Category Archives: Violence Against Women

Why “it’s just Domestic Violence” is a Dangerous Phrase

By Becky Owens Bullard

This week, a co-worker of mine sent me a fairly upsetting article about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007.  While you may be thinking that the upsetting part of the article must have been details of the gruesome mass atrocity itself, it was actually something more subtle. It was the fact that after all these years, people still have dangerously little knowledge of the very real, very serious threat posed by domestic violence.

(c) Microsoft.com

So how does this lack of knowledge about domestic violence relate to the Virginia Tech shootings?  During a wrongful death suit brought by the families of students gunned down by Seung-Hui Cho, law enforcement testified that they believed the initial incident where two students were killed in their dorm room was domestic in nature and therefore, targeted and contained. Defense witnesses explained that because they determined the dorm shooting a domestic incident, there was no reason to believe that a deranged gunman would subsequently unleash mass violence on innocent bystanders.

Of course, their assessment was incredibly costly as Cho went into a classroom just hours later, shooting and killing 30 students and ultimately himself.  Not only was this assessment factually incorrect as no connection between Cho and the initial victims was ever made, it was also fundamentally false in their assumption that a “domestic incident” is always isolated, targeted and somehow a non-threat to the rest of society.

So here’s the problem with the “it was just domestic violence” mentality:  batterers can be incredibly lethal and a very real threat to the entire community.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to perceive intimate partner abuse as isolated and abusers as individuals with “anger issues” as opposed to individuals who create a complex cycle of violence using power and control.  But of all the criminals to minimize the potential danger they could pose to society, batterers who would kill their partners or family members should not be considered a low-risk group.  To the contrary, their manipulative, often calculated, and frequently lethal behavior should be considered among the most dangerous of criminals to the victims they target as well as the community they inhabit.

When I was Chair of the Nashville Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we hosted a training where nationally renowned speaker Mark Wynn presented on the lethality of batterers to a room of detectives, attorneys and service providers. The room got very quiet when he showed a video of a batterer who opened fire at a court house after a domestic violence hearing, shooting at his wife, police officers, and anyone that was around. We all worked at the court house on domestic violence cases and the individuals this man had gunned down could have been any one of us. This was an important reminder of the danger that an abuser poses not only to the victims and witnesses we worked with, but also to each of us.

So, as I read the article on the Virginia Tech case, I couldn’t help thinking how frustrating it is that we as a society still struggle to acknowledge the dangerous and serious nature of domestic violence. Even to the extent that a  gunman on a college campus can be downplayed because it is probably “just a domestic incident.”

Then, I saw the great contradiction – below the Virginia Tech article was a news reel of additional breaking stories and wouldn’t you know, there was an article on a shooting at a court house.  The gunman, who was on trial for sexual assault in which both his ex-wife and daughter were testifying against him, opened fire killing one bystander, wounding several others and even taking hostages (neither of which were his ex-wife or daughter).

While we have made great strides in domestic violence awareness and education, this glaring inconsistency with the news story above where a conclusion was made that a domestic shooting poses no greater threat of mass violence to the larger community, was yet another reminder for me of how far we still have to go.

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Violence Against Women

International Women’s Day: A Call to Action

By Becky Owens BullardInternational Women's Day

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a holiday established 101 years ago as a day when people throughout the globe unite around issues that affect women. International Women’s Day is also a time for reflection and recognition, when we celebrate the achievements of women throughout history to move towards greater equality while recognizing there is still much work to be done for women’s rights.

The scope of women’s issues in need of protection and progressive change are vast, including issues of health, education, political access, violence, economic access and many more. At their core, each of these issues represents the continued lack of equality and persistent discrimination against women that exists on every continent and in every community. While the Voices Against Violence Project focuses specifically on issues of abuse and gender-based violence, the central theme of international women’s day is absolutely key to ending violence against women and girls – living in a world where women are equal. Without gender equality, discrimination on the basis of harmful gender-stereotyping will continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence against women that results in abuse, rape, servitude, exploitation, femicide, and numerous other crimes of violence. As long as people believe that women should be the subservient, weaker, meeker sex – violence against women and girls will continue.

