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When Domestic Violence Awareness is just another day, another month

reporters@samoanews.com

October has come, and is nearly gone. It was a month of many “awareness” campaigns throughout the country. Given the advent of the internet, the astonishing breadth of social media and the 24/7 news cycle around the world, we may be forgiven for something akin to “awareness overload”.

But some things simply cannot be ignored, and so it is that we decided, as a nation — beginning in 1987 — to designate the month of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, or DVAM.

We acknowledged, as a nation, that changes needed to take place; but in order for change to occur, we had to first acknowledge that the problems existed.

We had to become aware of the scourge and the sorrow of domestic violence in the home — the very place where peace, security and kindness should reign. (So important is this first step — this awakening — that in the modern era we have assigned every month of the year to awareness campaigns, where communities, the nation, the world are asked to contemplate, reflect upon — and eventually solve — various societal problems.)

Change is not an easy thing, nor does it happen quickly... but certain changes must take place in order for society to deem itself noble. (And who among us would not want our society to be considered noble?)

Taking that first step is vital... becoming cognizant of the problem of domestic violence; its pervasiveness, its relationship to cultural norms, and its staggering implications in terms of cost to society.

It may begin in the home, but its effects are felt everywhere. And, it could be argued, no one suffers more than the children who witness it, or are brutalized by it.

It is manifest in a myriad of other social problems: teen pregnancy, high-school dropout rates, violent crime, drug addiction, imprisonment, and poverty. These are factors associated with abuse, neglect and violence in the home.

Still, nothing propels change more fervently than a community which has decided to face its problems with a full and honest "fact check" of the things which many prefer not to talk about.

If only.

A quick check of the court calendar in American Samoa finds that sadly, violence of every kind is very much with us. Weekly, in the newsroom, we are reminded of the hard facts: violence is visited upon the vulnerable more often than we care to know. It is used widely as a means of control, domination, discipline and sadly, even communication.

Blaming the victim is the most common justification we hear. Blaming the victim is the domain of bullies, and interestingly, October is also National Bullying Prevention month.

The twin evils — violence and bullying — go hand in hand on this little island, as they do across America.

Which begs the question, “How civilized are we, really?"

Blaming the victim for violence is so endemic, so pervasive, it is hardly seen for the evil that it is.

Apparently, in American Samoa, a “private beating” is far less egregious and shameful than a public insult. How did it come to this?

In his proclamation marking October 2011 as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, President Obama noted the effects of domestic violence, particularly on the youth: “… The ramifications of domestic violence” he said, “are staggering.”

“Young women are among the most vulnerable, suffering the highest rates of intimate partner violence. Exposure to domestic violence puts our young men and women in danger of long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm. Children who experience domestic violence are at a higher risk for failure in school, emotional disorders, and substance abuse, and are more likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence themselves later in life.”

In American Samoa, DVAM has a brief Candle-Lighting Ceremony, followed by prayers and poems for the victims. It is a beautiful thing, held once a year.

Ironically, it comes in the same month as White Sunday — a day set aside to celebrate the gift of children.

Perhaps, along with all the other scriptures we are asked to memorize, we should memorize the words of Mahatma Ghandi: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."

To their credit, a Multi-Disciplinary Task Force has been assembled in the territory to combat the scourge of domestic violence, advocate for and support its victims, and shed light upon the societal problems which contribute to the violence in the first place. The MDT also works for legislation and programs that put everyone on notice: domestic violence is not going to be tolerated here. 

It brings together agencies who are first line responders, and most often witness to, the devastation wrought by violence in the home, perpetrated by people in the most intimate of family circles.

Representatives from Department of Human and Social Services, the Department of Public Safety, Emergency Medical Services, LBJ Social Services, the Attorney General’s Office, and Department of Criminal Justice are all represented on the MDTF.

Prevention and intervention efforts focused on breaking the cycle of abuse and violence is an important part of their work. Women such as Ipu Lefiti and Alu Iuli publicly advocate for victims. They have stepped up to give voice to the voiceless and render compassionate aid to the weary. Shelters have been assigned; case workers have their hands full. Many others work quietly behind the scenes on legislation, prosecution, and education. Some, such as Deputy Attorney General Mitzi Jessop, are visibly at the forefront of litigation that seeks to render justice and turn the tide. They have their work cut out for them.

Over the past couple of years, the national Office against Violence on Women has weighed in. It has embarked upon the development of a new program to broaden the reach of those working to end violence against women by engaging men and boys to work together as allies with women and girls.

But in American Samoa, the cycle seems to be relentless, impervious to change and without end. How civilized can we be that we allow it to continue while we fill the churches each Sunday talking about the best way to live, what would Jesus do, and who, indeed, is our neighbor?

Where are we when the child screams while the mother beats him and the father ignores it all? Where are we when the man brutalizes his wife, knocks her teeth out, leaves bruises and scars ... Where are we when the uncle visits his innocent niece in the dead of night to violate her in ways she is too young to even understand — and we know — but do nothing?

Where are we without vigorous and effective prosecution, stiff sentencing, and preventive education? What kind of society do we choose for ourselves? One clothed in deceit and hypocrisy, where things go on as they have always gone on... or a society which cherishes the children, the women, the weak and elderly.

Domestic Violence Awareness isn’t just about a month on the calendar. It’s about choosing the way we want to live, with honor and dignity. And yes, nobility.

HOW DVAM CAME TO BE

According to crisisconnection.org Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) evolved from a Day of Unity first observed in October 1981 by the National Coalition against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

“The intent was to connect battered women's advocates across the nation who were working to end men’s violence against women. The Day of Unity soon became a special week when a range of activities were conducted at the local, state and national levels.

These activities were varied, but had a common theme: mourning those who have died because of domestic violence, celebrating those who have survived, and connecting those who work to end men’s violence against women."

In October 1987, the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month was held. That same year the first national toll-free hotline was begun. In 1989, the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month commemorative legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress, such legislation has passed every year since. The Day of Unity is still celebrated on the first Monday in October.

In October 1994, NCADV in conjunction with Ms. Magazine, created the Remember My Name project, a national registry to increase public awareness of domestic violence murders. Since then, NCADV has been collecting information on incidents of women who have been killed by an intimate partner.

These are murders at the hand of someone who was once trusted and loved.

Now, DVAM is a national movement that works to bring domestic violence — and its prevention — to the forefront of public debate. Every October, DVAM activities are planned across the country comprising recognition ceremonies, memorial activities, public education campaigns, community outreach events and news conferences take place.



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