Forum examines issue of violence against women

A community forum called Violence Against Women, held at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Monday, delved into the intricacies of domestic and sexual violence and attempted to arrive at some solutions.

The forum, hosted by the Kenatize Indian Tribe and made possible by a Stop Violence Against Women grant from the Department of Justice, brought together representatives from various Kenai Peninsula agencies to explore the obstacles of combatting violence targeted toward women and children in the area.

Much of the day’s discussions were focused on the factors that contribute to the community’s continuing problem with violence against women, as well as some possible steps toward a solution. One factor brought up by panelist Kimberly Sweet, chief judge for the Kenatize Indian Tribe, is the lack of male involvement in similar talks or efforts to curb the issue.

That lack was brought into sharper focus at Monday’s forum, where only two men were in attendance — Sgt. Paul Cushman of the Kenai Police Department was a panelist, and the forum was opened by a prayer given by a man.

“Look at this room,” Sweet said. “… Not just that, though. Who do we all work for? Where are the children’s advocates in this room? Where are the men’s advocates? Perpetrators’ advocates, that are trying to help us all understand it? Why are we so siloed? That’s the part that I think needs to change. The siloes and the walls need to come down and we all need to help each other from the ground up.”

Alaska has some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country. It is the state where women are most likely to be murdered by men. In a 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey, 50 percent of women surveyed reported that they had experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetime. This is down from 59 percent in 2010, though experts have said the survey’s results are likely understated.

“The numbers have gone down across Alaska, and it’s not because we’re fixing it, it’s because there’s so much shame associated with it that it’s not being brought to attention,” Sweet said during the panel discussion.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough was last surveyed individually in 2013, when 52 percent of women answered that they had experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.

“As long as we continue to allow it to be a problem, it’s going to continue to be a problem,” said Barbara Waters of Kenai’s LeeShore Center during the panel discussion. “We need to hold offenders accountable, we need to remember them as people … but they are people who did things that need to be accounted for. If we as a community continue to allow it to happen, by not speaking out against it, by not saying something when we see things … it’s up to us. And so we, as a community, if we do not act out against violence, we’ll continue to see violence.”

Other obstacles to combatting violence against women discussed Monday include the increased isolation Alaska creates for victims, shame and stigma associated with reporting abuse, the fact that prosecutors and judges are limited to current state statute in punishing offenders and the tendency of people or organizations to get tired of helping women who have trouble leaving whoever is abusing them.

Cushman said it can sometimes be hard without the proper training and understanding to listen to and help women who return to their abuser over and over. He told the forum participants a story from his early days in law enforcement, in which a woman’s friend reported to police that the woman had been abused. The woman told Cushman that she wasn’t calling the abuse in to law enforcement because her abuser would kill her before police could help her, he said.

Cushman told the forum that police arrested the offender and, after serving 30 days, he was released and killed the woman.

“They truly feel like, ‘I have nowhere to go, I’ve burned all my bridges, no one will help me,’” Cushman said. “So I think we need to constantly keep that communication open for our victims that we know, we need to constantly let them know that they do have somebody in their corner.”

It takes women an average of seven times to leave an abusive relationship in the United States due to several factors including children, finances and fear, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The forum also focused specifically on the issue of violence against Native women. A 2016 National Institute of Justice-funded study, Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men, found that more than 56 percent of women in that ethnic group experienced sexual violence, 55 percent experienced physical violence by an intimate partner and 66 percent experienced psychological aggression by a partner in their lifetime.

Sweet said there is an added component to violence against women when it comes to Native populations. Historical trauma plays a part, as does the idea of forgiveness and staying in the moment.

“When you’re talking about a village setting, he’s the provider,” she said. “It’s a matter of life and death. You know, heat or no heat. Is he going to get the wood or not? And not only are they usually providing just for them, they’re providing for the elders in the community as well, so the village setting I think adds to that.”

The forum also touched on child victims of violence and on male victims, but focused mostly on women since they are statistically more likely to experience violence.

Participants in the forum were invited to offer ideas for potential solutions at the day’s end. A common theme was increased education and modeling of healthy relationships for children. Others voiced optimism that so many networking connections were made between organizations represented that day, which can help people working in fields that offer aid to survivors coordinate on that aid.

Raven Willoya-Williams, a member of the tribe’s Gganilchit Dena’ina Youth Council, suggested that the language used to talk about the people who carry violence out against women ought to be changed when people are speaking to young men. To continually suggest that men, especially young Native men, are going to carry out the same violence as men before them can be detrimental, she said.

“One thing that we need to change is the way that we talk about our young men, because they are so important,” she said. “… We can’t just take what the generations before them have done and just put that on them and … expect that of them. … We should be empowering them to take care of our women and their children.”

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