Although some may choose to believe that women’s issues are a thing of the past and that things like gender-based discrimination have been resolved, women (and men who advocate alongside them) continue to fight the often grueling battle for equality every single day. Maybe to some it is easy to ignore or choose not to notice, but concerned women and men recognize that gender inequality is still very present…

Every time there is yet another news story involving degrading and harmful language towards women;

Every time a sexist remark finds its’ way into our everyday lives;

Every time that victim blaming perpetuates myths and leads to injustice;

Every time a young girl is denied education based on her sex;

Every time that a woman is denied equal access to economic empowerment or equal pay; and

Every time that a woman’s safety is threatened or she is harmed because she is a woman.

While it is important to recognize that we are making great strides in issues that affect women, these unfortunate realities of the present must keep us moving forward for equality. These are the things that I hope will call you to action to support the women and girls in your life and to help end gender-based violence and discrimination.

Today on International Women’s Day, I would be remiss not to honor the survivors, advocates, family members and friends, law enforcement, attorneys and community members that work tirelessly on issues of women’s rights. I am so fortunate to have been mentored by so many amazing advocates who work long hours for little pay or recognition because they are inspired to make a difference to combat the unacceptably high rate of gender-based violence. I am also incredibly blessed to have learned from and been inspired by so many women who have survived some of life’s most heinous experiences and had unimaginable strength to face their perpetrator in trial, educate their children or others on violence, or work to make our world safer by sharing their story. Thank you to all of you – you are my inspiration.

Happy International Women’s Day!

To learn more about International Women’s Day or Women’s Issues, check out some of the following websites, news stories and press releases:

International Women’s Day Official Website

UN Women

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures

Why International Women’s Day Matters

Evaluating Challenges Women Face

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet on International Women’s Day

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Filed under Gender Equality, Violence Against Women

My Funny Valentine? Why Stalking is No Joke

Words Hurt | Post 2

By Becky Owens Bullard

Photo from Forbes.com

Words can hurt in so many different ways, but sometimes the unexpected, offensive joke can feel the most awful. While I love to laugh just as much as the next person, when jokes take that nasty turn from poking fun to causing true harm, I commonly feel my stomach turn and my blood pressure rise. While the point of this transformation from funny to upsetting may be a matter of opinion, for individuals who have survived abuse or dedicate their lives to advocate for survivors of abuse, the line is typically pretty clear: abuse is no joke.

Unfortunately, humor about abuse brought some recent attention to the Target store chain when it created a card that poked fun at the crime of stalking. The card read “Stalker is a harsh word” on the front cover, and inside the card stated “I prefer valentine.” Although Target responded positively to pressure to remove the card, the question still remains – why make a card like this in the first place?

Photo from Forbes.com

While some may contend that this type of joke is innocuous, the fundamental concept of humor makes this a difficult reality to accept. Jokes like this one, published by one of the largest chain stores in the United States, are intended to be palatable to a wide audience, implying that society generally finds something comedic in a joke that is offensive to someone who has survived or is currently a victim of stalking. Consequently, the joke is not only offensive, it is also incredibly harmful. Humor that makes light of a very real, very terrifying crime like stalking often further isolates the victim/survivor by suggesting that people don’t understand that stalking is a violent and predatory crime and in fact, think it is something to laugh about.


Incidentally, this unfunny valentine surfaced on the heels of Stalking Awareness Month in January when advocates and survivors work to spread awareness about the crime and its serious nature. Stalking is a frightening crime, affecting 3.4 million people over the age of 18 in the U.S. each year according to the Stalking Resource Center. Moreover, stalking is often perpetrated by someone the individual knows, with 30% of stalking victims having been stalked by a current or previous intimate partner and 76% of intimate partner homicides committed by a perpetrator who stalked their partner beforehand. The pattern of pursuit and harassment carried out by stalkers is a severe form of psychological abuse that can increase in intensity over time and can become violent and extremely volatile. The effect this abuse has on stalking victims is extensive, from missed worked to forced relocation to severe mental health effects including anxiety and depression.

