it on her own and no one will help her.

Verbal Abuse

When a woman is reliant on her partner for financial support, medical insurance or any other reason, it creates an almost impossible situation for her. She may want to leave but feels she can't. Humiliation, indirect threatening behavior and manipulation are all components of the more subtle forms of abuse which battering partners resort to regularly. The most effective batterer does not have to beat, at least not very often.

Sometimes violence against the woman is exactly what the partner stops short of, using the threat of violence to intimidate and control the woman. The notion that abuse is mostly violent acts is detrimental to women, because the toll that verbal and emotional abuse takes is immeasurable, yet largely not considered "battering." Those scars are ones which never fade. They can cause emotional repercussions long after the abuse has ceased. Batterer's seek to immobilize women and keep them in the relationship because their greatest fear is that the relationship will end with the woman walking away.

For a woman living with HIV/AIDS, such reliance on her partner may mean the difference between medical care and no medical care, transportation to the support group or no transportation, food on her plate -- her children's plate or no food at all. In an abusive relationship where one or both are living with HIV/AIDS, the status is used as a weapon. Emotional or verbal abuse regarding status binds that person to their abusive partner. The abuser makes her feel that she will not be loved by anyone else, and that the abusive partner stays because he and only he can love her in spite of her status. Some abusive partners may knowingly infect their partner to keep them in the relationship. The fact that the batterer infects their partner causes guilt and serves as a reminder of the batterer's own status, which in return ultimately results in increased levels and frequency of abuse.

Getting services, medical care or counseling is jeopardized by the battering partner's fear of the violence being disclosed and the woman being supported enough to leave. In a situation where one or both of the partners is HIV+ the batterer can exercise the ultimate control: the power to help or not to help someone whose life depends on it.

Domestic Violence Is a Crime

Has your partner ever blamed you for feeling better, or intentionally withheld your medications because he wanted to? Has your partner ever compared your health to his own and used the fact that you're doing better to make you feel guilty? Has your partner ever beaten you right before you were due to go for your medical check-up and as a result you were ashamed to go? Have you been in a situation where the chaos your partner causes at home makes it impossible for you to concentrate on taking your medications at the right time? Share this information with someone, call a Hotline and speak with a counselor, tell your treatment advocate, and figure out a way to take the medications. Perhaps taking medications twice a day would be more beneficial. Medications can often be delivered to your home, which could allow you to hide them somewhere safe. This way you don't have to rely on your partner to pick them up and worry when he doesn't come through.

A Lifetime

Spending a lifetime anticipating the next outburst or "walking on eggshells" is no way to live. Tension becomes unbearable and the effects are visible both physically and mentally. A person's well-being becomes compromised, at the very least. Many infected women cannot afford such a price. Time and energy become focused on the batterer and the woman's desires, needs, ideas, feelings are then insignificant. The cause of every violent act is the person committing the violence, no outside forces cause the behavior. Drugs and/or alcohol do not cause domestic violence. In fact you don't have to have a home to be in a domestic violence situation. Abuse happens on the streets, in shelters, anywhere you have two people, one of whom is abusively controlling.

Domestic violence is a crime! If you are a woman who is being abused and you need to talk, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233), TDD 800.787.3224 or call the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women 213.626.3393 / 310.392.8381 / 626.793.3385, TDD 213.955.9095.

If you are a service provider think about how you can create a safe supportive environment for women to be able to share what they feel most ashamed and fearful of. Women should be seen, heard, respected, loved and supported, accept nothing less!

Fiona Kyck. Women's Advocate Against Domestic Violence Women's Services Coordinator, APLA. 323.993.1566

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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.
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