(A card, a candle and flowers are shown at an memorial Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at the scene of an overnight shooting that left five people dead on Sunday, April 21, 2013 at the Pinewood Village apartment complex in Federal Way, Wash. What began as a domestic violence homicide claimed three more lives before officers fatally shot the gunman, Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren))

Opinion: Empowering women – and their communities – against domestic violence

October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the national conversations around the issue do not stop there. November 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a commemoration that launches 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence, culminating on December 10 with International Human Rights Day.

At least one in four women will report experiencing domestic violence over the course of their lifetimes.  At the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities, a project of Casa de Esperanza, conversations around gender violence take place every day, and they will continue to take place until we can stop the cycle of violence.

Domestic violence remains one of the most prevalent crimes against women. Worldwide, one in three women murdered this year will be killed by her current or former partner, and in the U.S. murder is the leading cause of death among women who are pregnant or have a child under a year old.

Domestic violence does not just affect the women who suffer abuse; it also deeply affects their children.  A recent survey estimated that across the United States, 15.5 million children ages 0-17 live in homes where they witness domestic violence.  It is difficult to understate the potential impact on their development, especially for the very young.  For the Latin@ children with whom we work—many of whom can be immigrants and face fears of deportation—their realities become more complicated.  They ask, “What will happen to daddy if I tell what’s going on?”

For over thirty years, Casa de Esperanza (now with the National Latin@ Network) has been raising awareness about violence against women in communities across the United States.  We have been providing services to women and their children, recognizing that too often, domestic violence is connected to a number of other realities and issues for Latinas, such as legacies of trauma from their home countries, religious oppression, sex trafficking, and immigration.

Unfortunately, service providers are not always mindful of the complexities underlying a Latina domestic violence survivor’s situation, or prepared to provide culturally specific services.  The sad result is that many women do not seek help because of the disconnect between mainstream domestic violence services and Latina survivors’ needs.

We have found, for example, that while Latinas experience domestic violence at similar rates as women in other ethnic groups, they are significantly less likely to seek help or report abuse.  In fact, in one study nearly half of Latinas did not report abuse to authorities.  Possible reasons for Latinas’ reluctance to seek help from authorities include lack of confidence in the police, shame, guilt, fear of deportation, lack of understanding of their rights and the services available to help, and previous experience with childhood victimization.

These are all factors we seek to address through our crisis hotline, walk-in resource centers, and advocacy and training programs across the country. Recognizing that Latinas are more likely to seek help from friends, family, or neighbors rather than authority figures, our philosophy is that the strength and power to end domestic violence rests within communities, not institutions.  Our goal is to empower and mobilize communities so that they can eradicate domestic violence.

We also recognize that even as Latinas face special challenges, they possess unique sources of strength.  We have seen many women—and children—show tremendous resiliency in the face of domestic and intimate partner violence.  With support, they can rebuild their lives, put distance between themselves and their experiences of abuse, move toward healing and well-being for themselves and their children,  and re-engage in their  communities.

Gender violence exists within contexts.  For Latinas, that context can involve cultural factors, legal barriers, economic hardships, and language barriers.  We urge those interested in learning about special considerations when working with Latina survivors of violence to explore our website and access the numerous resources that inform the work we do.  It is also important for victims to know that they or others who seek to support them can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) to receive assistance from a trained advocate and be connected to resources in their communities. The Hotline has bilingual advocates and is confidential.

Our approach is not to emphasize the problems we have, but rather the strengths we possess to eradicate violence from our homes.  As our past Executive Director and President Lupe Serrano would remind colleagues, “When you start with problems you get programs.  When you start with strengths you get possibilities.”

The National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities is the national institute on violence against women focusing on Latin@ communities, a project of Casa de Esperanza. The organization provides training and consultations to practitioners and activists throughout the US as well as in Latin America. It organize national and regional events to raise awareness and empower communities to end violence against women. We engage in federal and state public policy advocacy and conduct research on issues that affect Latin@s in the US and abroad.

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