Too often, the above realities surrounding issues of abuse are disregarded and the golden rule of “think before you speak” is ignored in humor. Sadly, it takes serious consideration of the actuality of abuse for many people to understand that humor about a crime that affects millions of people each year just isn’t funny, and typically this awareness is an after-the-fact occurrence brought on by pressure from survivors and their advocates. While Target’s positive response is encouraging for those who speak out about words that hurt, the real victory would be living in a world where victims/survivors don’t have to fight to have their crime taken seriously and where a card like this one never comes into being.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Stalking, Words Hurt Series

99 Problems? This should be one: Jay-Z’s commitment to the “b word” sends the message that degrading women is just a part of rap

Image Source: Rolling Stone Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Words Hurt | Post 1

By Becky Owens Bullard

By now, you’ve likely heard the rumor that surrounded power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé and their baby, Blue Ivy, that the proud new papa would no longer employ the “b word” in his music. The rumor caused quite a stir of bloggers and journalists commending the rapper for dropping the degrading expletive frequently used in rap lyrics. For those of us who work on women’s rights yet also appreciate Jay-Z’s ingenious and catchy lyricism (degrading language excluded), it was like non-offensive music to our ears.

Not only did the rumor garner respect, it also provided a glimmer of hope. If one of the most well respected rappers in an industry that commonly encourages degradation, violence and even enslavement of women openly rejects offensive language towards women and girls – imagine the possibilities! Rap artists might decrease the use of all-too-common lyrics that equate females to dogs or property, subsequently encouraging young people (as well as older people) to stop using language meant to degrade women and to be more respectful to their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, etc.

Amazing, right? But sadly, women’s rights advocates didn’t have too much time to get excited about the endless possibilities of Jay-Z becoming a leader to combat female degradation in rap music. Just days after reports that the rapper wrote a poem for his daughter stating “I didn’t think hard about using the word b**ch” and “[n]o man will degrade her, or call her names”, Jay-Z flatly denied the rumors of his changed ways and the legitimacy of the poem.

As a fan of Jay-Z’s music and a women’s rights advocate, the news is disappointing to say the least. Is it too much to expect that the birth of Jay-Z’s daughter would compel him to acknowledge the harm that the “b word” can cause?

There isn’t a woman on the planet who hasn’t been called the “b word” in one form or another and though it is used to convey varying degrees of insult, at its core it is meant to degrade women by equating them to a female dog or property. In every day life, the word is used by both men and women to cut women down, labeling them as rude/aggressive or signaling that they don’t conform to discriminatory gender roles and are more assertive or outspoken than others would like. Commonly in rap music, women are called the word as a form of humiliation and ownership, implying that women should be subservient to men. Even when the word is applied to men (because I know you are thinking, “hey, men are called the ‘b word’ too!”), it is used to equate the male with weakness or submissiveness associated by sexists with being female.

The word is degrading and can be very hurtful, but it is used all the time.  Not only is the word frequently used in rap music, it is commonplace to hear it in TV shows, movies, other musical genres and every day speech. Kids use it, men use it and even women use it, often in an effort to reclaim the word by giving it a positive meaning of being empowered (the Meredith Brooks’ song, “B**ch,” comes to mind). With this over-use of the “b word”, it may not seem so harmful to hear it in lyrics, on TV or even to call someone you know the word as a joke.

Then why argue that the “b word” truly is a word that hurts? Why ask that rappers like Jay-Z (who used the “b word” in an estimated 109 out of 217 of his songs) stop using it in their lyrics to say things like, “[i]f you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son. I’ve got 99 problems but a b**ch ain’t one.”?  Because like every word whose fundamental purpose is to insult or degrade, even when adopted in every day language, it ultimately teaches inequality and disrespect.

