Commentary Violence

This Election Year, Where Are the Real Conversations About Violence Against Women?

Elizabeth Dawes Gay

Rape, and other forms of violence and abuse such as birth control sabotage or pregnancy coercion, are acts that seek to strip power from women and inhibit their decisionmaking. This election-year, where are the real conversations about violence against women, not just idiotic statements about rape?  

While Senate candidate Richard Mourdock is pretty clear that all pregnancies—even those resulting from rape—are a gift from God, we know that some women would disagree. All women should be able to choose if and when they want to become pregnant; have access to the tools that will aid them in their planning; and be well-informed of how to use those tools.

Rape, and other forms of violence and abuse such as birth control sabotage or pregnancy coercion, are acts that seek to strip power from women and inhibit their decision-making. By describing pregnancy that results from rape as a gift from God, Mourdock co-opts language that is traditionally used to celebrate the arrival of another human being into the world to share his belief that all pregnancies should be wanted pregnancies.

That’s just not fair. It’s not fair to women who have been sexually abused or assaulted. It’s not fair to women who live every day in abusive relationships. And it’s not fair to anyone who cares about women who may be in or encounter these circumstances. All women deserve to have agency over their bodies, without intrusion from perpetrators—physical or political.

Comments like those from Richard Mourdock are a prime example of why we still need Domestic Violence Awareness month, national organizations like Futures Without Violence, and local groups like the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence who are working to end domestic violence and support women who experience it.  

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This election-year has been full of political chatter about what male politicians will do in support of or against a woman’s right to basic health and her ability to make her own reproductive health decisions. But where are the real conversations about violence against women, not just idiotic statements about rape?  

Over a million women in the United States, and many millions across the globe, are subject to emotional, sexual, and reproductive abuse each year.  Not acknowledging that or not talking about it doesn’t make it go away.  While we might wish that domestic and sexual violence would disappear, the harsh reality is that ending violence is a long-term process. Given that reality, why aren’t we doing more to see that women who are at risk of birth control sabotage, pregnancy coercion, or forced unwanted sex are educated about and have access to discreet methods? Why aren’t we doing more to make sure women have what they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and unwanted childbirth?

An August 2011 study demonstrated that explaining what reproductive coercion is and asking a woman if she has experienced it can reduce her odds of having a partner force her to become pregnant. While there are small interventions like this that can help, much more needs to be done.  

Data show that women who experience domestic violence are at a greater risk for HIV than their counterparts. It is vital that women can obtain and utilize a method that may be hidden from their partner and will protect them from both sexually transmitted infections, like HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy. Multipurpose prevention technologies, or MPTs, like a vaginal gel that protects against HIV and unwanted pregnancy could meet the needs of many women but a method like this won’t be available for several more years, if at all.  

Currently, one of the most discreet methods is Depo Provera, an injectable hormonal contraception. While a google search of Depo turns up a number of headlines about side effects and the possibility of a link between Depo and HIV, many women still rely on the shot for effective, discreet contraception. A review completed by the World Health Organization found that the data does not conclusively show a link between the birth control shot and HIV acquisition or transmission.  

Organizations and individuals that call to end funding for Depo Provera do so without consideration for the different circumstances a woman might find herself in. For some women, this may be the only birth control method that meets her reproductive health needs. We can’t know all of the factors that go into a woman choosing a particular method; we just need to trust and support her and keep working to ensure that all women have access to the full range of contraceptive options.

I hope one October comes where we won’t need Domestic Violence Awareness month – politicians will refrain from judging and shaming women who choose not to become pregnant or end a pregnancy; society will trust women to make their own reproductive health and contraceptive decisions; and women won’t be subject to sexual violence and emotional and physical abuse. That’s a lot to ask, but I believe that one day we’ll get there.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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