By Sherri Donovan, Esq.
The Valentine’s Day murder of Reeva Steenkamp at her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius’s home in South Africa sparked an international discussion on domestic violence. Just a few days later, it was reported that a New York news anchorman allegedly choked his wife in their home following a history of domestic disputes. Flipping through my local paper on the same day the anchorman and Steenkamp stories were reported revealed a shocking number of similar stories: a 24 year old woman’s body washing ashore on the Rockaways, her body bruised and bound after having disappeared from the home she shared with her boyfriend after a fight; a woman stabbed to death in her home by her boyfriend who then stabbed himself and slit his wrists in a suicide attempt; a husband’s fatal stabbing of his wife in front of the couple’s grandchild.
As many commentators have remarked, domestic violence can occur anywhere and to anyone, regardless of wealth, beauty, education, fame, age or vocation. Case in point, Reeva Steenkamp, a model and law school graduate, died of gunshot wounds at the home of her boyfriend, a high profile star athlete. Ms. Steenkamp’s death also shed a light on South Africa’s particularly great struggle with domestic violence, a subject she had tweeted about a few days before her death. Studies have shown that South Africa has one of the highest reported rates of domestic violence and rape in the world, even with a Domestic Violence Act in place for five years and progressive laws in areas of sexual equality, having legalized same sex marriage in 2006.
In the United States, just two days before the Steenkamp murder, the Senate had voted to expand the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. This legislation was approved by the House of Representatives on February 28th and signed into law by President Obama on March 7th. As the President urged the House to act quickly, he said in a statement: “Delay isn’t an option when three women are still killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day. Delay isn’t an option when countless women still live in fear of abuse, and when one in five have been victims of rape.” The new legislation offers new protections for gay, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, allows American Indian women who are assaulted by non-Indians on reservations to take their case to tribal courts, and enhances federal programs to better assist local law enforcement and aid victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
In New York City, an Intimate Partner Sexual Assault Court (“IPSA”) has recently been established, focusing exclusively on felony and misdemeanor criminal cases involving sexual assault perpetrated by intimate partners. This court was established in collaboration with The Center for Court Innovation, Safe Horizon, the Crime Victim Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and the New York County District Attorney’s Office. While domestic violence courts have long existed in New York, the IPSA Court is unique in that domestic violence and sexual assault services have been historically bifurcated, both for victims and perpetrators, thus failing to address the distinct and complex dynamics and needs involved in an intimate partner sexual assault case.
We can hope that new laws and specialized courts can help decrease the violence, however even as a culture of self help, life coaching, yoga and meditation flourishes, violence between intimate partners continues. Domestic violence not only includes physical and sexual abuse, but emotional, mental and verbal abuse as well. Because of the psychological aspect of domestic abuse, victims will often look to themselves to find ways to change, while in reality it is their partners who have the problem. If you are close to someone who may be in an abusive relationship, it is important to provide help and support. If an abused person recognizes the situation as such, he or she may be better able to seek help, finding the strength to leave the relationship, filing for an order of protection or seeking shelter, assistance or support from a professional.
An extensive list of national organizations and hotlines can be found at Http://feminist.org/911/crisis.html.