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The Other Pandemic No One is Talking About

Comfort Dondo with her children. (Photo by Rebecca Parks)
Comfort Dondo with her children. (Photo by Rebecca Parks)

When she was in college, Patricia Cumbie says she was attacked by a man at a party.

“I am a rape survivor. I was sexually assaulted when I was a student many years ago now,” says Cumbie, who is in her 50s. “And I remember at the time feeling like, ‘Oh, is what happened to me a crime or not?’ And I think that's a very common reaction for a lot of survivors, you know, because violence against women is so normalized.”

Cumbie is among the one in three women worldwide who will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

“Violence against women has been called, by global leaders, the human rights issue of our time, a pandemic,” says Cheryl Thomas, executive director of Global Rights for Women. “One hundred-thirty-seven women a day are killed by their intimate partners or their family members … so, it's a dramatic, dramatic human rights crisis.”

Violence against women is so widespread that U.S. President Joe Biden is asking Congress to almost double the funding — to $1 billion — for the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, which provides funding and programming support for services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

“In addition, $120 million is provided to expand our efforts to address widespread rape kit backlogs,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress earlier this month, “and to fund new investigative training programs for law enforcement officers and prosecutors and units dedicated to investigating gender-based violence.”

Taking the lead

The United States has been a leader in the violence against women movement since 1994, when Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), federal legislation that holds perpetrators accountable while providing services for victims of gender-based violence. The bill was the culmination of an effort started in 1990 by then-Senator Biden and was the first legislation of its kind in the world. Funds for VAWA are administered by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women.

“The signal that the Biden administration is sending with this kind of funding is a really powerful one, and it's really urgent,” Thomas says. “There are countries and advocates and legal systems all over the world that look to the United States for leadership. And it takes attention and resources and money to continue the kind of leadership we showed in the beginning of the movement, and we need to up our game to continue that leadership.”

President Barack Obama signs the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 while Vice President Joe Biden looks on, in Washington, March 7, 2013.
President Barack Obama signs the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 while Vice President Joe Biden looks on, in Washington, March 7, 2013.

Victoria Banyard, a professor of social work and associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University, says the Biden administration’s request for additional funds is a start.

“But I think we also need to continue to innovate in terms of thinking about new ideas related to prevention, not just intervention,” she says. “So, we certainly need to keep supporting the resources that support survivors, because that absolutely needs to happen. But I think we also need to be really encouraging people to be innovative about how we try to keep this problem from happening in the first place.”

‘Society accepts violence against women’

Cumbie, who is now director of communications for Global Rights for Women, which works to prevent violence against women and girls, says it's critically important for the president to set an example when combating a problem that has historically been widely tolerated.

Patricia Cumbie, (left) in her 30s, when she says she first began to come to terms with being raped, (right) Cumbie today. (Photos by Sean Doyle (left) and Jennifer Larson)
Patricia Cumbie, (left) in her 30s, when she says she first began to come to terms with being raped, (right) Cumbie today. (Photos by Sean Doyle (left) and Jennifer Larson)

“Yes, society accepts violence against women,” Cumbie says. “Domestic violence is the privilege in power that men have to abuse women and their belief in their own right to treat someone a certain way. … Certainly, there is stranger danger, but by and large, the violence is carried out by people that we know and love, which is part of what makes it such a complicated conversation.”

That was the case with Comfort Dondo, a Zimbabwean immigrant in Minneapolis who says she spent five years in an abusive marriage with a man she met in college.

“I speak for African Americans, that's my experience, when we end up marrying white men. The white man has more power over her, access to money, for good lawyers, language, and they also know the system very well,” Dondo says, speaking of her own struggles, as well as her work as an advocate for immigrant African women who have been exposed to domestic violence and abuse.

“And when I called the Minneapolis Police Department — several times I called them because I was fearful for my life — they would come, and they would not even talk to me or take a report. They would talk to him.”

Dondo says her husband’s superior knowledge of how the court system works resulted in her losing custody of her child.

“I'm fighting now to get my son, and this is the plight of a lot of women,” Dondo says. “When we talk about domestic abuse, it goes beyond just the beating. It is the emotional torture of alienating a woman from her babies.”

Institutionalized violence?

Thomas says violence against women is tolerated across borders because most societies are accustomed to seeing men in dominating roles. The general concept of masculinity revolves around having power and control.

“Whether it's sexual harassment or criminal sexual assault or domestic violence or blowing up a girls’ school in Afghanistan, those are all connected acts, and I think that it has been accepted,” Thomas says. “And when we accept it, we institutionalize it.”

It’s an age-old problem, but new technology can help potential abusers polish their skills. Online searches provide tips for men looking to psychologically abuse their female partner, while the use of stalkerware applications as a tool of domestic abuse against women spiked in 2020. Bride’s Magazine, best known for showcasing beautiful gowns and dream honeymoon locales, now also counsels brides-to-be on how to spot an abusive man.

“We tend to still see a lot of tolerance of the use of harassment and violence in relationships,” Banyard says. “These forms of violence are also really interconnected with much more widespread and ingrained systemic problems of inequality, and those inequalities and health disparities are based on race, they're based on social class, and they're based on gender, and those also very much affect what's happening in terms of violence.”

Students hold signs during a Speak Out Against Sexual Violence demonstration at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan, March 28, 2021.
Students hold signs during a Speak Out Against Sexual Violence demonstration at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan, March 28, 2021.

Violence against women can take many forms, from verbal abuse, emotional abuse and physical violence, to isolating a woman from friends and loved ones, to economic abuse.

“If you're experiencing physical violence, for example, you might have to miss time at work. Or because of ongoing violence and shame, a woman may not come to work, and her attendance might be spotty, and she might lose her job. Or her partner wants her to not work, so he keeps her from having a career,” Cumbie says. “There's lots of different ways that domestic violence impacts women and really holds them back economically.”

Stopping violence before it happens

For Banyard and others, domestic violence always comes back to prevention. Everyone has a role to play in ending these forms of violence, whether it’s as an activist or active bystander, or working to model healthy relationships and social norms, or in mentoring young people, Banyard says.

“We're going to keep just having to spin our wheels ... if we don't get more upstream and really get better at building the foundation to keep this from happening in the first place,” she says. “So, I would really like to see a lot of energy and time and resources, even more than has been allocated to date, around prevention.”

After escaping her marriage, Dondo pursued a master’s degree, persevering in her studies even through periods when she was homeless. She eventually founded Phumulani, a nonprofit devoted to stopping violence and abuse of women, particularly those from the African diaspora.

She and others believe a key way to stem violence against women is to ask men to join the discussion.

“I think the feminist movement in this country has also excluded the perpetrators, who are disproportionately men, from the table. So, they’re not even aware of what they're doing,” Dondo says. “I think for me, it's important to bring the men to the table and hold them accountable, with love, while at the table, so that they will not go and say, ‘We didn't know that was abuse.’”