So, maybe it was too good to be true that a rapper as influential as Jay-Z would make a stand against degradation towards women in music. Still, with the artist’s recent self-reflection in his book “Decoded” and his daughter’s birth, I can’t help but hold out hope that if his wife Beyoncé asserts that girls “run the world” in her music, maybe Jay-Z will step up and stop calling them degrading names in his.

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WORDS HURT SERIES

Words hurt – right? This one of the fundamental golden rules our parents, teachers and other adults made sure we understood growing up.  So why is it that we tend to completely ignore this rule in a number of forums – socially, professionally and in our entertainment – by excusing words or phrases that are hurtful and degrading as “playful” or “not a big deal”?  This blog series explores words, phrases or jokes that, despite their negative effects, have a common place in our daily lives.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Violence Against Women, Words Hurt Series

Happy International Human Rights Day & Welcome to the Voices Against Violence Project

UNiTE Poster

Image Source: UN.org

By Becky Owens Bullard

Today, December 10th, is International Human Rights Day and the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence between this anniversary and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th.  These 16 days mark an important opportunity for international, national and local actors, organizations and governments to come together to speak out against gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls.  

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was established as an official UN day of awareness in 1999, commemorating an unofficial day of awareness on violence against women in Latin American countries inspired by the anniversary of the assassination of the Mirabal Sisters by the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic in 1960.  The story of the Mirabal Sisters is an inspirational example of women standing against violence and refusing to let their voices be silenced by tyranny in a time where female voices were commonly ignored or silenced.  Their story and the 16 Days of Activism bring into focus the current voices of the movement to end all types of violence against women – perpetrated by the state, by rebel forces, by intimate partners, by family members, by anyone, anytime, anywhere.  

Within the past few years, there has been a steady increase and diversification in the voices against violence and discrimination perpetrated on the basis of gender.  These voices include a new focus on campaigns to include men and boys as important partners and voices to stop violence against women and girls, as well as a new agency, UN Women, to unite the voices working on gender equality and empowerment within the UN.  Additionally, increasing awareness around issues facing women and girls related to discrimination and violence are steadily being incorporated into development work, peace and reconciliation efforts, and global health and education initiatives.  

While voices in the movement to end gender-based violence are obviously growing, their resonance throughout society is still fairly stagnant.  While working on issues of gender-based violence I have struggled with this frustrating reality when explaining why the prosecution of domestic violence crimes are important to family members of victims bent on “keeping it in the family”; when presenting information on the violent nature of sexual exploitation to individuals who still think pimps are cool and prostitutes are criminals; and even when taking a master’s course on global issues where asked to select the most important issues facing the world today – my class of graduate students put forth the important issues of non-proliferation, climate change and development; yet, not a single person proposed the issue of gender-based violence and I had to defend the issue on its merits as one necessitating global attention.  

Luckily, I won.  But this got me wondering why in this day and age (not in the ’90s when the stop violence against women movement was just getting its footing) are we still complacent about discrimination against half the world’s population?  Why aren’t people more outraged about this issue, which low estimates suggest affects 1 in 3 women globally with regard to gender violence (approximately more than 1 billion individuals – high estimates are up to 70% of women) and every single woman with regard to gender discrimination?  

And why aren’t the voices of survivors and those who advocate on their behalf heard more frequently in the media, through non-profits and in governments and inter-governmental agencies?  This is not to say that survivor and advocate voices are not present in the movement, but from my own experience working on these issues, the most empowering advocates and survivors I’ve met don’t necessarily have a way to express their opinions, tell their stories or call others to action to end violence against women and girls.  

This blog is meant to do just that – give a voice to the everyday advocates working in the trenches to end violence and to survivors of gender-based violence and discrimination.  This blog is also meant to provide a place to actively participate in the fight against gender-based violence through education and awareness-raising.  So, welcome to the Voices Against Violence Project and Happy International Human Rights Day!  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, “women’s rights are human rights” and we can do more to make that message and the message to stop violence heard by bringing our voices together against violence.  


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Filed under Gender Equality, Violence Against Women