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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Suffering in silence




Editor’s note: Even as we are constantly bombarded with images conveying the horror of tragedies like those in Littleton, Colo. or Kosovo, a worldwide epidemic of violence goes virtually unnoticed year after year. Violence against women claims the lives of thousands and injures millions of women annually, yet since the O.J. Simpson trial, it has all but vanished from the American public’s view.
Despite the lack of publicity, women both internationally and locally have been working to fight the wars being waged in homes across the globe. This article touches on some of what women have had to face and subsequently accomplished.

Violence as a universal issue
For all of their emotional impact, scenes from Littleton and Kosovo seem very far away from most Americans who, at the end of the day, are free to return to the safety of their homes and families.
But for the four million American females who are attacked each year, two-thirds of them at the hands of a family member or acquaintance, home may pose the most immediate threat to their safety.
Donna Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has called domestic abuse against women, “an unacknowledged epidemic in America.”
As the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, domestic abuse is a bitter reality for nearly three to four million American women. Annually about 1,500 to 3,000 women in America are killed by their partners or ex-partners. More than one million females each year seek medical assistance for injuries caused by battering.
“It’s the one universal issue. It’s something every woman in the world has in common with every other woman. It’s everywhere,” said Marsha Freeman, Director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch project.
In 1996, a 19-year-old woman from East Togo, pleaded asylum in the United States because she faced genital mutilation if she stayed in her home country. Fauziya Kasinga was the first successful gender-based asylum recipient. Since then, industrialized nations have begun to grant asylum based on similar claims.
Female genital mutilation, dowry deaths and honor killings typically receive the most international attention; however, they are geographically limited.
Freeman warned against labelling one form of violence as more debilitating or senseless than the next.
“Pick your horror. The bottom line is that everywhere in the world women are subject to violence by men, be it strangers or their own families,” she said.
Domestic abuse experts maintain that abuse occurs regardless of a nation’s affluence.
Statistics published by the World Bank in 1995 show that domestic violence poses a greater risk to women than some of the most rampant causes of injury in developed and developing worlds alike.
Using these statistics, the World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, violence against women poses a greater risk to women’s health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
National studies from both developed and developing nations report high instances of injury from abuse. Research in Cambodia and Canada revealed that 50 and 45 percent, respectively, of women reporting abuse had sustained injuries.
Unfortunately for many women, cultural taboos against non-family psychological counseling can intensify a woman’s already deep feelings of fear and humiliation. In some cultures, firmly rooted systems of extended families as caregivers stigmatize women seeking help outside the family.
Since the home is also the scene of the violence, women in situations of domestic abuse tend to see few options to remedy the situation.
“The first challenge was to invite women to talk outside the family,” said Marsha Freeman of the 1991 Mousasa Project in Harrare, Zimbabwe.
The project established an office complex where women could talk with staff about how to best deal with domestic violence. The project’s most formidable obstacle was entrenched social practice.
Cheryl Thomas, adjunct professor at the University Law School and founder of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights Women’s Project, said that even in regions where seeking aid outside the family is not necessarily discouraged, women still have a well-founded fear of leaving their abusers or seeking help.
“Women understand that if they do leave they are putting themselves at greater risk,” Thomas said.
Not only do some abusers take a woman’s leaving or protection order as a symbol of defiance, but they might also threaten to act on that “defiance” with escalating violence — sometimes resulting in death — directed at both women and their children.
Children are often dragged into the abuse as both targets and as a means for batterers to keep their partners in a violent relationship. Reports issued by Colombia and the United States indicate that approximately 50 percent of children in abusive households are also abused.
Jeanne Raffesberger, legislative and public policy coordinator at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said advocates are seeing a “disturbing trend” in the number of deaths of children from abusive homes. Raffesberger said it is not uncommon for batterers to use children as leverage.
“That is a very frequent force of coercion for batterers,” she said.
Breaches in communication between local police, medical practitioners, counselors and community members handling family violence can be dangerous for abuse victims.
“If any piece breaks down, a woman’s safety can be seriously compromised,” Raffesberger said.
Many women cite instances where increased threats of violence from abusers were ignored or handled inappropriately by police. Still others say going to the police entails just as much risk as staying home.
Thomas cited cases in Latin America where women in police stations were raped, abused or dismissed by law enforcement officers when reporting domestic violence.
“A lot of women feel there’s no use in going to police stations because the attitude they will encounter is `Go home, this isn’t our problem,'” Thomas said.
In what has become known as the Latin American model, women’s advocacy groups in Brazil lobbied for the establishment of 30 all-female-staffed police stations throughout the country.
This was one significant step in promoting community awareness and support for battered women — a process that most women’s rights advocates recognize as indispensable.
Raffesberger emphasized that public awareness aside, personal issues of shame and fear prevent women of all creeds, ages and nationalities from seeking help.
“For almost every woman out there, regardless of how educated we are as a society, it is still an embarrassing, humiliating position to be in,” she said.

