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Stereotypes mustn't hide the facts of domestic violence

The recent killing of Aasiya Zubair Hassan has generated considerable attention on the possible role that religion and culture played in her death. While religion and culture are important in explaining violence against women, we must be careful not to make these issues scapegoats or an excuse to diminish responsibility when an individual decides to take the life of another. Doing so allows us to distance ourselves from the reality that domestic violence and domestic violence homicides -- if that, in fact, turns out to be what this case involves -- occur daily in American society and in American households.

In 2005 the World Health Organization study on domestic violence revealed that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence in women's lives -- much more so than assault or rape by strangers or acquaintances. The study reported on the enormous toll physical and sexual violence by husbands and partners has on the health and well-being of women around the world and the extent to which partner violence is still largely hidden.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 30 percent of female homicides are committed by an intimate partner. This statistic has remained constant since the first publication of these reports in 1976. In New York, the Department of Criminal Justice Services reports that 55 percent of the 157 female homicide victims killed in 2007 were killed by an intimate partner.

A quick search of news articles related to intimate partner homicides in Erie, Niagara and Monroe countries turned up numerous murders in the last six months. In Rochester, a husband was indicted on a charge of second-degree murder for killing and then burying his wife's body under rocks on the shore of Lake Ontario. In Tonawanda, a man was charged with deliberately injecting an overdose of prescription painkillers into his girlfriend. In Alden, a man killed his wife and then himself with a shotgun.

Niagara County had two murder-suicides. In June, a teenager shot his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself. In November, a woman was killed by her husband in front of her mother and sister. Several days later he took his own life. The alleged killers' religious beliefs were not mentioned.

It is estimated that one in four women around the globe will be a victim of domestic violence at some point. Not all domestic violence results in homicides, but every case has that potential.

While it is important to learn about diverse cultures in our community, we should not resort to stereotypes. Blaming acts of domestic violence on religion and culture, the economy, job stress, mental illness, post traumatic stress syndrome experienced by returning veterans and other factors serves only to obfuscate and divert us from the real issue: Violence against women is happening at an alarming rate in our culture, and we have not yet committed the resources necessary to change this.

Suzanne E. Tomkins is a clinical professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

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