“My life would be so much better if you were dead.”
The hate slurred its way out of his drunken mouth. His eyes were small, squinting with rage and disgust. It was a typical day – typical then was grossly defined by insults, tears, anxiety, panic attacks, and fear. In spite of the level of creativity he had employed with his words and my increasing numbness to his behavior, this felt different. I was scared. I was broken.
Today, as a survivor of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, and in honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I share my story in an effort to shine a light at the still misunderstood, overlooked, under-reported, and under-resourced topic of domestic violence.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), every 9 seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten, and on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. One of those calls was mine. There are many reasons people, in particular women, do not leave their abusive partners – from being afraid of being alone to feeling pressure from family and/or the community. This is especially of concern for women of color and the LGBT community. For the one in three Hispanic women who experience domestic violence in their lifetime, cultural and societal values and pressures, limited education and/or financial resources, language barrier, lack of support and immigration status can all play a role in their ability to report and survive the abuse.
I struggled with labeling myself as a victim. Many others do too. The lack of awareness and education about the issue can mask and hinder someone’s ability to recognize the warning signs and subsequently, ask for help. Furthermore, understanding what abuse is, is as critical as recognizing the different types of abuse that exist. Implications of domestic abuse are significant, including the impact this has on children. NCADV states that 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year. Little is still known about the full extent of the issue but key findings highlight the many risks and challenges that can last throughout their lives. For many others, including me, this is the hardest aspect throughout and after separation. Survivors of domestic violence, who are parents, will need to navigate the justice system for child custody or child support. This severely nuanced issue is often exacerbated by the manner in which police responds (reactive, not incredibly helpful), how abusers are prosecuted (if at all), and how victims of domestic abuse are treated in the court (often dismissed, at times demeaned). Much work still needs to be done on all fronts to increase the awareness of the serious, long-term consequences domestic abuse has on victims and their families.
What helped me survive? Put simply, education saved my life. The day of the beginning of my new chapter, I wrote notes to Arne Duncan and Alejandra Ceja, two of my friends and mentors. They, and a few others close friends, helped me reframe my narrative by believing in me and looking past my muted self. Through the empowerment that was linked to returning to school to finish my undergraduate degree and helping lead an ambitious educational, national agenda on behalf of the nation’s Latino community, I was able to see that I was more than I was made to believe. I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and work my way towards peace and forgiveness. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and while I navigate through the residue, I cannot overstate the life-changing meaning of having people see YOU, for whom you are and can be.
The work I do has given my children and me the confidence to withstand what comes next. This is also at the core of what President Obama and his administration, have done for not just me, but for millions of others – helping ensure everyone has a chance to succeed and providing people with second chances to live up to their full potential. Ensuring all children, including girls and young women, have access to an education will have an impact for generations to come. For my children, it already has:
As a survivor, guilt can set in frequently. One day I apologized to my son for working long hours, spending endless nights on homework that inevitably take me away from being present. For me, the commitment to education, both on a personal and professional level, is what will bring us out of a lingering despair and into a world of opportunity. He looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m okay. It’s okay. What you are doing…that’s far more important. You are trying to help millions of other kids who have it worse than we do.”
Recommendations for policy and service providers addressing this issue exist. It is also deeply encouraging that the Obama administration continues to address this topic through its “It’s On Us” Public Awareness Campaign to help prevent campus sexual assault, its efforts on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a new online resource center, which includes grant opportunities, for Institutions of Higher Education, where women continue to outpace men in enrollment, federal resources and outreach activities, and its work through the establishment of the Council on Women and Girls, where I’m also a taskforce member.
What can you do to help? The National Domestic Violence Hotline features ways to get involved, including volunteering and donating to organizations that provide support for survivors. For me, working with other survivors and with advocates has been instrumental and inspiring. Every day, people are abused, dismissed, shamed and judged and it is up to all of us, to be part of the solution. Please share the resources found throughout this piece, help someone by empowering them, or simply listen or talk about the issue. It can make a world of a difference.
To learn more, including statistics, warning signs, and resources and/or if you or someone you know needs assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit www.TheHotline.org.
Maribel Duran is a mother of two;
Chief of Staff, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics;
Member, White House’s Council on Women and Girls;
Domestic Abuse Survivor