March is Women's History Month, recognizing women's central role in society. Unfortunately, violence against women is epidemic in the United States and around the world.
Domestic violence is on the minds of many now, as reports published by The New York Times implicate New York Gov. David Paterson in an alleged attempt to influence a domestic violence case against one of his top aides. The Times reports, based in part on unnamed sources, say that the Paterson aide, David W. Johnson, attacked his girlfriend on Halloween night, Oct. 31, 2009, "choking her, smashing her into a mirrored dresser and preventing her from calling for help." New York state police from the governor's personal protection detail contacted the victim, despite having no jurisdiction. Then the governor himself intervened, the Times alleges, asking two aides to contact the victim and to arrange a phone call between him and the victim. The call occurred on Feb. 7 of this year, the night before the victim was to appear in court to request an order of protection from Johnson. She did not appear in court, and the case was dismissed. After the exposé, the governor ended his bid for election and suspended Johnson without pay.
Denise O'Donnell, Paterson's deputy secretary for public safety and commissioner of the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, resigned last week, saying, "The behavior alleged here is the antithesis of what many of us have spent our entire careers working to build-a legal system that protects victims of domestic violence and brings offenders to justice." The National Organization for Women, a longtime ally of Paterson, has called on him to resign.
The Paterson scandal follows that of New York state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, who was charged with assaulting a female companion with the jagged edge of a broken glass in December 2008. She later altered her story to conform to Monserrate's version of events, but the weakened criminal case proceeded against him, without her cooperation, and he was found guilty of misdemeanor assault. He was expelled from the New York Senate last month.
These high-profile cases are sadly symptomatic of a massive problem. The Family Violence Prevention Fund offers this chilling summary of domestic violence in the U.S.: 1 in 4 women report violence at the hands of a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in their lives; three women per day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends; women suffer 2 million injuries from intimate-partner violence each year; and there were 248,300 rapes/sexual assaults in 2007, more than 500 per day, up from 190,600 in 2005.
President Barack Obama has reaffirmed October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and stressed the link between the economy and domestic violence: "In the best of economic times, victims worry about finding a job and housing, and providing for their children; these problems only intensify during periods of financial stress." Sen. Harry Reid said about domestic abuse last week: "It has gotten out of hand. Why? Men don't have jobs. Women don't have jobs either, but women aren't abusive, most of the time. Men, when they're out of work, tend to become abusive. Our domestic crisis shelters in Nevada are jammed. It's the way it is all over the country."
Given the severity of the problem of domestic violence, and its likely exacerbation by the economic crisis, it is hard to believe that so-called health insurance companies actually label a woman's victimization by domestic violence as a "pre-existing condition." The term has long been used by health insurance corporations to deny coverage to applicants or, perhaps worse, to retroactively deny coverage to people who suffered from a condition before they were insured.
At Obama's bipartisan health care summit last week, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter pointed out, "Eight states in this country right now have declared that domestic violence is a pre-existing condition, on the grounds, I assume, that if you've been unlucky enough to get yourself beaten up once, you might go round and do it again."
March 8 is recognized by the United Nations and many countries around the world (but not the U.S.) as International Women's Day. March is Women's History Month. Thousands of events are being held around the world to honor women. Let's start here in the U.S. by making violence against women history.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.