At least 35% of the global population of women have been subjected to violence by an intimate partner. In 2012, it was estimated that half of all women who died as a result of a homicide were killed by an intimate partner. Domestic violence is not unique to any time, culture, or nation and as such the fight against it belongs to all of us. Just because it is a problem that has always existed does not mean it is an intractable issue. Perhaps we can never eradicate it, but we can mitigate the ripple effect through society and protect individuals from future harm.
When analysing the effects of domestic violence on a nation, it is inevitable that we begin to think in money. In 2016, the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women gave a speech about economic costs of violence against women. She equated the violence inflicted on women to a loss of income. Battered women make less money and are thereby more vulnerable to the cyclical traps of poverty.
Many other studies also think in terms of money, calculating the cost of medical and law enforcement response. Perhaps this is necessary when gathering a full picture of the cost to society, but it can lead us into thinking that cost is simply a matter of currency.
The true cost of domestic violence to a society has very little to do with money.
A public health approach to domestic violence, as taken by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is perhaps a better model. The WHO declared a public health approach to domestic violence was a key endeavour in achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Development goals include promotion of gender equality, access to universal primary education, and the improvement of maternal health and child mortality. Classifying domestic violence as a public health issue looks at an intimate social challenge and the way it affects the health and well-being of society as a whole. It does not erase individuals and their needs, but rather looks at the ways the collective can respond.
Public health as a development issue naturally leads us to think about the developing world, hit by poverty, conflict, or natural disaster. We may think of Latin American nations torn by gang violence, or areas of Africa coming to grips with cultural practices of female genital mutilation. But those of us in privileged, high income nations would do well to remember the costs of domestic violence in our own societies.
In the US, the gun homicides are higher than any other developed nation. Mass shootings are a common enough occurrence that media finds it difficult to sustain audience attention on individual cases, and so many fall through the cracks. There is even a vigorous debate in American society as to whether or not these incidents should be treated as acts of public terrorism. While some shooters do espouse a specific political ideology, and are inspired by others, what is most common among them is a history of domestic violence.
The anti-gun violence non-profit Everytown gathered data from the FBI between 2009 and 2016 and found that in 54% of all mass shootings, the shooter had killed intimate partners or family members.
In poring over individual cases, time and again we see that the shooter had been at the centre of a previous complaint of domestic violence. For whatever reason, law enforcement was unwilling or unable to curb the escalating violence of this individual.
Devin Patrick Kelly, the man responsible for murdering 26 people in a Texas church in 2017 had once been discharged from the Air Force for assaulting his wife and child. Although under federal law he would have been unable to purchase the assault rifles he used in his attack, something in the paperwork failed. Just recently, on 20 November, a woman and two of her co-workers were killed at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. The killer was her ex-fiancé, Juan Lopez, who had been the subject of a previous complaint of domestic violence and had a restraining order taken out against him.
It might seem like common sense to review the laws and services available to women who report domestic violence, but America’s unique relationship with guns puts the interest of public health at odds with some powerful special interests.
It can be tricky to collect data on the specific occurrence of mass shootings, simply because media, academics and law enforcement may be using different definitions. Other groups may not include fatalities, but mortal injuries, in their definition of a mass shooting. Furthermore, some calculations include the gunmen themselves in the final body count, as often these gunmen turn their weapons on themselves. However, one wants to define a mass shooting, the frequency of these events in the United States has been shown again and again as disproportionate to all other high-income nations.
If domestic violence can be likened to a disease, it is one that does not discriminate between post-conflict societies in reconstruction or wealthy countries with “vibrant” democracies. It is a burden that we all bear. A public health approach to domestic violence isn’t just needed in low-resource nations, it is necessary in wealthy nations where gaps between the people and those in power are ever-widening.