It is widely believed that about 4 million American women each year are targets of domestic violence.
That figure can be challenged easily because despite yeoman work by the U.S. Justice Department Bureau of Statistics and any number of medical and academic researchers, family violence remains largely hidden, and it is still hard for many women to admit that someone who "loves" them can treat them so badly.
Statistics show men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes, but when women are the target, the perpetrator often is a spouse, partner, close friend or relative.
So when the Commonwealth Fund reported in 1993 that nearly 4 million women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends every year and that 42 percent of female homicide victims are killed by their intimate male partners, the response was greater public awareness and tougher laws that moved spousal abuse into the criminal courts.
The Violence Against Women Act passed by Congress in 1994 has funded a range of local programs that assist and protect victims of domestic violence.
Ironically, as they prepare to mark Domestic Violence Month starting next week, activists fear many of these programs are endangered. Unless Congress renews the act before the end of October, they will run out of funds.
They are drumming up support for bills pending in Congress that would renew Violence Against Women Act programs for another five years and inaugurate new programs for the disabled, immigrant and Native American women, address hate crimes based on gender, sexual orientation or disability and combat violence in the workplace.
However, another proposed bill is being opposed by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" that cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week would make the fertilized egg in a woman's womb a potential victim of crime. The legislation makes it a separate offense if an individual either injures a fetus or causes a miscarriage, and the punishment for that offense would be the same as if the defendant's act resulted in death or injury to the woman.
The act is a response to incidents in which violent attacks on pregnant women have resulted in a woman's death and/or a miscarriage. But pro-choice feminists see the bill, written in part by the National Right to Life Committee and sponsored by anti-choice legislators, as a stealth attack on abortion rights as well as a "failure to address the very real need for strong federal legislation to prevent and punish violent crimes against women."
As the legislative battles continue, women's advocates seek ways to lessen the dangers in a society that seems to be growing increasingly violent. In the coming weeks events across the country will focus on the causes and cures of not just the epidemic of mass killings but of the everyday abuse that is taking a terrible toll on women and children.
Gloria Steinem thinks one place to begin is to look at how we are rearing boys.
Suggesting that the male model of superiority and dominance is contributing to violent behavior by white males, Steinem wrote in a recent issue of Ms.: "We have begun to raise our daughters more like our sons -- more like whole people -- we must begin to raise our sons more like our daughters -- that is, to value empathy as well as hierarchy; to measure success by other people's welfare as well as their own."
The local observance of the domestic violence month will begin Friday when the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence will hold a march beginning at 11:30 a.m. at Lafayette Square. The event will conclude with a rally at City Hall. Call 858-7878 or 884-6002.
A Heal the Hurt Walk to benefit victims of family violence will be held by Expressly for Women at Sisters Hospital on Oct. 10. The walk begins at Kinch Auditorium, behind the hospital, at 9 a.m. and will continue for 2 1/2 miles to Delaware Park and back. A $10 registration fee covers a T-shirt, prizes and refreshments. Call 862-1947.
Sunanda Gandhi of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence will speak on "Confronting Violence Against Women" at a luncheon Oct. 20 in Fanny's Restaurant as part of the YWCA's Week Without Violence, opening Oct. 17 with a Day of Remembrance in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo. The $20 luncheon fee benefits the YWCA's violence prevention program. Other events that week include a concert featuring several local bands from 3 to 11 p.m. Oct. 23 at Spot Coffee. Preceding the concert, there will be a sports and recreation program at the Downtown Y. Call 852-6120 for a complete schedule.