The growing need
Over the past 10 years, the efforts of domestic violence programs have grown. Many advocates say that as early as 10 years ago, domestic violence was a non-issue in the national and international sphere.
Aviva Breen, director of the Legislative Commission on the Economic Status of Women, said that despite evolving means to help battered women, “it’s hard to tell the progress we’re making.”
She emphasized that 20 years ago there weren’t any domestic abuse laws. Although today’s situation is much different, Breen said that abuse evolves with means of protection and that advocates are always in the process of looking for new ideas. “There is no magic answer,” she said.
In the early 1990s high profile events such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the 1993 United Nations Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China catapulted violence against women into the spotlight.
Although much of the media attention has ebbed, women’s advocates express optimism about the growing amount of work being done to fight domestic violence.
“Those events helped. Many domestic advocates in the U.S. noted that for all of the horror, the country was educated about domestic violence,” Thomas said.
Thomas stated that advocates around the world used those forums to make connections with other advocates and remain connected. The momentum has propelled a flurry of activity which often goes unnoticed by the press.
“But it’s never enough,” Thomas said, tempering her optimism with a somber call for more work to be done in the face of rampant abuse of women worldwide. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a long, long way to go.”

Thinking globally, acting locally
When Thomas founded Women’s Human Rights Program in 1993, under the auspices of Minneapolis based Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, she worked with fewer than 10 volunteers, attorneys and researchers. Now the program has grown to a base of two staffers and more than 80 advocates working on international and local challenges facing women.
Internationally the program works in Central and Eastern Europe, South Asia, Central America, the Caribbean and Africa documenting violence and discrimination against women as violations of international law.
Prior to the Beijing conference, little of codified international law addressed domestic violence specifically as a human rights abuse. The Women’s Human Rights program used general provisions in international law which call for proper redress in court, security of person or the elimination of discrimination against women.
Robin Phillips, the current director of the Women’s Human Rights Program, maintains that Beijing marked a turning point in how the international community looked at domestic violence.
Whereas the international community was “much less likely to say there are universal principles when women are involved,” Beijing considered sovereign nations’ neglect of battered women’s human rights, “as if the state were doing the action themselves.”
“All together women are the biggest group of human rights violations and that their problems are generally ignored,” Phillips said.
The Women’s Human Rights program has sent researchers to Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Nepal to cooperate with local non-governmental organizations and document violence against women.
The staffers use their research to determine whether states are adequately safeguarding women’s human rights in accordance with the respective nation’s international obligations.
And as far as domestic violence activists can tell, their findings are taken seriously by the governments.
“We’re there to provide them with the tools to make legal and social change to protect women, not make everyone happy,” Phillips said.
The program also offers training and resources to advocates with whom they have established working relationships.
Regardless of nationality, victims of abuse respond in very similar ways. However, local cultures vary necessitating culturally-specific strategies to end violence.
“There is no one model,” Phillips said. “These are sophisticated women and we work with individuals to do research and match their needs with what we have to offer.”
The Women’s Human Rights program also works locally in Minneapolis to promote awareness and community outreach and education.
The program works with 45 other co-sponsoring organizations to host an annual International Women’s Day celebration. More than 700 people turned out to observe this year’s event. In the five years the Women’s Program has put on the celebration, attendance has continued to grow, Phillips said.

Helping programs help themselves
The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women is a membership organization which aids battered women’s programs at the statewide level.
“We do for programs what programs can’t do for themselves,” Raffesberger said.
The Coalition aids domestic violence programs statewide to procure state and national funding, and assists in training and facility set-up.
Shelters are residential facilities which provide temporary shelter for abuse victims. Many of the shelters help women find legal help, support groups and address children’s issues.
Although shelters provide a sanctuary where women and children can seek help and advice free from threat, for women intent on leaving their partners shelters are only a short-term solution. Many advocates feel it is important that a women need not lose her home simply to escape her abuser.
What is more, overcrowding and availability limit many women’s access to shelters. Raffesberger acknowledged that shelters alone cannot possibly stem the tide of battered women.
“We can probably never build enough shelters for all the battered women. I think as a society it’s just overwhelming if we look at the level of violence against women,” she said.
Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, 19 have no shelters and many of the shelters in the remaining counties are concentrated in urban areas. For this reason the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women considers supporting shelters only one of an array of options for battered women’s programs.
The Coalition’s public policy and systems change advocates serve as legislative watchdogs. They look for bills which could adversely impact battered women, propose legislation to protect victims rights and ensure batterers’ actions are penalized.
Statewide model arrest and prosecution policies are the result of Coalition efforts. Systems change advocacy also entails education and training for lawyers, police, housing managers health care workers and other professionals who may be in a position to confront domestic violence.
The coalition’s public awareness initiatives, literature and outreach programs are tactics employed to extend advocacy into remote areas or to empower women in relatively isolated cultural pockets. Information and materials have been directed to African-American, Latino, Southeast Asian and homosexual communities.

Ending the violence
Before women can escape violence, citizens of every nation must be willing to confront injustice against women, activists assert.
“The culture of silence and the culture of fear has to be overcome. There are plenty of people here who are scared,” Freeman said.
For all of the growing repugnance for violence, a still larger cultural burden of fear oppresses citizens from reporting abuse.
Freeman asserted that the litmus test for ending violence will be when it is no longer accepted as a private problem.
“Turn to a male you know and ask, `If you knew a friend was beating his wife, what would you do?.'” The answers “Confront him,” or “Report him,” would signify a willingness for society to address the problem. Freeman said that the usual answer is silence.
Perhaps one of the world’s growing challenges in the coming millennium will be to look beyond the distant pockets of sensational violence on television and to confront the jarring reality of covert, ubiquitous violence next door, Freeman said.

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